Calvin and Hobbes' Life Lessons for Boys (and Girls)

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Along with Gary Larson's Far Side cartoons and Matt Groening's Life in Hell series, which of course pre-dates The Simpsons, there is a special place reserved in my heart for the irreverent, sometimes bizarre, but always pitch perfect humor in Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes comic strips, syndicated from November 18, 1985, to December 31, 1995 — and all available in a brand new now-in-paperback collection. The spiky-haired, irrepressible boy and his best friend, the tiger named Hobbes, stood for certain truths: That kids were often smarter than adults; that they could and did exist in fully realized imaginative worlds of their own creation; and that those worlds had no limits in terms of possible adventures. Starting from the setup itself—in Calvin's mind, Hobbes is a live tiger; to everyone else in their world, he's just a blank-eyed stuffed animal—there is more than meets the eye. You'd expect no less from a cartoonist who names his 6-year-old main character after 16th-century theologian John Calvin and his stuffed animal friend after 17th-century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes. 

As kids, we needed not know any of that to find enjoyment and empowerment in the stories; they were just the hilarious comic-stripped stylings of an extremely intelligent little boy with bushels of attitude, and his loyal if occasionally sarcastic imaginary friend. But there's a lot of depth to plumb beyond those initial layers of meaning. And just as today's kids are sure to appreciate the strips' surface plot lines and jokes, adults who return to them are likely to find more than they remembered in the tales of two of their favorite characters. The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, 1456 pages of the cartoons we used to read and love, is out Tuesday as a four-volume slipcased paperback edition via publisher Andrews McMeel (the cost is $61.26 on Amazon). Note, the paperback will surely be less heavy than the hardcover set, out in 2005: From one commenter, referring to that edition, "With each book weighing just over 7 lbs., God Forbid if you drop one of 'em on your foot."

Recommended Reading

Paperback or not, as Michael Agger wrote in The New Yorker's What We're Reading Column, this compendium stands the test of time: "On occasion, the collection has even provided me with 15 minutes of Saturday morning peace. Of course, I can’t help but peek over my son’s shoulder every now and then. Though this time from a different perspective. What have we done? Where did I get this child? What goes on in his head? How does he come up with these ideas? Calvin!!!"

Clearly, Calvin remains that bad influence-slash-inspiration that was a big part of why we loved him. Agger explains: 

"A few weeks ago, my second-grade son told me that he heard a strange noise in the hallway outside of our apartment. When I stepped out to take a look, I heard giggling behind me. He was closing the door shut. More giggling, but no bold turn of the lock. I stepped inside. “Why did you do that!?” He confessed immediately: “I wanted to lock you out so I could watch TV and play video games and eat whatever I want.” I sighed internally. I knew I shouldn’t let him watch so much crap TV. “And where did you get that idea?” I asked. “From reading Calvin and Hobbes.”

For both boys and girls, Calvin was an unconventional role model, but it's probably true that he was especially revered by a certain generation of boys, like my brother, who related to Calvin's spirit, an unquenchable thirst for life cloaked in a coat of sardonic wit, and the fact that this was pretty much the ultimate buddy story—and kind of an achievable one, at that. You know, a boy and a tiger conquering the world, doing it their way (even if that "way" was largely in their own minds), regardless of the bruises and bumps of life. At the same time, let's not forget about the awesome Susie Derkins, who often played high-powered lawyer to Calvin's "house husband" and was hardly a shrinking violet. 

Music writer Luis Paez-Pumar, who became a fan of the cartoons as a kid because he, like Calvin, toted around a stuffed animal and "could relate," told me, "I moved to the States with some English when I was 7, and one of the first things I ever read was a collection of Calvin and Hobbes. I give [the books] a lot of the credit for my learning of English, both in terms of the actual language and how to use it in a humorous context. I plowed through all of the collections multiple times (I'm talking at least 20 each), which definitely helped instill this scary new language in me. "

That original love for the strip and its characters doesn't seem to have ebbed among the early fans, which makes Watterson's complete paperback collection not only good for business, but also, possibly, the book of the year for a certain set of guys and girls (Christmas is a little over a month away, you know). As Paez-Pumar told me, "The humor and, more importantly, the imagination of C&H never really went away. I still go back and re-read them all on a yearly basis. I don't know if I can qualify how much it affected me growing up, but I did have this strip printed and pinned up on my wall:"

When I asked Stereogum's Corban Goble, another self-professed fan of the books, for thoughts on the cartoon's impact on his childhood, he told me, "I feel like I've been waiting my entire life for someone just to ask me Calvin and Hobbes questions. I'm not a humorist by trade or someone who finds himself all that funny, but the tone and humor of Calvin and Hobbes (as well as The Simpsons and Peanuts) have totally dictated my sense of humor, which in return pretty much shades my entire worldview. What I love about them is that they can be really twisted and dark, especially for the medium. Since I was reading Calvin and Hobbes religiously in elementary school, many of the jokes [contained within] would not occur to me until much later."

The strips weren't always dark, though, and the true emotion one could feel reading them was and is pretty incredible: "I used to read C&H with a dictionary nearby—but they could also come up with these really sweet, heartbreaking moments," said Goble, referencing this one:

"To be able to have both sides of that coin, to strike that balance, I think is the hardest thing to do in this kind of pop art," he added. "Schulz's Peanuts was obviously that way, but Charlie Brown's a different character whose imagination isn't the battlefield that Calvin's is (and Schulz's strips had a lot more with the struggle of faith, definitely). It's sad whenever a clear genius like Watterson leaves his masterpiece behind, but in the era in which your favorite long-broken up band is reuniting for a 35-city reunion tour, I think Watterson ending C&H left a beautiful, finite result. And God, that last strip. It must be dusty in here or something ..."

Paez-Pumar added, of the double whammy of kid-friendliness and adult analyses Watterson so deftly delivered, "I guess it was the inverse of how I looked at the world: a kid looking through the eyes of a grown-up, on a very basic level. Also, despite having an older brother, I was always more of an only child in nature, which meant I related to Calvin's cynical-yet-naive view. The humor came naturally to Calvin, so it came naturally to me." Watterson doesn't talk down to his youthful readers or treat them like kids, but at the same time, he is able to capture the world in the way they would—or wish they could. Or maybe more simply, he and his readers are in on the same joke together. 

As Village Voice web editor Nick Greene said, "Eleven-year-old boys are rarely treated like emotionally intelligent beings. When I first discovered Calvin and Hobbes, I was on a steady diet of toy-manufacturer-produced television cartoons that focused on life lessons like 'Be Brave' and 'Teamwork!' Calvin and Hobbes communicated one of the more difficult aspects of childhood—that it can be unbearably lonely sometimes—with genuine intelligence and humor. It was a very nice way to find out that I was more than just a hypothalamus gland to be stimulated and marketed to. Now if you excuse me, I'm going to go watch the Coors Light Cold Hard Facts on Sportscenter."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.