On Calvin and Hobbes

Far and away my favorite t-shirt right now makes a joke that’s only funny if you’ve read Calvin and Hobbes.

It’s actually only funny if you’re considerably more than a casual fan. It’s a drawing of Swiss Calvinist theologian John Calvin and English philosopher Thomas Hobbes in the inimitable Bill Watterson style, with the two eminent dead white dudes making funny faces for the camera. It cracks me up. Occasionally it cracks someone else up, and we get along. Even if we just passed each other on the street and we never see each other again. If you get why that t-shirt is funny, you and I are friends.

I first discovered Calvin and his imaginary friend when he and I were the exact same age. My parents had just bought a ski chalet in Collingwood, Ontario, and I was checking the place out. On a bottom shelf in the living room, just about where a six year old child would find it, was a copy of the first-ever treasury of daily funnies. It was already there, in a place where I was about to make a great deal of memories. Whoever lived there before us had left it behind. I pulled it out and started reading, sprawled on the carpet in the late afternoon winter sunshine, as dust motes rose and danced in the air all around me. It’s one of those moments I don’t think I’ll ever forget. Because I was totally hooked. I didn’t get all the jokes, and I actually didn’t laugh out loud all that often. But I completely devoured it, and within a few weeks I had asked my parents to buy me another.

I wasn’t alone. In primary school those books were currency. I remember once seriously arguing with a fellow fourth grader about whether or not he should trade me his Lazy Sunday Collection for my Authoritative Calvin and Hobbes. He didn’t think it was the same value, because it had black and white short strips along with the full page color spreads. I remember being vaguely confused and frustrated because I thought the little black and white daily strips were actually more valuable. But the details are a little blurry through the rose-tinted glass of childhood memory.

They never stopped being great. I used to go to high school debating tournaments with one under my arm. Once a senior joked that he had glanced over to see me reading one during a debate with an expression of such intense concentration that you’d think I was reading Shakespeare, or a text on higher mathematics. But I was reading Calvin and Hobbes. A comic strip.

The thing is, Calvin and Hobbes may actually be on that level. Those comics weren’t just little laughs at the back of the paper. They were pearls of eternal wisdom served up in a manner that even a small child can comprehend. They could be completely frivolous, and they could be deeply, deeply profound. Sometimes they made no sense at all. One in particular, where Calvin’s dinner suddenly bursts into Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ monologue, for absolutely no discernible reason, can still make me belly laugh because I have absolutely no idea what that was supposed to mean, all these years later. Another one, where Calvin and Hobbes find a dead bird, and don’t do anything at all but briefly ruminate on how unbearably tragic life can be, and then sit under a tree and stare at the sky, haunts me more profoundly than a lot of serious classical poetry ever will. When they were at their most philosophical, they were also usually driving a wagon or a sled down a hill at subatomic speeds, which made for cool drawings.

Perhaps the most profound and hilarious one of them all is one of Calvin’s completely ludicrous show and tells, He gets up with a snowflake in a box, and points out that it’s spectacularly, completely unique, until you bring it in the classroom. Then it’s just another boring drop of water. Then he drops the mic, and goes back to recess.

That is profound shit. I don’t know anything about Bill Watterson as a person, and I kind of want to keep it that way now. I used to want to know, but I no longer do. It would ruin the mystery. Because the kind of guy who could write that is the kind of guy who exists beyond his mortal shell. Like pretty much everything Calvin says and does, that’s both something totally unbelievable for a six year old to say and do, and par for the course. Because the truth is six year-olds say and do stuff like that all the time, every day, around the world. We’re just not always paying attention when they do.

Hobbes doesn’t exist. Whenever you see him from an adult’s or a stranger’s perspective, he’s just a stuffed animal. But in the mind of Calvin, and so the mind of the reader, he’s as real as Pierre Bezuhov or Vladimir and Estragon. My own childhood best friend stopped responding when I asked him questions a long time ago. But I still keep him on a shelf, because that’s a part of me I hope I never let go. My capacity to make believe is my capacity to be human. And Calvin and Hobbes helps me remember that that’s totally OK. A TV show called Robot Chicken once made a joke about Calvin’s being schizophrenic, and it was funny for five seconds but also never funny again. Robot Chicken has been completely forgotten, and I think it’s still on TV. Bill Watterson stopped making Calvin and Hobbes cartoons around 1995, but those things will still be in print a century from now, if the human race still is too. And there’s nothing remotely controversial about that statement.

Because Calvin and Hobbes’ world is both innocent and wise, simple yet sophisticated, fragile yet unbreakable. It’s rooted in a time and place, but also completely eternal. It’s one of the few completely wonderful things to come out of the Reagan era, and it never mentions his name or acknowledges his existence. Those two things may be related. I once read a serious academic book that illustrated the tenets of Daoism through AA Milne’s Winnie the Pooh. I’m pretty sure that someone could do the same thing for Zen Buddhism using nothing but Calvin and Hobbes. I hope someone has already done it.

