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The Complete Calvin and Hobbes
The Complete Calvin and Hobbes
Bill Watterson
Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2005
1440 pp., 225.00

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Sarah Hinlicky Wilson

A New Kind of Calvinism

The theology of a comic strip.

First you have to heft it. The Complete Calvin and Hobbes feels like a critical edition. It's the work of ten years, once at a peak circulation of 2,400 newspapers, 3,160 strips in all, first collected in 17 books with 30 million copies already in print, now assembled in a 22-and-a-half pound, three-volume set running to 1,440 pages. Every strip—from the beginning in November 1985 to the last day of 1995—plus every cover from the individual collections, as well as the bonus material in the treasury collections, finds its place here. The CC&H has a few things the previous publications lack, such as colored Sunday panels from Attack of the Killer Monster Snow Goons, a new essay by Watterson with some kinder words about Universal Syndicate (with whom he battled for years over licensing rights), and early comic incarnations of Calvin with his hair in his eyes like the eventual bully Moe. If it is still a trifle less than Compleat—it lacks the commentary of The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book and the black-and-white originals of Sunday pages in the gallery edition of Calvin and Hobbes Sunday Pages 1985-1995—it is an impressive testimony to the cultural significance of the strip all the same.

Calvin and Hobbes thus bookended stands as an oeuvre, a body of work, and inevitably invites scholarship. Calvin himself set the stage for it with his infamous report on "Bats: The Big Bug Scourge of the Skies," and his academically adept book report, "The Dynamics of Interbeing and Monological Imperatives in Dick and Jane: A Study in Psychic Transrelational Gender Modes." And so, at this inauguration of a new wave of Calvinism, and in honor of the icon of total depravity himself, a few predictions about the future of the field are in order.

There will be, of course, compilations of mere trivia. For instance, one might list the six R-rated movies Calvin tries to see despite Mom and Rosalyn's proscriptions: Venusian Vampire Vixens, Attack of the Coed Cannibals, Vampire Sorority Babes, Killer Prom Queen, Cannibal Stewardess Vixens Unchained, and Sorority Row Horror. There are two exceptions to Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs for breakfast—once, early on, there's plain old Crunchy Sugar Bombs, and then, much later, there's a go at the parents' Pulp-N-Stuff. (On another occasion, Calvin drops an Alka-Seltzer into Raisin Bran.) Mabel Syrup is Calvin's favorite writer, author not only of Hamster Huey and the Gooey Kablooie—requiring squeaky voices, gooshy sound effects, and the happy hamster hop from a much-afflicted Dad—but also of Commander Coriander Salamander and 'er Singlehander Bellylander. Three heroes grace the pages of Calvin's comic books—captains Maim, Napalm, and Steroid—and only two monsters under the bed get a name: Maurice and Winslow.

Historians of a higher order will want to trace the genetic influences and the transmutations thereof in Calvin and Hobbes. Minimalistic precursor Peanuts makes its presence felt, for instance, in subtle ways. Anxiety in Calvin or his parents is indicated by parentheses around the eyes, characteristic of Charlie Brown and friends. Then there is the Schulzian emotional reality of Calvin's life, which evinces the torture of childhood much more than the illicit decals and T-shirts care to notice. ("People who get nostalgic about childhood," comments a scuffed-up Calvin just shoved by lower-case-lettered Moe, "were obviously never children.") Calvin doesn't play psychiatrist, but he does hawk his wares at a great variety of Lucy-like booths during his ten-year career, selling Great Ideas, a Swift Kick in the Butt, Scientific Names, a Suicide Drink, Candid Opinions, and a Frank Appraisal of Your Looks. By way of contrast, while the Peanuts kids are lonely in a crowd and devoid of any adult presence, Calvin lives with his best and faithful friend, but at the mercy of grown-ups. Charles Schulz said there were no adults in Peanuts because they simply wouldn't fit in the strip, but in Watterson's world, Calvin shrinks to make room for the grown-ups, to whom he is only knee-high. Even Hobbes towers above him, friend though he is.

A rival school might focus on the Krazy Kat influence. Its members would tout the little-known introductory essay Watterson wrote for the first volume of The Komplete Kolor Krazy Kat. They would observe how the moon in early Calvin and Hobbes strips has the distinct "melon wedge" shape the cartoonist mentions in said essay, and compare the common feline traits of Krazy and Hobbes. Striking, too, is how Watterson follows Herriman's use of scenery as a character in its own right. In the enormous, overstuffed Krazy Kat panels, the backdrop keeps changing even when the figures stay put. Calvin, for his part, moves so fast in his little wagon that the backdrop constantly changes just to keep up with him. The aspiring national forest of white birch and deep green woods giddily chases the mostly indifferent protagonist.

