Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Thoughts on Calvin

Things are still very hectic on the personal front. I haven’t been able to do much fresh reading lately, but have made up for it by revisiting all my Calvin and Hobbes anthologies. One of my many favourites is the Sunday strip Bill Watterson drew in a neo-Cubist style, with Calvin seeing multiple views of every object (the context is that his dad engaged him in a debate and made him see both sides of the issue) and discovering that this is way too much information to process – single-perspective order must be restored. Here’s part of the strip:

In his footnotes at the bottom of the page, Watterson has written: “The idea for this came from my tendency to examine issues until I’m incapacitated by the persuasiveness of all sides.” Relate to that a lot, and often wish I didn’t – multiple perspectives can be crippling and it’s easy to see why we’re conditioned to look for patterns in everything around us, and to seek (or make up) convenient explanations.

Was discussing Calvin and Hobbes with a friend over a few glasses of Old Monk and she remarked how strange it is that a series built around one of the most alienated characters in all literature should have become so popular across the world – and loved by millions of readers who, if they were ever to meet someone like Calvin in real life, would be scared out of their minds (or at the very least wouldn’t want to have anything to do with him). The darker side of the strip – Calvin’s profound loneliness, his inability to relate to most people and things in the real world – isn’t always acknowledged and I feel a little uneasy when someone speaks about the strip in purely superficial terms, without getting the morbidity of it: I’ve heard, for instance, that it’s all so much fun because Calvin is “so shweet” or “such a loveable brat!”.

Of course, no point in going overboard discussing the darker aspects of a series that has provided so much joy to so many people (and which Watterson himself ended on an unabashedly upbeat note, with the famous last panel that shows Calvin telling Hobbes “It’s a magical world, ol’ buddy – let’s go exploring”). And no harm, I suppose, in people enjoying a comic strip at a superficial level. Still, I do get a little protective when it comes to Calvin’s dark side. As a child I never had anything like his superb imagination (or an imaginary friend with a personality as fleshed out as Hobbes’s), but I can relate to the “outsider” status, and most of all to the contempt for formal education that is a recurrent theme in the strip. (Some of the school/classroom strips - e.g. Calvin fantasising about bombing his school to tiny pieces - are disturbingly familiar because most of my own school memories are unpleasant ones.)

(Also discussed at Old Monk session: how some great Absurdists like Watterson and Scott Adams have managed to live reasonably well-rounded social lives – complete with family and children – despite the many traces of nihilism in their work. Food for thought there, especially in our godless times.)


  1. Old Monk and you, Jai??? Times indeed are achanging. Is it the marriage bell or growing up of sorts? If I remember it right, till about a few years back you barely crossed the barleys, forget reaching for the molasses. Besides, rum is a drink for the proletariat — safe from you. (am dying to use a smiley here, but an old devastating post of yours forbids me the liberty)

  2. How fascinating
    Maybe the superficial folks dont want the neo-cubism and so just see the one side of calvin?

    Did you intend that meaning?

  3. Pankaj: Your comment makes me realise we haven't met for years. That was many, many lifetimes ago. Check with Shamya and Ajitha.

    (But yes, rum isn't usually the drink of choice these days.)

    Bilbo: I can see three sides of your comment.

  4. I'll throw this out there even though its a shitty theory.
    Fight Club is about a grown up calvin coming to terms with his friend Hobbes whom he abandoned during his preteen years and Marla = Susy etc.
    Heard that one yet Jai?

  5. I have been a passive reader of your blog for quite some time now and with your post on Calvin, I am forced to come out of the closet and post a comment.

    When I saw your post was about Calvin, I was thrilled. Calvin is my all time favorite comic strip and how much ever I read about it, I don't have enough. Though I often looked beyond the superficial humor and pondered over his philosophical comments and was amazed at his creative imagination, I never saw the loneliness side of Calvin. I am asking myself if I agree with you.

    Calvin couldn't relate to anybody in the real world and had Hobbes for his every emotional need. Still, I couldn't term him as lonely. The word loneliness has a tinge of sadness attached to it and Calvin was anything but sad. He knew he didn't relate to anybody, but I don't think he felt sad about it. In fact, he took pride in saying that he is ahead of all the other people.

    I have to mention another favorite comic strip of mine, Frazz. You might already know about it, but I will still mention it. I am sure you will enjoy reading it.

  6. Oh, I forgot mention in my previous comment. I thoroughly enjoy reading your blog. I particularly like your book reviews. I have picked up 'We need to talk about Kevin' after I read you review.

