CALVIN AND HOBBES was a comic strip published by Universal Syndicate from November 18, 1985 to December 31, 1995. Created by Bill Watterson (1958-present), the strip follows six-year-old Calvin and his best friend, a tiger named Hobbes. Calvin and Hobbes draws heavily upon Watterson’s experiences growing up in CHAGRIN FALLS, a neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio. Despite ending in 1995, Calvin and Hobbes continues to impact American culture. The content and message of the comic strip remains relevant to the present day. The comic evokes a feeling of nostalgia and captures life in the American Midwest. Rather than simply praising American culture, the comic offers a relevant critique on American society. As a result, Calvin and Hobbes also serves as a rebuttal against the claim that comics lack intellectual substance. The timeless quality of Calvin and Hobbes’ subject and the commentary it sheds on American culture explains the continued popularity and impact of the comic.
Calvin and Hobbes centers around a six-year-old boy and his best friend. While seemingly simple, the comic often depicts and explains complex topics. Even the names of the titular characters draw upon philosophy; Calvin is named after the Swiss Protestant Reformer, John Calvin, and Hobbes is named after the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes. References to philosophy continue throughout the comic. Various articles and essays have examined the philosophy of Calvin and Hobbes. From existentialism to ethics, the comic delves into deeper conversations than many expect from a children’s comic. The comic questions American society and values; Watterson critiques the consumerism and consumption promoted by American culture. This criticism extends beyond the comic strip and into real life. Calvin and Hobbes ended its run in 1995 because Watterson opposed Universal Syndicate’s effort to commercialize and merchandize the strip.
Since Calvin and Hobbes heavily features philosophical discussions, some critics argue that children are not the target audience of the comic strip. They claim that the majority of jokes go over children’s heads. By arguing that Calvin and Hobbes targets an adult audience, critics fail to acknowledge the light-hearted fun of the strip. Although Watterson explores philosophy throughout the comic, the story focuses on Calvin’s childhood experiences. Throughout the comic strip, Calvin turns the ordinary into the extraordinary in a manner that appeals to children. Baths transform into underwater adventures; the mundane turns into bizarre and zany. By reducing Calvin and Hobbes to its philosophical discussions, critics ignore a major element of the comic strip. Additionally, these arguments assume that children cannot understand philosophy. Even if children cannot appreciate the full philosophical argument Watterson presents, they still can relate to and understand the basic arguments made. For example, Calvin and Hobbes repeatedly questions morality, moral authority, and moral duty. Watterson frames these debates within the context of childhood issues, such as eating vegetables, taking baths, or going to school. Even existentialism is framed within the context of catching butterflies, an arguably childhood activity. Calvin and Hobbes argues that everyone, even children, asks questions and attempts to find meaning in life. If children are asking the questions, Watterson and Calvin and Hobbes asks why they cannot also be part of the conversation. While not all comics and cartoons are aimed at a child audience, such as political cartoons, Calvin and Hobbes’ humor and content clearly targets both children and adults.
The comic strip also offers commentary on then-current events and cultural trends. Although specific instances have changed, the general critiques and messages of Calvin and Hobbes remains prevalent in the present day. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, various articles connecting the strip to the nation’s response to isolation were published. Some noted the seemingly random and arbitrary rules to Calvinball, a game with only one rule: no two games can be the same. Others connected to the theme of escapism, which pervades throughout the comic. Calvin seeks to escape from the responsibilities and constraints of childhood through his imagination; he turned boring tasks into extraordinary adventures and the mundane into the fantastic. In isolation, individuals sought to do the same and find joy in the limited resources available to them. Calvin and Hobbes, amidst the discussions of morality, consumerism, and existentialism, is the escapist story of a six-year-old boy and his ambiguously imaginary friend. The relatability of Calvin’s attempts to escape from reality appeals not just to childhood memories but also to present experiences in the pandemic.
Calvin and Hobbes ended its run in 1995, only ten years after its initial publication. Despite this, the comic continues to hold relevancy in the present day. The popularity and relatability of Watterson's creation, almost thirty years after the series ended, highlights its significance and influence on popular culture. Beyond entertaining thousands, the comic strip also urges readers and critics to reexamine the purpose of comics and children’s media as a whole. As a result, Calvin and Hobbes has received praise and accolades. In 1986 and 1988, Watterson won the Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year. Watterson won the Harvey Award for Best Syndicated Strip or Panel each year from 1990 to 1996 and the Harvey Special Award Humor in 1989. Watterson was awarded the Eisner Award for Best Comic Strip Collection in 1992 and 1993 and the 2006 Eisner Award for Best Archival Collection/Project¬ Comic Strips. Outside of the United States, Watterson won the Grand Prix at France’s Angoulême International Comics Festival in 2014; previous to this, he had received the Best Foreign Book Award at the Angoulême International Comics Festival in 1992. The continued popularity of Calvin and Hobbes and the international attention the comic received highlights its cultural and critical significance.
Encyclopaedia Brittanica. "Calvin and Hobbes." Encyclopaedia Brittanica. Last modified October 7. 2021. Accessed on April 5, 2022.
Katz, Brandon. "Teaching Philosophy with Calvin and Hobbes." Philosophy for Children at Tufts. June 5, 2018. Accessed on April 5, 2022.
Lee, Mira-Rose J. Kingsbury. "The Escapist Tragedy of 'Calvin and Hobbes'." The Harvard Crimson. December 8, 2020. Accessed on April 5, 2022.
Lockwood, Devi. "Let's Play by Our Own Rules in the Pandemic." The New York Times, April 28, 2020. Accessed on April 5, 2022.
Mitchell, Whitney. "The 6-Year-Old and His Stuffed Tiger: Understanding Why Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes Continues to Thrive." Journal of Interdisciplinary Undergraduate Research 7, no. 1 (2015): 1-18.
Wendig, Chuck. "Calvin and Hobbes and Quarantine." Polygon. May 13, 2020. Accessed on April 5, 2022.