BILL WATTERSON IS FAMOUS for two reasons: creating the “Calvin and Hobbes” comic strip, and for being allergic to fame and the spotlight it provided over his career. The strip, about the adventures of a boy and his stuffed tiger, were in the pages of the most prominent newspapers in the United States and the world, everyday for years in a row.
Calvin and Hobbes lived fantastic adventures throughout 10 years, until Watterson, with nothing but a brief farewell explanation, had them sled off into retirement, saying he considered he had exhausted the format.
Watterson, a political science grad from Kenyon College, baptized his characters drawing inspiration from John Calvin, a XVI century French theologian and Thomas Hobbes, the XVII century philosopher and political theorist. Despite the inherent political influence in the name of his characters, Watterson was very careful about the purity of his strips. He mentioned on one occasion that what propelled his work forward was personal satisfaction, so it is unlikely that he saw his artwork as a medium to push any sort of agenda. As he said in his commencement speech to the graduating class of Kenyon college in 1990:
“It’s surprising how hard we’ll work when the work is done just for ourselves.”
Despite the origins of his career taking place in the political cartooning of a Cincinnati, Ohio newspaper, his own politics left very few traces on Calvin and Hobbes. However, upon paying close attention to his strips, the philosophical commentaries and social critiques the author imprinted on his stories become notorious.
Freedom, responsibility and political participation
Calvin (the XVI century old guy, not our favorite 6 year old) defended his ideas against the irresponsibility of debauchery, and placed a special emphasis on individual responsibility towards the government and civic leadership. Watterson touches upon these ideas using Calvin, the character, as a medium to cynically criticize the political participation of individuals in society:
Hobbes, the stuffed tiger that has been Calvin’s companion since infancy and that as a product of his imagination comes to life whenever they are alone, tends to be the less impulsive half of the duo: providing sensible comments and judicious conclusions. Through prudent recommendations that could be allusions to Hobbes’ (the philosopher) reactions to Reformist impulses which he qualified as anarchism and dangers to democracy, Hobbes (the stuffed tiger) tries his best to rein in Calvin’s often impulsive ideas and his constant questioning of parental authority.
The strip is chock-full of references to free will, willpower, the role of delayed gratification and the incentives at play that condition human behavior, all of them themes that John Calvin explored in his writing, in which he understood human behavior as something predetermined. In fact, if analyzed under the light of incentives to human behavior, many of Calvin’s antics and frolics could be taken as metaphors to our modern political economy: within every politician with good intentions lies a whimsical kid which, at the end of the day, only wants to get his way.
Calvin, spontaneous order and science
Whether because of his innate rebellious spirit, or for his defiant attitude towards authority and established rules, Calvin is a great advocate for spontaneous order. This can be seen in the made-up sports game Calvinball, a recurring gag throughout the strip. The sport prides itself in being the least organized of sports, according to Hobbes’ description of it and based on the sport’s official anthem:
Other kids’ games are all such a bore!
They’ve gotta have rules and they gotta keep score!
Calvinball is better by far!
It’s never the same! It’s always bizarre!
You don’t need a team or a referee!
You know that it’s great, ’cause it’s named after me!
According to Calvin, “Sooner or later, all our games turn into Calvinball”. The rules are made up as they go, and the only consistent rule is the one indicating that the sport shall not be played twice using the same set of rules. The scoring system is as arbitrary as “Q to 12” and the only requisite for a successful game is a voluntary agreement by the parties of submitting themselves to a nonexistent set of rules in which creativity, more than athleticism, is rewarded.
Shared by Calvin and Hobbes alike is their natural curiosity and a passion for science and innovation. Their capacity to wonder at the mysteries locked within nature is captured in this strip about the”Horrendous Space Kabboie”:
In other strips, through irony or cynicism, Watterson’s piercing political judgments come across, as shown on this veiled critique of the shallow analysis portrayed in the media:
The following strip debates freedom of speech and the need for it to stick despite the content of the ideas, and not only to the likable ones:
Calvin and Hobbes ended their run in 1995, but the ideas that Watterson let permeate through the defined personalities of his characters remain valid.
What other political ideas can you identify on Watterson’s work?
Written by Cristina Lopez G, a professional eye-roller disguised as a lawyer and policy-wonk who writes. She co-edits Wondrus, an Internet depository for cultural and scientific curiosities and fun facts for Spanish speakers. Article and picture credits taken and translated from Wondrus,
Main Picture Credit: Thoth, God of Knowledge.