Calvin and Hobbes. Philosophy in Bill Waterson’s Daily Comic Strip

Published: 2021-09-20 03:50:06
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Calvin and Hobbes: Philosophy for Everyone
“Calvin and Hobbes” is a daily comic strip that was written by Bill Waterson between November 1985 and December 1995. The comic is unique, particularly because it was written in a style that almost any reader can enjoy. The strip focuses on Calvin, a young child of about six, and his adventures with his “stuffed” tiger named Hobbes, although Calvin sees him as real. Younger readers of the comic inevitably connect and sympathize with Calvin, because of his age and fun-loving nature. However, the real skill of the comic is not garnering the attention of children, but instead making the comic relevant, educational and fun for anybody who read it. Waterson accomplished this through several different methods. Most importantly, Calvin’s character is so well developed and described that even adults can sympathize and enjoy the evil plots of a six year old mastermind. In short, Calvin has a much higher intelligence than any six year old in the real world, but his thoughts are presented in such a way that children reading or listening to the comic can still understand him. Waterson also organized the comic so it was full of philosophy and philosophical references. The most notable are the names Calvin and Hobbes, which Waterson says are references to John Calvin and Thomas Hobbes. However, these names are more references than actual allegories or metaphors, as Waterson tends to include many philosophies in his strip, not just the ideas of John Calvin and Thomas Hobbes. In this particular strip, Calvin speaks with his father about the nature of reality, specifically he asks, “Dad, how come old pictures are always black and white? Didn’t they have color film back then?” Instead of the truth, his father tells him they had color film, but the whole world was black and white back then and so even color film came out black and white. He proceeds to give Calvin a wildly inaccurate, yet logically sound description of the world, describing how the world came into color in the 1930s. After questioning his father as much as he can, trying to find any flaw in the argument, Calvin simply says, “The world is a complicated place, Hobbes.” I chose a “Calvin and Hobbes” comic strip as cultural artifact, both because it is accessible to every age of person and because I think reinforces positive morals in most people who read it. Understanding that, I am curious as to what makes “Calvin and Hobbes” enjoyable for people of all ages? Basically, what is the draw of the comic that captures the attention of adults and children alike.
In analyzing this particular comic strip, I found that there was an incredible amount of philosophy written into “Calvin and Hobbes.” Understanding this, I asked myself, what role does philosophy play in making “Calvin and Hobbes” effective as a work of art? After re-reading the conversation between Calvin and his father many times, it seems clear that Waterson is using his characters as literary tools to discuss the nature of reality and its inherent disconnect from the human senses. The result of this, for the readers of the comic, is a new insight into the world. This is where the philosophy naturally incorporated into “Calvin and Hobbes” is effective as art. For the most part, children, and many adults, enjoy the stimulation of new ideas and having their horizon broadened. By feeding this base desire, Waterson has created a comic that goes beneath the surface level entertainment of most forms of media today. This comic, like most visual entertainment, follows a narrative; in this case, the story of young boy trying to figure out what life is really like. Robert Scholes, in his essay, “On Reading a Video Text,” discusses the power of narrative and how it causes cultural reinforcement when presented as visual entertainment. He states, “By narrativity… I mean the pleasures and powers associated with the reception of stories presented in video texts. By cultural reinforcement, I mean the process through which video texts confirm viewers in their ideological positions and reassure them as to their membership in a collective cultural body” (204). Scholes essentially means that the narratives of visual entertainment, especially in advertising, aim to convince the viewer that they are ideologically correct and part of a larger group. The reason for this is that people who feel they are part of group will buy things that they think will validate them within that group. Scholes uses the specific example of football commercial that sells beer by convincing people that Budweiser is the beer of the American culture. Scholes presents his argument in a strikingly negative manner, criticizing advertising and their use of narrative to sell their product. I feel that although Scholes frames this idea in a negative light, it does not necessarily have a negative influence. Many visual artists, including Bill Waterson, use narrative to reinforce good behavior. In this comic strip, the narrative is that of a young boy, badgering his father with questions about life. For the young readers of this comic, this encourages good behavior, because hopefully they will think more critically about the things they notice in life. Scholes is absolutely right when he discusses cultural reinforcement and how this reinforcement can affect people’s ideologies; however, to assume that all, or even most, cultural reinforcement is harmful is simply wrong. In entertainment, a narrative can be used to reinforce almost any cultural idea, good or bad. I believe Waterson reinforces inherently moral ideas within the text of “Calvin and Hobbes.” In this particular comic, Waterson shows how important it is for children to think about the world and he also showed how fun it can be for parents to mess with their children.
