Watterson’s World: What is Hobbes?

Nick Martens kicks off a new series about Calvin and Hobbes with a history of his obsession and an ontological inquiry into the nature of a certain stuffed tiger.

My teacher accidentally called me “Calvin” once in the third grade. In fifth grade, my mom wouldn’t let me bleach my hair, so I dyed it orange-ish, spiked it up, put on a red shirt with black stripes, bought a stuffed tiger, and had the world’s least recognizable halloween costume. Once during high school, a young cousin of mine brought a Calvin and Hobbes book to the dinner table, held his hand over the last panel of every strip, and quizzed me on the punch lines. I got almost every one right. I wrote my college application essay on how Bill Watterson showed me the value of personal integrity. The longest single document I ever produced was a 5,000-word final paper for a 400-level English seminar that compared the iconography of Krazy Kat to that of Calvin and Hobbes.

I have a bit of a thing for Bill Watterson.

The intensity and endurance of my passion doesn’t surprise me much; Star Wars fandom gestates in the young mind and survives to adulthood, as can happen with Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. But the scale of those franchises breeds a different type of obsessive: the collector who accumulates books, figurines, computer games; the escapist who crafts elaborate costumes, fan-fictions, and artwork, surrounding himself (rarely, herself) with a community of like-minds. But those fanbases serve rich universes that invite ornamentation. Besides, an adult can’t draw much intellectual nurture from those works; if he wants his fandom to persist, he must focus his energy on creating supplements to the original text rather than investigating it more thoroughly.

But Calvin and Hobbes grew up with me. My obsession with Watterson never expanded beyond an intense appreciation of his work (my brief, youthful foray into cosplay notwithstanding). As a small child, I loved Calvin and Hobbes because I loved tigers,and because Calvin’s mischevious-but-fertile imagination resonated with me. Into adolescence, Watterson’s uncompromising determination to keep the corrupting hand of merchandizing away from his creation’s artistic purity inspired me to make unconventional choices about my education. And I began to see the wry timelessness of the strip’s social satire. Now, as a soon-to-be English graduate, I appreciate the deftness with which Watterson mimics various styles of art and language. I can also see his mastery of visual rhetoric, how he uses composition, color, and panel design to precisely control the rhythm of his storytelling. The Sunday comics he produced towards the end of his career still astonish me, and I have only grown to love them more as my knowledge of art deepens. Not bad for a comic strip.

I believe that Calvin and Hobbes is a great work of art, worthy of the most pedantic strain of academic study. It can hold up to a level of inquiry that would wither even classics like Krazy Kat and Peanuts. This series is my attempt to step into the ring with Calvin and Hobbes and give it the critical fight it deserves. And I’ll let you in on a secret before we start: I’m no match for it.

A question to get us off on the right foot: What is Hobbes? Calvin sees him as real, but everyone else sees only a stuffed tiger. It’s hard to imagine that Watterson, whose writing has a hard cynical streak, would fashion Hobbes as a magical being who springs to life whenever he’s alone with Calvin. It is easy, though, to think that the living Hobbes is all in Calvin’s mind. But that’s not right either.

Think about the story where Calvin receives a series of anonymous letters, written in cut-out magazine text. Calvin is genuinely mystified about the letters’ origin, and reacts with surprise when Hobbes reveals himself as the author. Crucially, Calvin’s mom also interacts with the letters, handing them to Calvin and noticing that her magazines have been cut up. Here, Hobbes’s actions affect someone other than Calvin, showing that he is real enough to interact with the world outside of Calvin’s mind. To blame Hobbes’s letters on Calvin would be to diagnose the kid with fairly severe psychiatric issues, and my reading of this series assumes that while Calvin may be eccentric, he does not need to be institutionalized. The question “what is Hobbes?,” then, cannot be answered logically. He exists only for Calvin, but he truly does exists. No magic is at work, just a twist in the mind.

The surreal nature of Hobbes’s existence reveals a rebellious playfulness at the heart of Watterson’s world. Watterson turns what seems like whimsy into a convoluted logic trap. He does more than dissuade readers from thinking too deeply about Hobbes, he punishes those who engage with the question. Because though Calvin and Hobbes is artistic, Watterson does not compose it like a piece of literature. The reader should not try to wring meaning from every little detail. Sometimes you just have to let the comic strip be fun.

Nick Martens is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. You can email him, if you like.