7 Moments Of Philosophical Genius In Calvin & Hobbes
In the pages of Calvin and Hobbes, our philosopher-name-dropping protagonists have lots of philosophical discussions. Often, which Bill Watterson admits to doing on purpose, these conversations take place as Calvin’s wagon is careening down a wooded hill, off a ledge, and into a ravine or river. “I think the action lends a silly counterpoint to the text…sometimes the wagon ride even acts as a visual metaphor for Calvin’s topic of discussion,” he writes in the Tenth Anniversary Book. A visual metaphor certainly sets up punchlines better than that hack Descartes.
Before our collective wagon hits a rock and sends us into a lake, let’s establish some bonafides: I’m not a philosopher. I took a couple philosophy courses in college, but my background is in writing and literature. I know just enough philosophy to apply Marx or Foucault to Star Wars, but not enough to stroke my neckbeard while making oblique allusions to Aristotle justifying slavery or whatever. I’m not an idiot—I had the good sense and foresight to drop out of a Master’s program in English Lit after three semesters—but I’m not a philosopher. Philoso-bro, maybe, if that hasn’t already been co-opted by some MRA hate group or something. But not a philosopher. Let’s start with a softball question:
Why Do We Exist?
Calvin wonders why humans were put on Earth. Hobbes says “Tiger food,” before smiling and going to sleep.
The Genius: First and most obviously, shoutout to Hobbes’s namesake. Ol’ Tommy Hobbesy famously said that humans’ lives are “nasty, brutish, and short.” The tiger version seems to agree. It’s a fabulous head-flip of a human-centric view of the world. We think we’re so great because we have consciousness and built Machu Picchu and invented Mountain Dew Baja Blast. While two of those three things are indisputably beautiful, humans got their start as tiger food. Tigers haven’t changed.
Calvin and Hobbes is pretty insistent that humans are an insignificant blip in the scope of the universe. Some may call this a dark philosophy, and I suppose they’re right. It’s not great, feeling like we don’t matter. To me though, there’s something freeing about recognizing one’s own cosmic insignificance. Caesar famously man-cried when he thought about how much more Alexander The Great had “accomplished” at his age, as if conquering and enslaving a bunch of people can be considered a laudable accomplishment. I got down on myself in 2011, when 23-year-old Chicagoan Derrick Rose won NBA MVP while 23-year-old Chicagoan Chris Corlew spent the year as an underemployed fresh-out-of-college depression case working his way through the inventory of the Billy Goat Tavern. It’s not healthy to compare yourself and your value to others, is what I’m saying.
By recognizing your own insignificance, life becomes a bit smoother to live. Hobbes says Calvin’s tiger food. Well, I love food, too. Few things make me happier than cooking for and with my friends/family, sharing a meal that has been lovingly prepared. I like learning about other peoples’ and cultures’ favorite dishes. My in-laws live in Baltimore and every time we visit, the whole huge family gets together for a bushel of steamed crabs, which my wonderful mother-in-law supplements with a spread of fried rockfish, chicken, mac and cheese, greens, sauerkraut, potato salad, and deviled eggs. It’s a true highlight of every visit. But you know what happens to food after it’s gone? It’s gone, and you gotta eat again tomorrow. Or at least the next day.
A meal is fleeting, but you still need food. Your existence is fleeting, but you still live. And a nice meal makes existence less nasty and brutish. Good meals unfortunately often make life shorter. Therefore (philosophers are always saying ‘therefore’) a happier existence can be found when you focus less on making your mark and focus more on food. Both the food you eat and not becoming tiger food.
What’s The Point of Creating?
Andrews McMeel Publishing
Calvin is building a snowman, which he believes is art that “shall endure and inspire future generations.” The snowman melts.
The Genius: As someone who creates art (stop laughing, not the joke part of the article), I can sympathize with Calvin’s desire to elevate a snowman, which “any dumb kid can make,” into art. I can sympathize with wanting to endure and inspire. You are reading a series of articles where my main goal is to prove that a four-panel newspaper comic (which any dumb jerk can draw) has transcended to the level of “art,” whatever the hell that means. A lot of my motivation for wanting to write these pieces is because Calvin and Hobbes is rad and I wanna be on record saying it is rad and maybe convince someone who doesn’t know about said radness to have a rad experience reading. One reason I write is because I hope my art can help and inspire people the same way artists I love have helped and inspired me. I get where Calvin’s coming from.
But come on…all that’s a little silly, right? I just spent the last entry talking about the fleeting, cosmically pointless nature of existence. You think you’re a meaningless blip on the spacetime continuum, well try being a snowman, amirite? Those dudes don’t even get privacy when they decay!
Again, if life is nasty, brutish, and short, do everything you can to make life not that. The snowman does not endure, but the fun you have on the day you build the snowman is worth it. Your novel might not be a bestseller, but writing was worth it. Have a sense of humor about what you do. Once you do that, art quickly becomes way less pretentious and self-important. If your goal is to endure and inspire for eons, that’s a paralyzing amount of pressure. If your goal is to have fun building a snowman, well, you just might get some art out of it. Even one of the worst poets of all time, Percy Shelley, understood this well. They even made a Breaking Bad episode about it.