Shekhar Desphande discusses National Geographic and the sources of its cultural power in his essay, “The Confident Gaze.” The sum of his argument is basically that National Geographic sanitizes and idealizes the rest of the world before they present it to Americans in a magazine. I think Desphande would likely criticize my opinion on “Calvin and Hobbes” and cultural reinforcement. In ‘The Confident Gaze,” Desphande criticizes National Geographic and their tendency idealize the world and I would expect him to have a similar problem with Waterson simplifying, and in many ways idealizing, the world. However, this only makes sense because Waterson has a far different audience than National Geographic. By idealizing the world, National Geographic makes people feel cultural and ethnic without actually experiencing any part of any other culture. This makes people who to be smart feel educated without making them uncomfortable. Waterson, on the other hand, presents the world in a way that it makes sense to children and teaches them good morals. Although many of his comic may idealize the world, he is doing so because children are not ready to understand the harsh nature of the world.
In my reading of Desphande’s essay, “The Confident Gaze,” I found a distinct similarity between National Geographic and “Calvin and Hobbes,” which I think is at least partial reason for their success. Desphande states, “This gives the magazine its real power. It is quite sensitive to trouble spots and trouble contexts; it does not pretend to evade such situations” (55). In Calvin and Hobbes, despite being starkly different from National Geographic, Bill Waterson also address “trouble spots and trouble contexts” (55). Although this strip is not truly a trouble spot or a trouble context, wondering why old pictures were black and white could be a difficult question for a six year old. Not to mention that in other strips, Waterson addresses issues like God, death, robbery and much more, which I consider all to be trouble issues. Desphande continues to complain that although National Geographic deals with trouble situations, they present it in such a manner that the reader finds it interesting or beautiful, not scary or unnerving. “But while it covers or represents such issues or situations, it can sanitize and even beautify the blood and gore of the conflict” (56) In a similar manner, Calvin and Hobbes does not give the reader a realistic view of what it is really like to deal with death or the question of God. However, unlike National Geographic in which this is a bad thing, because it undermines the struggle of thousands of people, in Calvin and Hobbes, it is a good thing, because it helps teach children to appreciate and think about complex issues without scaring them into ignoring those issues.
The cultural value of Calvin and Hobbes cannot be overestimated. This comic is very intelligent and provides a great deal of insight about life, but what made it so incredibly successful was the universality of the comic. Calvin and Hobbes is not simply entertainment for children, but it’s not above their heads either; likewise, the comic is not intended for adults, but it it is still intelligent enough to entertain them. Calvin and Hobbes is unique because it puts forth philosophical thoughts as an art in a form of media entertainment. Like the football commercial discussed by Scholes in, “On Reading a Video Text,” “Calvin and Hobbes” has a narrative and uses this narrative to make the comic more effective. However, while this is a negative influence according to Scholes, Waterson manages to use his narrative to make his story more accessible and to reinforce positive concepts, like being inquisitive and seeking knowledge. After reading both Scholes’ and Desphande’s essays, I found them both highly critical of their subjects; however, while I was writing this paper, I found their same ideas used in a positive manner by Waterson. It fascinates me that ideas that are so blatantly and harshly criticized in one situation can be positive and beneficial in another situation. I think it would do Scholes and Desphande to look to parts of society where their ideas are used in a positive manner. Ultimately, I think this is what makes “Calvin and Hobbes” both educational and enjoyable.

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