Good stories endure. There’s a reason the plays of William Shakespeare still get performed to rapturous reception, and it’s the same reason why Mark Twain still has countless copies of his books sold across the country every year. Characters that one can relate to, humor that strikes ones funny bone just right, pathos that hit home for all of us, those are the ingredients that can make a piece of pop culture stick around through the ages. In this case, those are the exact elements that have helped an eight year old boy and his tiger be discovered by new readers even after its stopped creating new content twenty years earlier.
Calvin And Hobbes got started as a newspaper comic strip thirty years ago today, the work of Bill Watterson, a man who had admired comic strips for his entire life and wanted to chase it as a profession (he also had ambitions of being an astronaut which wouldn’t materialize, though his love for the cosmic comes through in the comics Spaceman Spiff arcs). Pictures of this 57 year old individual are hard as hell to come by, and his reclusive nature would make Thomas Pynchon proud. The same can’t be said for his most famous work, Calvin & Hobbes, which centers (SPOILER ALERT) on a boy named Calvin and his tiger pal Hobbes as they get into all sorts of mischief.
Such a concept sounds like one that would be instantly appealing to any child, but what made Calvin & Hobbes truly special was how, like its spiritual predecessor Peanuts, it didn’t hold back in depicting the bleak aspects of Calvins life. He needs a friend like Hobbes (who more often than not is, admittedly, responsible for some of this hardship) to get through days filled with bullies, terrible weather and a world that just doesn’t understand his “genius”. Again, like Charlie Brown before him, Calvin becomes an individual readers can invest in because we’ve all been through the kind of hardship this kids going through, even if Calvin is more humorously egotistical than o’l Chuck.
Watterson frequently gets a ton of gags out of simply having Calvin and Hobbes interacting in a field (the subtle visual of a hole Calvin is digging to bury his botched report on bats in always get me cracking up), but where many of the greatest plotlines of the comic came from was when more heightened material seeped into this mundane world. Remember the awesome snow goons arc? Man, I need the expression “Snow goons are bad news” engraved on my tombstone. Or how about the time Hobbes (a tiger, mind you) tries to cut Calvin’s hair and then, in an attempt to cover up his subpar work, remarks to his human companion “You know what’s all the rage this year? Hats.” And how could anyone forget the Spaceman Spiff installments, which featured extraterrestrial vistas brought to life by the most gorgeous comic strip artwork this side of George Herriman.
It’s a testament to the superb writing of this comic that such out-of-this-world (sometimes literally) content could coexist so peacefully with the more human moments of this comic. Sure, Calvin & Hobbes could travel to Mars, but the two discovering a mortally injured baby raccoon leads the duo to come face to face with the inescapable presence of death that looms over us all. Instead of sugarcoating this kind of plotline “for the kids”, Watterson instead plunges it into the stark bleakness of reality, with Calvin bawling upon hearing from his father the raccoon has passed away. This remarkable storyline concludes not with a deus ex machina resurrection of the raccoon or even a joke to soften the edge, but rather Calvin accepting the advice of his mother that death is just one of the many parts about our life that we just don’t understand.
“That makes sense, I guess” he notes before embracing Hobbes and remarking “But don’t you go anywhere!”, a perfect encapsulation of the crux of Calvin & Hobbes that, above all its other numerous virtues, has kept it sticking around for so many decades. Life is never easy and so much of it is impossible to even comprehend. But y’know what? With even just one friend, you’re not dealing with that inescapable difficulty alone. In fact, the world can be quite beautiful when you have the right pal to venture into it with. After all, as Calvin so memorably put it in this strips final comic “It’s a magical world Hobbes o’l buddy…”, and rarely has that beauty been shown more perfectly than in the realm of Calvin & Hobbes.