I like to think about my children (when I have them) leafing through National Geographic, or First Things, or the National Catholic Register, steeping themselves in the good lessons and instruction that these institutions communicate: about the beauty of creation, right morality and Christian society, the Catholic life. A recent Wall Street Journal column, “‘Calvin and Hobbes’: America’s Most Profound Comic Strip,” reminded me that I want them reading Bill Watterson’s iconic creation also, and for similar reasons: It just may be the most educative and instructive art one could want in a contemporary Christian home.
In the nearly twenty years since penning his last panel of Calvin and Hobbes—after only ten years of the strip and following a string of seven consecutive Harvey Awards for Best Syndicated Comic Strip—the reclusive artist’s work has only ballooned in popularity.
“The most popular strips become institutions and can hold their spaces in the paper for generations,” Watterson wrote. Calvin and Hobbes has become, and will do, just that, and for good reason. Perhaps no other major comic strip conveys the rewards of virtue and the costs of vice amid an insane world as poignantly and endearingly. Calvin and Hobbes is about imaginativeness that borders on the sacramental.
The titular characters' names—six-year-old Calvin is named after John Calvin, tiger Hobbes after the sixteenth-century philosopher—set the tone for a seriously thoughtful comic. (Even Calvin’s teacher is named after C. S. Lewis’s famous fictional devil’s apprentice.) Watterson’s stories drive at meaningful topics, with an early story about the death of a little raccoon and a touching reunion story in which Hobbes is taken by a “big dog” and Calvin frets for his friend. There’s the existential sadness prompted by Calvin and Hobbes’s discovery of a dead bird in a later strip, and the poignant tale in which Calvin forgets Hobbes on a family vacation and then fears that his companion has been stolen when they return to find their home has been broken into.
Political scientist James Q. Wilson called Calvin and Hobbes “our only popular explication of the moral philosophy of Aristotle”: Virtue, expressed as self-control, respect for the demands of justice and fairness, and thoughtful concern for the wellbeing of others, founds and perpetuates social and political order (and constitutes real happiness). Indeed, on one particularly tempting winter day, Hobbes puts Calvin in mind of just this fact. Calvin smacks Susie with a snowball anyway.
One might argue that Hobbes—whose insights into human nature often mirror his namesake’s “nature red in tooth and claw” outlook—exhibits the most virtue of any character in the strip. Calvin, often the foil to Hobbes’s good sense, typifies what Watterson sees to be wrong with the world: commercialization’s encroachment on art, beauty, and meaning; popular obsession with statistics and polling as indicators of policy needs or wisdom; boredom with the import of sound education; ethical egoism (tempered each December by Santa’s looming presence); and so forth.
But what makes Calvin so charming and indeed so lovable is the fact that he also expresses goodness. He laments the pollution of our world and the selfishness of the humans who practice it. He perceives the inadequacy of the predatory nature of organized sports and pines for a more pure enjoyment of play. He values nature and the outdoors (only sometimes, at others preferring the idol of television, to which he offers a bowl of tapioca pudding that represents his brain). He fosters imaginative engagement with the world. He cultivates a deeply intimate friendship with Hobbes, for whom he sheds tears more than once.
In one story, Calvin transmogrifies himself into a tiger, only to find that he and Hobbes have nothing to discuss when they are both wearing stripes. This story illuminates another human reality, one that is elsewhere obscured in much of society: Complementarity. Uniformity, or at least the denial of distinctions, can hinder friendship as well as help it, as Calvin and Hobbes discover with the help of the cardboard box “Transmogrifier.”
The intimacy of the protagonists’ friendship also inspires. Calvin and Hobbes share the same bed. Hobbes sits beside Calvin’s bath as the latter grumpily calculates how much of his life he spends in the tub. They wrestle like brothers. Calvin rubs Hobbes’s tummy while the latter sleeps. They curl up by the fire together with comic books after spending hours playing outside. They embrace warmly on Christmas mornings—early mornings. Theirs is a world of friendship steeped in innocence, camaraderie, and imagination.
Of course, much of this is lost on young readers. I know a seven-year-old who consciously models himself after Calvin, and can be rather mischievous as a result. But I suspect that his admiration runs deeper than his imitation. Calvin is a charming character because, not in spite, of the juxtaposition of his childishness (insulting his mom’s hard-cooked meals or ruining family photos) with his childlikeness (his lively imagination and play with Hobbes). The former is obnoxious, the latter beautiful, and the juxtaposition between them highlights the need to preserve the latter amid the tendencies of the former—a lesson near to the hearts of parents everywhere. As Watterson once commented, you’d never want Calvin as your own child. Yet I think that he represents much of what is good but undermined in our culture.
I would want my own child to be as much like Calvin as unlike him, more Hobbesian than not. Calvin is a bundle of contradictions. In one story, after tussling with his incarnated “good self,” he remarks that he doesn’t really like his good side anyway. Yet his empathy to creation and his devotion to Hobbes are exemplary. Hobbes, for his part, could be more sanguine about human nature’s good elements, but his reserve, good sense, and self-restraint define his character as a fundamentally virtuous one.
These characters are complex and realistic, which is what makes them so incredibly enduring. December will mark the twenty-year anniversary of Watterson’s last Calvin and Hobbes panel, which saw the two friends sledding into the woods to explore the “magical world” in which they live. The enchantment of reality—one might even venture, its sacramentality—is evident to Calvin and Hobbes, who read the meaning on the face of creation and wonder humbly at it, often gazing at the stars in silence, even late into the night. As Calvin says in one strip, the world would be a better place if we looked at the stars more often.
Calvin and Hobbes are wise teachers, even when they aren’t emulatory role models. Even Calvin’s bad behavior teaches lessons to the reader who understands those lessons for what they are. His mixed character underscores the good and highlights the bad, exposing the latter all the more starkly in contrast with the former. I’ll be buying the complete collection of Calvin and Hobbes for my children.