There’s Treasure Everywhere

I was looking at my traffic recently on here (not something I am wont to do as I don’t think I can take the regular confirmation that I reach such dizzying heights of ten views a day) and it would appear one post in particular draws a lot of search engine ‘hits’. It was a post I made some time ago about my thoughts on sleep and dreaming, this, however, is not why people visited. The common search term was Calvin & Hobbes as I had scanned in one of my favourite strips and used it as an example of my feelings. So in a shameless attempt to win more traffic I am going to do a whole post on them.

If you don’t know who Calvin & Hobbes are they are a cartoon strip by Bill Watterson which began in 1985 about a six year old boy called Calvin and his stuffed tiger named Hobbes. The oft misconstrued ‘gimmick’ of the strip is Calvin’s imagination which means Hobbes is a real tiger and they literally have daring adventures. This is what drew me to the strip as a kid. Being a lonely, solitary child who read books and took flights of fancy all to often meant Calvin was pretty much me, though substantially more outspoken and obnoxious. Calvin’s imagination turns him into a Super Hero, turns cardboard boxes into time machines and transmogrifiers, has him whizzing through the stars as a space captain, running with dinosaurs and exploring vast wildernesses in every strip. The appeal is undoubtedly magical summing up the joy and similarly the isolation of being a young kid and also giving you ideas for games to play, Calvinball being the most obvious.

And yet this is not a kids strip. Each strip is normally a thinly veiled metaphor for some more mature commentary on a different topic that range wildly from education, politics, television, film, crime, the environment, technology, parenting, love and even death. In short, all life is here. But not only is it not patronising nor dumbed down it is beautifully illustrated by Watterson. He is clearly a prodigiously talented artist as well. Using watercolours for the Sunday strips, subtle cross hatching, genre-hopping drawing styles, convention busting frame usage and just plain good drawing, Watterson manages, with the simplest of strokes, to evoke whatever or wherever Calvin is taking us in his head. What these do is normally pull double duty of giving Calvin a strange adventure but also giving a very visual metaphor for the subtext. There are some truly magnificent examples of this below:

The first example shows Calvin’s world is turned neo-cubist, a visually hilarious strip that explains Watterson’s frustration with literally being able to see both sides of an issue, the second being a comment on perspective and how it skews the world. These are brave subjects to tackle and certainly interesting artistic statements to make all within one strip’s world. As such, the more you investigate any one strip of Watterson’s the more layers you find. The best part about the strip for me though is when Calvin really disappears into his own world which Watterson paints so beautifully. The below strip is particularly evocative for me as I remember when I was at school and loathing every minute I would come home and do much the same (the author’s note beneath hit the nail on the head too):

Yet another layer is Watterson’s references either in the text or in the images. When at a Museum Calvin’s parents are seen admiring a Krazy Kat panel (another strip Watterson likes), he draws a whole strip in a superhero comic book style and also makes some intriguing literary and historical references. Calvin is named after the 16th century theologian from which we get the adjective/noun, Hobbes is named after the 17th century philosopher who was not a fan of humans in general perfectly suited to Hobbes’ cat-like ways. Calvin’s teacher is named Wormwood after the apprentice devil in C.S. Lewis’ the Screwtape Letters. All these allusions paint a far greater picture of the world the characters inhabit making for a richer and more rewarding experience with each reading/viewing.

Hobbes is a tiger but a more human, anthropomorphised version. That said Watterson gives him many cat-like movements to keep him a little feral (pouncing on Calvin on his arrival home, sleeping a lot) but his most animalistic feature is his attitude. Hobbes has a “barely contained pride in not being human” which I envy no end but has a quiet patience and friendly approach to the world and is above all a good friend. There are many interpretations of what Hobbes is, is he a stuffed toy that comes to life? Is he a figament of imagination? Along with the strange crossovers in the strip, like when he is put through the wash, it helps to not think about these. Hobbes is Hobbes. He’s Calvin’s best friend and nothing more, pondering his reality breaks the magic considerably, he is a perfect counterweight to Calvin’s twitchy, loud, instant gratification attitude. Again, thanks to Watterson’s artistic prowess Hobbes says the most with his expressions. He has reserve and tact when he talks, laced occasionally with sarcasm but his facial expressions tell us all and make him all the more endearing:

All these things and more make me love this comic but as I have got older and continue to read the books I have discovered how much this strip has taught and inspired me. This is sometimes a negative influence in that I share the very dim view of the human race that many of the characters in the strip have and prefer solitude over social interaction, (I am also useless with women) but it has given me a lot of positive things. Watterson himself is fiercely moral and principled, something I like to think I share, he has never licensed Calvin and Hobbes for merchandise or film, turning down Spielberg himself in an effort to keep the strip the way it is and being very skeptical and critical of the negative sides of modern media and culture. He admires things that are beautiful and raises up the simplest things that makes us all happy, friendship, warmth (emotional/physical), an appreciation for nature, a love of long walks, family and generally just pointing out life sucks but it is the way you look at it that makes it a reality. The thing it has had the most effect on me with though is its approach to death. Whilst not its intention and it generally being a very funny and upbeat cartoon strip, the odd strip involving a dead racoon, a dead bird or the one I mentioned in a previous post about them meeting again in dreams have had profound effects on me. My Dad introduced me to Calvin & Hobbes and when he died I reread the whole collection and realised a lot of my Father’s words of advice and values were reflected in the strip making it a very cathartic experience. It puts a lot of store by noble and traditional values, and by that I don’t mean Tory or right-wing values I mean simply being nice to people, being brave, being a good friend, admitting your mistakes, hard work and the power of imagination. The Toy Story films had a similar approach too but Watterson’s drawings and simplicity means your own projections can fill in the gaps of the stories and you warm to every strip. Like so many (mainly American) people my age Calvin & Hobbes are my friends and if I ever need cheering up (as I have done this month) I turn to them in search of a good laugh and some helpful advice. Not bad for a comic strip that lasted barely over 11 years.

I highly recommend you read the entire cannon. As a body of work it is not overwhelming in its amount but is so startlingly cohesive it deserves to be appreciated in its entirety . Start at the beginning with ‘The Essential’ until ‘It’s A Magical World’ and I guarantee the world will seem a much nicer, friendlier place and even when its not you will be better armed to cope. There really is Treasure Everywhere.

I’ll leave you with my favourite strip from the ‘Indispensable’ collection. Watterson did a few of these ‘Day-Montage’ Sunday strips with the same slightly melancholic yet hopeful tones but this one just screamed at me as pretty much everyday of my life at school was like this and in some respects still is:

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4 thoughts on “There’s Treasure Everywhere

    1. I never prepare a post. I plan as I write. I have the idea for the post then just write it in one hit. I tend to only write about topics I have a good knowledge of so it doesn’t require a great deal of research. As such you could say the prep for it was twenty years having been a fan of C&H most of my life but actual writing time; Maybe an hour or two. Hope that helps!

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