Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Complete Calvin and Hobbes

by Bill Watterson

So Gary Larsons' Complete Far Side came in a giant cloth bound two volume set, but The Complete Calvin and Hobbes tops that with a similarly presented three volume set. Compared to The Far Side's accompanying art the Calvin and Hobbes set is presented in a very restrained manner. Whereas Larson drew an elaborate cover containing giant stone heads and flying cows, Watterson has included very simple renditions of the title characters in endearing poses. I guess Calvin and Hobbes evokes a lot more sentiment in it's creator than The Far Side does.

For anyone who doesn't know, Calvin and Hobbes is a newspaper cartoon strip that ran for ten or so years in the eighties and nineties. Calvin is an obnoxious little kid in the Dennis the Menace mould, and Hobbes is his stuffed toy/imaginary friend, a tiger with an incongruously mature outlook. It sounds like a twee and irritating premise, like most of the rubbish you'll find on the comics page, but Watterson has a somewhat twisted mind; for every saccharine strip about friendship there are at least a couple of sarcastic pokes at human nature, and if you're lucky one or two strips involving aliens, dinosaurs and grisly dismemberment. (It would have been nice if they'd included the letters of complaint that the editors received like The Far Side collection did, Calvin and Hobbes definitely has far more capacity to offend.)

The inconsistent tone means that reading the comic's entire run in one go can be a bit disconcerting, Calvin's character changes pretty wildly from day to day, as he quickly goes from being a wide eyed paragon pointing out the flaws of the adult world to a crazy kid with serious psychological problems to a greedy manipulative sociopath whose parents openly wish they could get rid of him. The first and last personae are curiously related, in both of them Watterson rails against the greed and corruption of the adult world, either by having Calvin the innocent point out the injustice, or have Calvin the greedy display what a monster the influence of the modern world (mainly TV and superhero comics) have created. It's kind of interesting how he at different times embodies two polar extremes of human behaviour, but I doubt that it's intentional.

Calvin in his third guise, the kid with the imagination so over-active that it's not too much of an exaggeration to say that he is tormented by it, is the one that I find the most appealing. Certainly his continuous encounters with aliens, clones, possessed snowmen and of course dinosaurs, combined with his preference for his imaginary worlds over the real one remind me a hell of a lot of myself at his age. And at my current age too, come to think of it.

The character of Hobbes gives the comic its uniqueness, and most of its humour too. The comical juxtaposition of a stuffed animal who is both as scatty and irrational as a housecat, and as witty, worldly and charming as everyone secretly wishes they were is comedic gold. His grounded, pragmatic views are a good counterpoint to Calvin's philosophising in either good or evil mode, and usually involve something along the lines of “In the end we're all here to eat each other so why worry about it?”

The nonsensical contradictions of the tone make for a curious story. As enjoyable and funny as it is I couldn't help being a little put off by the implications of Calvin's personality. What kind of an adult would he actually grow up in to? At best a reclusive misanthrope, at worst a psychopath urged on by the violent commands of his only friend in the world, a demonic feline that exists solely in his imagination. And maybe I'm just fucked in the head but I kept picking up on a weird sexual vibe between the two title characters. For these reasons I can't feel as sentimentally attached to Calvin and Hobbes as its creator and most ardent fans do, but it's still damn funny, and yes still a little touching, as long as you don't think too much about it.


Joel said...

I've never read Calvin and Hobbes - but there have been the ocassional few I've seen that are entertaining. I might have to track some more down.

BTW, your becoming quite a top notch reviewer. Your writing sounds like what I'd expect from an academic analysis of literary prose (apart from the occasional 'fuck' of course ;)

Jon said...

Well you can borrow the collection for a few weeks if you'd like.

And thanks for the compliment! It's good to know that my writing's improving...

Jungle Rhino said...

Yeah, you use lots of big words in appropriate places. That's the trick, creating appropriate places to put big words.

Getting my computer on Saturday - Oblivion here I come!!!

Jon said...

Good news everyone. My 1.5Ghz machine with 768Mb RAm and a Geforce 5700 can run Oblivion (with all the video settings turned set as low as possible), although for some reason it can't handle the opening cutscene. I guess I'll just have to wait another couple of months until I can afford a new computer to watch it.

Bob said...

Good news, everyone. Tomorrow, you'll all be making a delivery to Ebola 9, the virus planet

Bob said...

Oh and I also find it scary how professional your blog is too. It makes it hard to post on most articles because you know the comment is going to sound stupid :)

You'll be able to give up this foolish engineering lark for a real job!

Jon said...

Getting a real job would be nice, but I think I've grown too attached to the income from an engineering job to really consider it, even though I'm pretty sure I'd enjoy writing for a living a lot more.