The Scientific Method, Or: Calvin Re-Enacts Sir Isaac Newton
Andrews McMeel Publishing
“Curiosity is the essence of the scientific mind,” Calvin pontificates, before hypothesizing that milk inhaled through his nose while laughing will shoot out of his ears. Susie Derkins would like to eat lunch elsewhere.
The Genius: Science is the key to understanding the world, and at the foundation of science is the scientific method. According to Science Buddies dot com, the scientific method is a six-step process for experimentation that is used to explore observations and answer questions. The scientific method means testing a hypothesis and communicating your findings. And can I level with you? I don’t know what happens when you inhale milk through your nose while laughing. Does anyone? Has the hypothesis been tested? Frankly, Watterson dropped the ball by not publishing his findings in the next day’s strip.
Some Czech dude named Jan once wrote “when I close my eyes, they begin to shine, just like the dots and lines…a dull shine resembling phosphorescent light. A total darkness follows.” To which everyone probably responded “yeah, no kidding, that happens to us, too.” Well, Jan wasn’t just some dude, he was Jan Evangelista Purknyě, and his obsession with post-eye visions led to him becoming known as a founding father of neuroscience. The dude who invented gravity with an apple, Sir Isaac Newton, would repeatedly stick a bodkin (or blunt end of a sewing needle) in his eye. Sorry, meant to say would “put betwixt my eye and bone as neare to backside of my eye as I could.” This apparently offered him direct knowledge of ways structures of the brain mediate consciousness. And he got knighted for these experiments!
No one knew, scientifically, about all that weird stuff your eyes do until Jan got his “most annoying pendant at the party” on and Isaac got his “I’m Johnny Knoxville and this is the bodkin eyebone trick” on. People have to take risks, sometimes with their own bodies, for scientific knowledge. Calvin is simply following in the footsteps of Jan and Isaac.
Clones and Morality
Andrews McMeel Publishing
Andrews McMeel Publishing
This series drops us off in media res for Calvin’s experiments with a Duplicator. He’s added an “Ethicator” so that he only clones his good side. Good Side Calvin does all of Calvin’s chores and homework. Good Side Calvin even begins to write love poems to Susie (“And who could make / my heart so woozy? / Only thou, my fair / sweet Susie”). This is all too much for regular Calvin, who challenges his “dupe” to fisticuffs only to have Good Side Calvin spectralize for having an evil thought.
The Genius: There’s something Good Side Calvin says in the penultimate strip that super stuck out to me: “ wouldn’t even accept . You’re such a jerk, she thinks you’re always up to something!” Everyone in the world has a good side and a bad side. But you only are what you put out to the world. If you have a good side no one ever sees, how good is it? How many of history’s monsters have had someone say “oh but he’s sweet in private” about them? I don’t give a crap if, say, Clarence and Ginni Thomas have their anniversary dinner at the same romantic spot every year and re-read their wedding vows before dessert. They’re actively fighting to make sure they’re the last interracial marriage in the United States. May the kitchen staff take a big fat piss in the crème brûlée.
Calvin’s whole essence is so toxic that his Good Side never even has a chance. He never has a chance to be taken seriously by Calvin’s mom, to regain any of Susie’s good graces, to navigate life without the stench of Calvin on him. Calvin drives his mom nuts, he’s never done anything nice to Susie, he’s always running around in weird costumes talking to imaginary friends, why should anyone trust him simply because he has a combover? Kurt Vonnegut said “we are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” He was talking about a guy who was a Nazi propagandist for the lulz. Calvin’s normal side is so far gone, he can’t even pretend to have a good side around Susie anymore. A good goal in life is to put enough positivity into the world that people don’t look at you like Susie does Calvin.
When You Think You’re Being Your Smartest, Someone Is (Rightly) Laughing At You
Andrews McMeel Publishing
Finally, after that intro, a wagon strip! Calvin decides to make a new path down the hill, saying “change is invigorating.” After they fly off the cliff, Hobbes observes “the problem with new experiences is that they’re so rarely the ones you choose.”
The Genius: When any starved-for-content website makes a Twitter Hall of Fame, user @leyawn’s classic “Darryl, Socrates’ friend” inevitably shows up on a lot of lists. Socrates is dunking on some poor idiot philosopher, and Darryl is Socrates’ hype man. Hobbes, especially in these “wagon” conversations, is some combination of hype man/enabler/smugly detached watcher. Hobbes is both smarter and calmer than Calvin, which means he can see through Calvin’s nonsense and tries to exist above the fray.
