'Calvin and Hobbes' reveals the good and the ugly sides of the child within
October 24, 2017
I love “Calvin and Hobbes.” I think I got my first book compilation of the comic sometime in the early 2000’s, when I was still in grade school. My parents ordered me four books from a Scholastic magazine, and I was almost immediately hooked. I still have photos of the “snowman house of horrors” that I made in my back yard after being inspired by the strip.
I’ve since been trying to figure out what makes “Calvin and Hobbes” so good, and I think I’ve hit on one answer that stands out above the others: it uses the perspective of a child to comment on the adult world.
Calvin is a six-year-old kid who lives with “Mom” and “Dad” in an average suburban home, goes to elementary school, picks on his neighbor, Susie Derkins, and loves dinosaurs. He also has a best friend who is a stuffed tiger named Hobbes, and the two of them fight, go on adventures, pick on Susie together and discuss the problems of the world.
Child characters like Calvin are often mishandled in comic strips. I especially notice this in the strip “Adam @Home.” The two kid characters are given child-like interests and live in a world of childish concerns, but their characters don’t ring true. The author, I think, tries to focus on the aspects of childhood that everyone remembers as “idyllic” and presents the kids as sweet, innocent beings whose worlds are more or less perfect.
Childhood, however, is always a lot messier than that. We fight with siblings, whine about what displeases us and generally behave like humans that have not yet had a chance to figure out civil human interaction.
Watterson does this differently with Calvin by tapping into the weird child mentality that we all have faint memories of but have largely replaced with the more mature mind of the “adult.” He doesn’t sugarcoat the psychology, either. Children often have a clear vision of the world born of simplicity and innocence, but we can also be stupid, shortsighted little monsters. As we age, we collect biases that muddle our thinking, but we also gain perspective that allows us to see multiple angles.
Calvin exemplifies the child psyche in a multitude of ways. On his high-speed wagon/taboggan trips down the hill in his backyard, he often has deep, philosophical conversations with Hobbes about societal problems. He usually begins by laying out the problem in a way that clearly shows the reader a common sense, logical way of addressing it. Hobbes, being a cat, clearly agrees with this perspective. Calvin often then inserts an opinion of his own that is arrogant, selfish and clearly not based on logic, which Hobbes responds to with a sarcastic comment or roll of the eyes.
The scary thing about this is, Calvin’s opinion often lines up with how things usually play out in the real world. In other words: Watterson is comparing the decisions of world leaders and politicians to those of an arrogant, selfish, six-year-old boy.
It’s a brilliant way to comment on the issues of society. Children, in general, have an unfiltered view of the world; our parents have no names aside from “Mom” and “Dad,” the opposite gender is gross because it’s different, and problems should be resolved with fistfights, snowballs and water balloons.
It’s somewhat scary to realize how many of these childlike impulses carry with us into adulthood. It’s even scarier to watch world leaders and realize that many of them are basing their actions on the same impulses that would prompt a six-year-old boy to throw mud at a girl who called him a pig.
The trick, I think, is to recognize that we all have these remnants of childhood within us. It’s also good to recognize that not all of these impulses are bad. Calvin’s character has an innate appreciation for the beauty of nature, the thrill of scientific discovery and the endless possibilities of the imagination. He’s callous but also honest, reckless but also enthusiastic.
There’s a balance that we need to find when we “embrace the child within,” one that recognizes the truth of childhood for what it truly is and uses the wisdom of age in deciding how to act on our childish impulses.
Sophia Koch is a student at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.