6 Brutal Lessons Calvin And Hobbes Doesn't Spare
Comics imply funny, right? Like, “standup comic” and “newspaper comic” both have the word comic in them, right? Comic, comedy, ‘comer’ in Spanish means ‘to eat’…comics are funny. That’s just Latin roots, man. Etymology. I have a liberal arts degree.
Calvin and Hobbes, though, wasn’t always funny. Lots of strips are simply observations on life, or drawn-out dramas, or this gem which Watterson admits is him joking with his wife about her abrupt subject changes when she’s talking:
Like with any text, there’s often a lesson to be found, and Calvin and Hobbes could be pretty unflinching for the funny pages. But Calvin and Hobbes had enough strips clearly trying to say something that it’s worth addressing. We’re not necessarily talking about Very Special Episodes here, but some of these lessons hit a harder jolt than the morning coffee you’re drinking while reading. Let’s start with something light:
Death Is Inevitable And The Universe Is Indifferent
Calvin finds a barely breathing raccoon on the ground. He and his parents try to revive it, but it dies within a day.
The Lesson: You can’t avoid death. And worse, sometimes life is cruelly meaningless.
That racoon’s life was unnecessarily short, and it doesn’t matter beyond Calvin’s feelings (“I know he’s gone, but he’s not gone inside me” and “I’m still glad I met him.”) The universe does not care about that racoon, and when you think about it, the racoon’s little blip of existence in the cosmic timeline is only fractionally smaller than yours. The universe is equally indifferent to you, me, also you, and the “entirely too drunk for a Sunday afternoon" party sitting on the patio. The question is: how do you live with this information?
Let’s take Calvin’s mom. She could have told Calvin to get away from a likely disease-carrying animal. Go wash his hands and forget it. But instead, she runs to the raccoon with Calvin, eager to help if she can. She’s so eager to help that when Calvin runs off to get supplies, she nervously talks to Hobbes and rolls her eyes at herself. She cares so deeply about her son and shielding him from the tragedy of the universe that she briefly adopts his version of reality.
Then there’s Hobbes. For someone who always has a sharp witticism or summary quip when Calvin’s sounding off, Hobbes is unusually quiet this series. In the first strip, he talks in every panel, but for the rest of the series, he’s either totally silent or has a single line. The realist way to think about that is Calvin is processing his own grief, so his imagination doesn’t fill in Hobbes’s dialogue. Hobbes only thinks what Calvin thinks, so neither of them have the answers.
A more literary, character-development way to think about it is that Hobbes is listening to his friend process the unimaginable. Hobbes is a sympathetic sounding board while Calvin asks things like “Why did that little raccoon have to die? He didn’t do anything wrong…what’s the point of putting him here and taking him back so soon?!?” The whole time, Hobbes never leaves Calvin’s side. A+ display of friendship, real Day One Ride-Or-Die behavior from Hobbes. It’s friends like Hobbes you remember when your own indifferent death inevitably comes.
Three Weeks of Calvin Getting Murdered At Baseball
In this series, the gym teacher is having all the boys play baseball at recess. Calvin doesn’t care or know anything about baseball, but signs up to play to avoid being in a “cootie central.” When his dad tries to teach him to field, he gets a bloody nose. He gets bullied for not playing baseball, then bullied for playing wrong, then his teacher calls him a quitter. Finally, Hobbes suggests playing Calvinball.
The Lesson: Some things just aren’t for you.
There are things in life you are good at, right now. If you’re an accountant, you’re good with numbers. If you’re a sea captain, you’re good at reading nautical charts. I’m good at neither of those things, much like how I’m no good at baseball, much like Calvin in this series.
It may seem weird to call someone who spends every moment with their best friend a “loner,” but there’s a reason Calvin gets compared to the Fight Club narrator. Team sports aren’t often a conducive environment for loners. Baseball’s probably a good sport for a loner like Calvin because you often don’t have to talk to anyone or do anything. Problem is Calvin, like the 2022 Boston Red Sox, can’t even do any of the basic nothing that is asked of him on a baseball field. Throw in his pathological unwillingness to seek or accept help of any kind, and Calvin would’ve been way better off staying in Cootie Central. Organized sports aren’t for Calvin.