The last Calvin and Hobbes cartoon I ever read was also the last page of the last treasury ever published. It was called It’s a Magical World, and that was a deliberate decision on my part. Like putting down your old dog at home in his favorite window rather than on a cold metal table in the veterinarian’s office. The cartoon was simple, almost snow white, and didn’t make a joke. It was just two old friends riding off together into the winter twilight of a childhood that was never going to end. I cried when I read that. It can still make me tear up now.

It’s been 18 years since I first picked up Calvin and Hobbes. An incredible amount has changed in my life, and in the world around me. If nothing else about them were true, it would be enough that they are one of the only things in my life, apart from my immediate family, that mean exactly the same things to me at age 24 as they did at age 6. The relationship has complicated and changed, but it has only strengthened with time. I’ll never forget those two, and they’ll always have a big place on my shelf.

It’s a scary world. It’s a mean world. It’s a world where stupid, cruel, terrible stuff happens every day for no reason to people who don’t deserve it. But it’s also a magical world, and so far none of the awful stuff that has happened to me and the people I care about has put so much as a dent in that basic conviction. And that’s at least a tiny bit thanks to Bill Watterson and Calvin and Hobbes. I pray that I can be there for the people I love when that stuff does happen, because it will, and no bones about it. But so far nothing has shaken that inescapable feeling that something deep at the very core of things is good. And I also pray that nothing ever does.

Let’s go exploring.

The Red Wedding and other harsh realities.

The Red WeddingMaybe this is all just part of growing up.

Maybe this is just our generation’s way of discovering that life isn’t fair, and that the bad guys can win. There’s nothing, in the end, to stop them except other people. And other people have failed before.

It’s not like that many of us have known true despair or loss. Some of us undoubtedly have, and are stronger for it. And I imagine if you have, you’ll know who you are.

But if you, like me, have had the good fortune to grow up safe and affluent in the Western world, sheltered, secure, and alive at the end of one of the longest periods of peace in our history, you, like me, probably don’t know what real despair means yet.

Odds are you, like me, have to confess that something like the death of Robb and Catelyn Stark can cut like a knife.

Other generations had essentially anecdotal evidence for their fixations and collective experiences. They were real, and are easily remembered, but It was hard to tell what the collective mood on any given subject was with any certainty. Not in the detail we can now.

But Game of Thrones has wounded the collective psyche. We have empirical evidence that it has. Real data documenting the visceral gut reactions of people across the world to a fictional event.

And it would seem that we don’t know what to think of a world where that kind of brutality, savagery, and cruelty is possible. There is a worry at HBO that the series will suffer in the ratings from this. That people will simply withdraw from the series to take away the emotional pain it seems to have genuinely caused.

Because there are no certainties now. No way out of the despair and bleak cruelty of the world Martin has created. (One that is powerful because it is devoid of all traces of the sentiment that cloys a lot of fantasy, and fearlessly holds a distorted mirror to our broken world.)  As it was succinctly put by Tasha Robinson, “Robb and Catelyn were the last appeal to adult authority, the last illusion that someone sensible and severe could come in and take charge.” It’s as though Jack butchered Ralph, and the naval officer never came because the world outside had descended into nuclear war.

I remembered that feeling last night. That sinking, vertigo feeling I’d had before Golding’s Deus ex Machina in Grade 10, the suspicion that Ralph was a goner, and that there was a beast at the heart of human nature, waiting to claim us all. And I remembered how it had lingered for days afterwards. The suspicion that I had learned something fundamental and cruel about human nature, that no amount of authority was going to dispel. Then, it faded from my mind, and life went on.

Now, I’m not so sure it will, or that I even want it to. Not in the same way, anyway.

Because that beast IS out there. Tearing at the eviscerated streets of Aleppo and Qusair, stalking the mountains of Afghanistan, patrolling the halls at Guantanamo Bay or staring balefully out over Tienanmen Square. Mao, Stalin, Franco, Kim-Il Sung, Kissinger, Assad, Putin, Chavez or Cheney; sometimes we forget that some despots die in their beds, and that some evil goes unpunished, and even celebrated.

Adulthood so far seems to consist of hard truths learned. Harsh, brutal truths that no one can possibly tell you, because no one can explain them to you in a way that you’ll understand.

This particular entry is as much for me as it is for you. It’s a call to future me to realize that life isn’t going to get any easier, and problems infinitely bigger than the death of the Stark family are coming, and there’s no certainty at all that any of them are going to end well.

Because in the end, there’s no one to save us from ourselves except ourselves. And we should probably get on with it.