  7. While I agree on the dark side of Calvin, you are mistaken when you say Bill Wattersonn has a well rounded social life. He is a bit of a misanthrope, and lives his life mostly in seclusion. In fact there aren't even too many photos or autographs of him in public domain. I am surprised you made this comment, at the same time linked the Wiki page on him that makes this aspect of his character very clear. Likewise there is a strip or two when Bill makes an appearance and again makes it very clear what kind of a person he is.

    Likewise for Scott Adams. You should read the recent post on imagination he put on his blog.

    Anyway, I think darker side of peoples' lives leading to such amazing creations are always welcome. The dark is a truer shade, indeed.

  8. I would like to direct you to this piece written by Bill Watterson admiring CHarles M. Schulz, which probably explains things beautifully.


    Especially this part:

    Indeed, everything about the strip is a reflection of its creator's spirit. "Peanuts" is one of those magical strips that creates its own world. Its world is a distortion of our own, but we enter it on its terms and, in doing so, see our world more clearly. It may seem strange that there are no adults in the world of "Peanuts," but in asking us to identify only with children, Schulz reminds us that our fears and insecurities are not much different when we grow up. We recognize ourselves in Schulz's vividly tragic characters: Charlie Brown's dogged determination in the face of constant defeat, Lucy's self-righteous crabbiness, Linus' need for a security blanket, Peppermint Patty's plain looks and poor grades, Rerun's baffled innocence, Spike's pathetic alienation and loneliness. For a "kid strip" with "gentle humor," it shows a pretty dark world, and I think this is what makes the strip so different from, and so much more significant than, other comics. Only with the inspired surrealism of Snoopy does the strip soar into silliness and fantasy. And even then, the Red Baron shoots the doghouse full of holes.


  9. Jai: There are many people who have a morbid outlook towards life yet are able to lead well fleshed out lives. While it may seem a little perplexing , it is not neccessarily as complex. The more complex mechanism is the Human mind which in itself functions on diametrically opposite parallels at any single time.

    Calvin is a character who is much like what we were as schoolchildren. There were many times we wanted to blow the school complex or hurt some teacher for 'assumed' wrongs. While all this is true , I
    hate the superficiality which you have rightly pointed out,as our fatuous "Uber Sexual" crowd screeches in orgasmistic tones whenever they hear of Calvin.Ohhh---! He is soooo-- cute.

  10. I always think that maybe the reason I like him is because some part of me thinks he is an impossibility.

    Maybe he isn't. But a character is usually appealing if he is far removed from us and like us at the same time.

    It's like people loving criminal characters in literature. Most of us don't think its possible for people to be so mean.

    For the record, I don't think I have made myself clear. :)

  11. Anangbhai: brilliant! Also starring Angelina Jolie as Mrs Hobbes.

    The One: thanks for pointing that out about Watterson, don't know how I missed that - had only skimmed through the Wiki entry and something about one of his interviews gave me the impression he was a family man.

    (Or maybe my definition of "well-rounded social life" is misanthropy!)

    Thanks for the link too.

    Anaamica: I was going through the books again yesterday after putting up the post and I see what you mean - Calvin is more content (and intelligent, and emotionally mature) than most of the conformists around him. Could be I was imposing some of my own feelings on him. But I still do think it's short-sighted to look at the strip as describing a purely happy interior life. At some point the kid is going to have to deal with the real world, and then what? Put another way, if a cartoonist were to make a comic strip based on the childhood of some famous psychopaths, it might be just as vividly entertaining as Calvin and Hobbes!

    Vijayendra: You shiny happy creature, you! So those are the only terms on which you can appreciate a character like Calvin - by believing no one can possibly be that mean in real life? Now I'm truly terrified for myself.

  12. There are many people who have a morbid outlook towards life yet are able to lead well fleshed out lives.

    I live on that hope...

  13. Here is the Fight Club = Calvin & Hobbes theory anangbhai was talking about. http://metaphilm.com/philm.php?id=29_0_2_0

  14. I live on that hope as well. Alas! a close friend with an outlook as Morbid as I suggested is living absolutely comfortably. When asked what happened to his amalgamated theories of absurdity and morbidity he says he still has them ,yet knows how to be a part of the crowd.

  15. I too am a closet reader of your blog and especially enjoyed your posts on Rafa and graphic novels .

    The thing that I like about Calvin&Hobbes is the completely refreshing look at the adult world-the strips which have only calvin &hobbes discussing things. but the strip is not dark in the over-all sense.Dilbert is a dark strip and I went into a sort of depression on reading one of those Scott Adam books. my favourite C&H strips

  16. "I am related to people I do not relate to"--Calvin.