Obviously, especially at age six, it’s good to try things more than once to see if you just need to get the hang of it. But the absolute multitude of ways Calvin fails at baseball—fielding grounders and fly balls are basic fundamentals, switching fielding sides in an inning is simply baseball—shows that it’s probably not going to work out. That’s fine! There’s always Calvinball! And in Calvinball, you get to wear masks and make up the rules. So Calvin will be okay. But man, what a brutal series of events.
“Then We’ll Get Rich And Go On Talk Shows”
Calvin and Hobbes are playing paleontologist, making dinosaur bones out of trash. Calvin says they can then get published in a scientific journal, then “win the Nobel Prize, get rich, and go on talk shows.”
The Lesson: Make sure “what’s next?” doesn’t mean selling your soul.
There’s something about the language in this strip that is such a jarring shift. In three panels, Calvin describes the joy and reward of discovering dinosaur bones, anticipates seeing how the bones fit together so he can render a replica of a dinosaur, is eager to share his findings with the scientific community, and then in the fourth panel…riches and babes and talk shows. Now, obviously talk shows can host intellectuals. Stephen Colbert and Doris Kearns Goodwin are practically best friends and Seth Myers talked writing in the closet with Poet God Ocean Vuong, I’m not saying going on late night means selling out. But to go from the geologic miracle of preserved dinosaur fossils to the vapid frivolity of talk shows is hilarious.
There is a certain class of intellectual for whom seeing their name in lights is more important than doing work. For writers, this is sometimes framed as “would you rather write, or would you rather have written?” Did you like creating the characters and building the world, or do you like holding a published book and paycheck in your hand? It’s easy to get the appeal of both—I like writing, it’s real fun for me, but I would also like a paycheck so I can take my wife on a trip to Barcelona. Where the danger lies is if I were to say “I wrote ‘The Cracked Guide To Calvin and Hobbes,’ BICS, like the lighter” and then bill my editor for a Lambo and courtside Lakers seats. That would be the kind of materialistic excess that compromises one’s soul, and not just because it involves the Los Angeles Lakers. When dreaming of the destination overwhelms the journey it takes to get there, you’re in trouble.
It’s good to stay humble, it’s good to take pride in your work, and it’s good to enjoy your work. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to my upcoming “5 Baffling Reasons The Lakers Are Gonna Suck in 2023” piece.
In Space, People Still Make You Cite Sources
After days of not doing research for his half of a report on the planet Mercury, Susie is reaming Calvin out and telling him he needs to cram during the weekend. Rather than process how he could’ve better spent wasted time or apologize to his friend, Calvin turns into Spaceman Spiff and stares blankly at Susie, who is a ferocious alien.
The Lesson: You can’t imagine consequences away.
Let me confess a flaw: I mentally shut down really easily when faced with consequences. Like, exactly how Calvin does here. Have I paid this month’s rent yet? There’s a Bulls game on tonight! Is my article done yet? Well, these animals aren’t going to cross themselves, I gotta check in with Tom Nook! That’s my brain. I spend January through March thinking that if I rewatch Star Wars enough, Obi-Wan Kenobi will do my taxes for me. Come April, I’m catatonic in front of a bunch of forms, waiting for an old Force ghost to remind me what my social security number is.
There is something so matter-of-fact devastating about the way Susie escalates from “you wasted this entire week in the library” to “I’m telling the teacher you didn’t do any work.” There’s nothing Calvin can say, and his blank stare is flashing that information in neon. His eyes are just one little pen line, and yet you can see deep-for-a-first-grader gravitas dawning on them. Instead of embracing that truth, he sinks into a literal alternate world fantasy.
God, I hope six-year-old Calvin learned to deal with his problems better. 34-year-old Chris hasn’t.
Astrology Is Not Real
Calvin is irate that his horoscope didn’t come true. He hopes the newspaper will print a correction and apology.
The Lesson: The distinction between fact and fiction matters.
Out of every paragraph in this entire series, here might be where I show my terminable uncoolness the most: I don’t get astrology. It’s not that I hate it or am about to spout off insufferable platitudes about empiricism. I write poetry and horror fiction, I get thinking way too hard about the moon and stars and whether they are nefarious or fortuitous. Astrology’s simply not a way of thinking that makes sense to me. English regicide begetting a literary Satan who begets Edward Cullen? Sure, why not? Mercury retrograding and Capricorn rising and my romantic prospects falling? Nah, can’t be right. Knowing how Cromwell’s revolution affected 21st vampire literature already killed my romantic prospects.