Influence is, of course, the most elusive chalice in the historical quest; one may as well draw attention to the characters' Muppet mouths and Looney Tune dives over the edge of cliffs. Other Calvinists will investigate the artistic development of the strip on its own terms. Already at the 12th daily strip, they will observe, Calvin and Hobbes race along in the wagon to the soundtrack of philosophical speculation about fate, fatefully headed for a splash in the lake. In the first month, a strip addresses the pernicious pull of TV, that opiate of the masses which even Karl Marx couldn't foresee, a frequent theme of the whole decade's output. The third Sunday page makes use of the entire "throwaway" panel across the top of the strip—designed to be dispensable for newspaper editors who wanted to save space—to showcase a long if rather cartoony alien landscape. The fourth Sunday page does the same. Already, this early, the possibilities of the redesigned, post-sabbatical Sunday strips are foreshadowed. There's no denying that the new Sunday page format begat a rambunctious dynamism, up to 20 panels in a single strip, innovative layouts, and sometimes the restraint of a Japanese woodcut. The gain, however, was balanced by a loss: with the new Sunday pages, all the energy went out of the dailies, featuring fewer serial stories and weaker humor.

Theorists and critics of art will seize the opportunity here to insert themselves into the dialogue. Calvin is not only the object of paradigmatic struggles between big evil syndicate and lonely little artist. He is also an artist in his own right, an avant-garde sculptor of suburban postmodern snow sculptures. (He wanted to be a neo-deconstructionist, but Mom wouldn't let him.) He's torn between marketable traditional snowmen and more meaningful works that insult or disturb the viewer: Bourgeois Buffoon; The Torment of Existence Weighed Against the Horror of Nonbeing; and the entire blank landscape, post-commentary and post-symbolism because art is dead, signed with his name at the bargain price of a million dollars. Hobbes demurs. It doesn't match his furniture.

The psychologists, for their part, will have little use for such esoteric tomfoolery. They are intrigued by the family system. They observe that, but for the obvious loss of charm, the strip could just as well be called Calvin and Mom and Dad. The parents, although never named beyond their generic labels, appear as often, and with as much impact on Calvin's life, as Hobbes himself. And whereas the tiger gets only one solo strip, Calvin-free, Mom and Dad manage a fair few more across the years. The struggle entangling the family is inevitable and universal, between the values of the child and the values of the adult. Calvin thoughtlessly defends the former—thoughtlessness itself is reserved to children, not yet condemned to relentless self-awareness—while Dad, a patent lawyer, and Mom, a homemaker of abundant hobbies, work to instill their recalcitrant offspring with the latter. They never succeed, but that's not to say Calvin doesn't absorb adult values at all. He does, but they're the virtues of the vicious: greed, lust for fame, aversion to work, the manufacture of endless excuses for oneself. By the end of the strip's run, Calvin is increasingly less the exuberant child and increasingly more the mouthpiece for the ideal American—i.e., someone who could stand to build some character.

But enough of psychology, the philosophers will interrupt. The metaphysicians among them will devote themselves to the problem of Hobbes' reality, neither a somber-faced stuffed animal who magically springs to life nor a mere figment of Calvin's imagination—he is altogether too uncooperative for that. If anything, he most resembles Mom's green dinner glop that battles Calvin and sometimes serenades him. Hobbes, though, is neither Calvin's better half nor his psychopomp. He is every bit the rascal that Calvin is, though considerably more disguised in his misdeeds, especially in a rousing game of Calvinball or at the sight of Susie Derkins. If Calvin is the unrepentant sinner, the ethicists will observe, then Hobbes is the Pharisee, smug of his virtuous living and immensely proud of not being human.

And that is but the beginning of the moral problems posed by the strip. Is it right to charge ten billion dollars for a dinosaur skeleton constructed from backyard trash? Is it wrong to steal a truck from a bully if he stole it from you first? How about the quandaries raised by recent advances in corrugated cardboard technology? One must consider what benefits could be gained for science by transmogrifying oneself into a 500-story tall gastropod, a slug the size of the Chrysler building. One must decide whether the duplicator is better used as a counterfeit money machine or as a clone generator to supply oneself with a baseball team. What if the duplicator has an ethicator tacked on—and what if one's good side is prone to badness?

Taking that cue, the theologians will indulge in exegesis of a more elevated nature. Calvin, avowedly named for his predestinarian predecessor, is a bit mystified about the whole Santa Claus thing. "Why all the secrecy? Why all the mystery?" he wonders. "If the guy exists, why doesn't he ever show himself and prove it? And if he doesn't exist, what's the meaning of all this?" Hobbes, scratching his head, remembers that Christmas is a religious holiday, but Calvin counters that he has the same questions about God. Two strips later, though, he's made a Pascalian wager: it's worth it to him to believe if the end result is tons of loot.

As the years roll on, Calvin realizes that the loot is also contingent upon his good behavior—or so the popular carols and disinformation of adults would like him to believe. The lure of a slushball square in Susie's face confronts his limitless greed in an epic struggle. Calvin therefore tries to rationalize. It should count for more if a bad kid tries to be good than if a naturally good kid is good. Ten spontaneous, if reluctant, acts of good will a day should compensate for a year's sordid sin. Relinquishing retaliation rights on Susie should produce presents by the truckload (never mind that Calvin provoked her in the first place and lied to Mom about it). Still, every Christmas without fail, Calvin is acquitted of his crimes and showered with gifts, even when he learns the wrong lesson from it. A parable of God's love for the sinner and justification by faith, not works, the theologians infer—good Calvinism, indeed.

Sarah Hinlicky Wilson is the pastor at St. John Lutheran Church in Trenton, New Jersey, and a doctoral candidate in systematic theology at Princeton Theological Seminary.

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