    Hobbes: Why do we always play war and not peace?
    Calvin: Too few role models

    The first comment aptly demonstrates the loneliness Calvin feels, and the second is Bill Watterson speaking through Calvin(of course that's what he does in all of them. But this one is blatantly so).

    Maybe the I-dont-care attitude Calvin projects regarding his loneliness is his way of coping with it--a defence mechanism.

    When Calvin is day-dreaming, maybe it's Bill Watterson trying to show the world as he wants it to be.

    Maybe we are able to identify with Calvin all the time, yet are too aware of the absurdity of the premise, and maybe that's what makes it all the more likeable.

    Maybe I am too drunk.

  17. I agree. The 'Oh-so-cute!' comments about Calvin make me feel uncomfortable. They make him seem so one-dimensional.

    But I certainly do not think he's more misanthropic than any other little boys his age. He does seem to give way to softer emotions (rem: the ones with the little Raccoon and the one where Calvin feels bad about making Susie cry).

    He's alone generally, but I don't really think he's 'lonely'.

    But the thing that clicks the most with me is how he hits the nail on the head every time he makes an observation. It's like, I've felt the same thing a thousand times, but he says it so much better!

    I'm sure he's have written this comment better too!

  18. I've always been a fan of Calvin and Hobbes because it is so funny. I never realized until college that I was reading a pristinely accurate depiction of Calvinist and Hobbesian theology. I was being pounded with a religious education for years and never even knew it!

    I am very grateful to Waterson for allowing us that last strip. It isn't plausible because Calvin is going to have to grow up and leave his adventures behind. But that isn't the image we're left on, and that makes me happy.

  19. Most of what I would like to say about calvin and hobbes has already been said, but here's one thought that I alos share with a couple of other calvin & hobbes fanatics I know: I want my yet-unborn kids to be exactly like calvin.

    It goes against your "if they were ever to meet someone like Calvin in real life, would be scared out of their minds (or at the very least wouldn’t want to have anything to do with him)." theory, but I guess to each his own.

  20. I wonder...whats the distance between Kevin Khatchadourian and Calvin? And lets not use facile diagnostic words like 'psychopath' 'sociopath' etc. Someone standing on the outside looking in at the smug normals. Think of the bemusement, or the nausea, and then think - what a small step it would be...'it would be marvelous to terrify a law clerk with a cut lily, or kill a nun with a blow on the ear. It would be great to go through the streets with a green knife
    letting out yells until I died of the cold.'

  21. "incapacitated by the persuasiveness of all sides"
    Multiple perspectives are often crippling, and guess that makes us, and Calvin, different from the conformists.
    Jai, the problem is that the absence of meta narratives or to put it simply, the real picture in the heads of people and their words is disturbing. It is like calling Star Wars and Fight Club "Cool Films" and not understanding that they are basically anti-authority and a lot more points of course.
    Jai, trust me there is a point in delving and that can not be termed as going overboard. To each his own, I like a film Desperado for its sheer kickass value. So yes thats a good point, even it is superficial as it strikes a chord with the readers, so be it. Either way he is liked.
    I have a different perspective and would love to discuss that sometime (preferably over old monk ;)), and some of it stems from my disturbing school memories. More so, my disappointments in humans. Cheers!

  22. I think you might have read this piece. But if you haven't, it is damn interesting.


  23. Bill Watterson and a "normal" life? I really don't think so. Scott Adams, yea, I'd agree. Or maybe that's because of his blog--which seems to be almost an "everyday insight" into how he lives. But I definitely believe he tries to live normally.

    Not Bill Watterson.

  24. I much agree Re: discomfort at the perceived cuteness and schweetness of Calvin and Hobbes. The clip has been always too uncomfortably close to reality for me to subscribe to those views. That and the extent to which I identify with Calvin's character.
    Really interesting blog, btw. I have been reading your posts for quite a while now.

  25. was a die-hard calvinaholic for years, till i met a certain berke breathed and his 'bloom county'. though the strip looks a lot like garry trudeau's 'doonesbury', it's in many ways a pre-cursor to calvin. and shudder, there are some uncanny similarities - like the poems about horrors in the dark, imagined anxieties, etc., and unlike calvin, the bloom county guys are a lot less self-conscious, more political, and sharper when it comes to critiquing the globalized world... calvin's never quite done it for me again!