Part of the reason it’s hard for me to take astrology seriously is also newspaper layout. Comics—self-consciously the “fun” part of the newspaper, the “funny pages,” one might say—were right next to sports gambling lines (a thing you can’t control), Dear Abby (as far as child me knew, a more boring version of a church pastor), and astrology (predictions even more vague than gambling lines). Everything that capital-M Mattered in the world was in the News/Business/Politics/Sports sections, this was the fun section. As Cracked Managing Editor Cyriaque Lamar put it to me, “it’s hard to take the inexorable cosmic fate of the universe seriously when it’s next to The Family Circus and Hi & Lois.” Astrology’s always read to me as a fantasy universe, but one without lightsabers.
But people do take astrology seriously, and in an era where News and Some-Guy-At-A-News-Desk-Talking-About-News kinda all blurs together, it’s worth highlighting how this stuff used to be divided. The joke here is the astrology section printing a retraction as if they’d misnamed a convenience store robbery suspect. What’s darkly hilarious about this strip in 2022 is the idea of a newspaper printing a correction and apology and it mattering. Fake or misleading stories make it to print all the time and take on legs of their own because no one reads retractions. Hell, 90% of Fox News’s actual news programming is issuing corrections for Tucker Carlson’s jeremiads about Biden’s latest plan to federally fund changelings.
Why So Serious?
Calvin wants to rename “The Big Bang” to “The Horrendous Space Kablooie” and “Tyrannosaur” to “Monstrous Killer Death Lizard.”
The Lesson: Your resumé and qualifications won’t save you, make life fun.
In fields like science, law, or medicine, precision is key. Terms matter, definition of those terms matters, and language needs to be as specific as possible. But Calvin sees a flaw: “you’ve got a bunch of empiricists trying to describe things of unimaginable wonder.” That does make things tough for scientists. Who cares about the Latin name for a murderous death lizard? Think about butts for a second: “butt” is pretty common parlance, you only say “bottom” if you work in early childhood education, you only say “gluteus maximus” if you’re an elementary school student giggling at science, “ass” either means a sexual context or physical kicking context, and “bunghole” means you’re U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson. All these different words to describe one thing! Words themselves change how a thing is perceived.
If there’s a brutal lesson here, it’s this: you can be the absolute pinnacle of your field. You can go to school for years and write papers and books that win the acclaim of your peers. You can even be famous enough to go on talk shows. But it simply doesn’t matter unless you can communicate with people outside your field. If you can’t translate your jargon, if you can’t easily explain what you do to a politician or a bus driver or a six-year-old or your poor old mother who would probably understand better if you called her more, it’s hard to make your work relevant in society. I have tons of friends in academia, and I’ve forgotten the premise of every single one of their doctoral theses the moment they told me about it. Too much jargon and academic language also makes it easier for the “well I can’t understand those fancy experts, so I don’t trust them but I'll trust Joe Rogan, who eats horse paste” crowd to run wild.
“Explain it to me like I’m stupid and make it fun” is a whole industry. It’s why Bill Nye and Bob Ross were so popular, it’s why many museums are designed for kids even if they’re not explicitly kid-focused, it’s why Hank and John Green teach high school on YouTube. It is a lot of what we do here at Cracked. And while “explain it to me like I’m stupid and make it fun” might sound like I’m encouraging ignorance, it’s the exact opposite. Learning is wonderful, and it’s wonderful if you can share what you learn with people.
So next time you’re on a hike and see a really cool conifer, tell your hiking buddies some interesting facts about it. But remember, they might not know the word “conifer,” it's an industry term of Big Tree. Meet them where they are.
Or what about this: the next time you have an opportunity write a five-figure-word-count series of articles celebrating something truly weird that you’ve loved dearly since you were a child, do everything you can to make sure your audience understands one thing clearly: that you hope this thing you love also brings them joy.
Check out the rest of the series:
A Short History Of 'Calvin and Hobbes,' The Last Great Newspaper Comic
Whatever Happened To Bill Watterson from Calvin and Hobbes?
6 Reasons Why Calvin & Hobbes Still Works Decades Later
7 Moments Of Philosophical Genius In Calvin & Hobbes
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