Hobbes is also Calvin’s best friend, which means he gleefully goes along with big-brained schemes like running away from home to live in the Yukon. And since Hobbes passively enables Calvin’s force of personality, he is absolutely subject to Calvin’s whims. Calvin chooses the adventures and invents the shenanigans. Hell, it was Calvin’s idea to “make a path,” which got them in the mess they’re in. It was Calvin with his hands on the steering wheel. So what good is all of Hobbes’s wisdom and smarts if it just got him thrown clear off a cliff thanks to a dangerous child’s manic decision to “see what happens?”
Hey, quick question that’s gonna seem out of nowhere: if you’re a U.S. voter who supported the popular vote-winning presidential candidate in 2000 or 2016, did you feel an unexplainable urge to cry reading that last paragraph? Are you a person born after 1977, when Exxon knew about climate change and decided to dedicate all their resources to destroying the planet anyway? Maybe, like Hobbes, you’ve had or will have some new experiences that were not the ones you chose.
Spaceman Spiff: What If Aliens Are Here To Help Us?
Andrews McMeel Publishing
Spaceman Spiff is Calvin’s Flash Gordon-esque alter ego, usually a daydream distracting him from the droll tones of his teacher, Miss Wormwood. Barren planets are empty classrooms because Calvin’s slept through the lunch bell, aliens become humans from frame to frame, things of that nature. Here, the alien morphs into Calvin’s mom, who offers him a sandwich and lemonade.
Quick fun fact: Watterson invented Spiff back in high school German class as Raumfahrer Rolf. Spiff was subsequently the first strip Watterson submitted to newspaper syndicates. That means in some alternate universe, the syndicates said yes, and the greatest newspaper comic mind of our generation devoted all his mental energy to a space fighter pilot named Rolf.
The Genius: Besides the incredible artwork—detail and color vibrancy that sticks out even in a Sunday strip, plus a whole new world for our established protagonist—what I really love about this strip is Spiff’s overwrought gloom and doom immediately undercut by Alien Calvin’s Mom bringing him a sandwich and lemonade. The visual gag where Spiff changes to Calvin and alien changes to Mom coupled with how casual the dialogue is really work together, but there’s an extra funny layer thanks to alien tropes.
For the longest time, everyone thought the aliens were going to come to earth and kill us. Suction all our resources up like one-eyed, green-tentacled Daniel Plainviews drinking our Earth-milkshake. But as it slowly leaks out from the U.S. military that not only are there probably aliens, but we’ve probably already made contact with them and the end results are so far anticlimactic, this strip feels prophetic.
There’s a theory out there that The Federation from Star Trek is simply waiting for humanity to level up, for us to stop killing each other and act like a civilization worth hanging out with, and then they’ll reveal themselves to someone besides the former head of the Israeli Defense Ministry’s space directorate and help us save the planet. I like this theory. No idea or real interest in it being true, but I like it. I definitely believe aliens are out there. If they wanted to kill us, they probably could have by now. Maybe instead they’re waiting with a sandwich and lemonade. Or maybe they’ll destroy us to save their jobs.
It’s Just Comics
Andrews McMeel Publishing
Calvin, once again attempting to elevate a “low” artistic medium to more respectable heights, complains his mom doesn’t understand the moral complexity of comics. Hobbes hints that Amazon Girl is drawn like a woman in comics.
The Genius: This one gets a shout as the ultimate example of an artist having a healthy perspective on their work. Not only is Watterson insulting comic books, he’s doing so in a comic strip. He doubles down in The Tenth Anniversary Book, captioning the strip with “You can make your superhero a psychopath, you can draw gut-splattering violence, and you can call it a ‘graphic novel,’ but comic books are still incredibly stupid.” As a reminder, The Tenth Anniversary Book is a collection of comics bound in book form.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: this is Cracked dot com. We love comic books here. I love comic books and their movies. I don’t agree with Watterson’s sentiment, though part of me wonders if he came across some Frank Miller and just had to take a potshot, in which case…I can understand. To me, part of the appeal of comic books is that they’re heavy-scare-quotes “stupid.” They can be fun and goofy and fantasy wish fulfillment and whenever they want to explore serious issues, they can do so while still providing some emotional distance. I was a little shook up about humanity’s capability for evil the first time I saw The Dark Knight, but I was still excited for more Batman movies. I was crying and despondent when I saw City of God, and very much did not want to see the sequel that movie could possibly set up. Both are great works of art, but the difference is Batman is “stupid” and Cidade de Deus is a real place with real problems.
To go back to the fact that Watterson is writing these words in a comic codex (yes, I know the difference between graphic novels and trade paperbacks and collections): what a hilarious way to get your point across. In one of these columns, I praised Watterson for giving a damn about his work. I’m now praising him for also being like “come on guys, it’s just comics.” Art can have a powerful, personality-changing influence on people’s lives—but it’s not like we’re talking life or death here. Why so serious?
Chris Corlew is a writer and musician living in Chicago with a child who has Calvin tendencies and a cat too fat to be Hobbes. He co-hosts The Line Break podcast and is one-half of b and the shipwrecked sailor. Send him Calvin and Hobbes strips on Twitter.
Top image: Andrews McMeel Publishing