Is Your Reality Real?: The Dual Existence of Hobbes in Calvin and Hobbes as an Example of Subjective Realities (W9)

On November 18th, 1985, Bill Watterson introduced the world to a pair of characters now considered to be a primary example of childhood best friends. The strip begins with a young boy, later identified as Calvin, explaining to his father the progress of his “tiger trap”.

The first published Calvin and Hobbes strip, printed November 18, 1985

Calvin remarks to his father, “I rigged a tuna fish sandwich yesterday, so I’m sure to have a tiger by now” (Watterson 1988, 19) as he gestures excitedly while wearing a child-size safari hat. By the third panel, in which Calvin leaves his father with a comment about the dietary preferences of tigers, the reader has begun to form an opinion of Calvin, primarily that he is an adventurous and imaginative (if not unrealistic) child. However, the reader’s opinion is called into question in the final panel. Calvin and his father appear to be members of a typical suburban family, and should not logically be in the same environment as the live tiger (Hobbes), suspended by a rope, munching on a tuna fish sandwich. In the first strip, Watterson introduces his two protagonists and begins to create the environment in which his characters will inhabit. The following day’s strip continues the story.

November 19, 1985

Calvin asks his father what he should do now that he has captured a tiger; exasperated by Calvin’s seemingly ridiculous question, his father tells him to bring the tiger to the house and “stuff it” (Watterson 1988, 19). In the final square of the strip we see Hobbes, seated at the table surrounded by empty dishes while Calvin searches through the fridge. This strip begins to more clearly define the relationships between the characters. Calvin’s dad is portrayed as a hardworking, if not particularly patient man, and Calvin is shown as a curious, if not slightly irritating child. In this strip Watterson also introduces a popular motif used in the comic; Calvin asks an adult a seemingly ridiculous question, receives a sarcastic answer from the adult (“Bring it home and stuff it”), and acts on the direction literally. Within the third strip of the series, Watterson introduces the shift in perspectives which will become a key characteristic of Hobbes’ existence, both in relation to Calvin and in relation to the rest of the people in Calvin’s environment.

November 20, 1985

Calvin’s father enters his room and scolds him for staying up past his bedtime and making too much noise. Calvin protests (“It was Hobbes, Dad!”), causing his father to become even more frustrated. However, the Hobbes pictured in the square is not the anthropomorphic tiger that the reader has seen Hobbes to be in the past. This Hobbes is merely a stuffed tiger, an inanimate object. This identification of Hobbes is furthered by Calvin’s father verbally placing (and Watterson literally placing) Hobbes’ name in quotation marks. Watterson uses the quotation marks to demonstrate Calvin’s father’s feelings about Hobbes the toy. ‘Hobbes’ is an inanimate object and his name is not given the same emphasis as the names of conscious beings. Calvin’s father scolds Calvin for his apparent lie and tells him to go to sleep. After Calvin’s father has left the room, Calvin and Hobbes bicker — Calvin states that Hobbes was in fact jumping on the bed, to which Hobbes responds, “Well, you were the one playing the cymbals!!” (Watterson 1988, 19). The Hobbes with which Calvin argues is again a “real” tiger, capable of speech, thought, and independent movement (such as jumping). Within the span of three strips, Watterson has introduced his main characters and suggested at the various dynamics between them. He has also opened a line of questioning which can be considered and challenged throughout the span of the entire series: What, or who, is Hobbes?

At first, the nature of “Hobbes” is easily explained: Hobbes is a toy, and Calvin has used the toy to create an imaginary friend. However, this oversimplification does not do justice to the complex situation that Watterson effortlessly creates. Watterson suggests that there is not one valid reality, it is not that Hobbes is either a toy or he is a conscious being. Both are valid. Hobbes exists in “dual realities” (Aronstein 2011) which intersect on occasion. In the Calvin and Hobbes strip published on February 17th, 1987, we see Calvin’s mother removing Hobbes (as a stuffed animal) from the washing machine.

February 17, 1987

Calvin then sits outside of the dryer, waiting for his friend to finish his bath/permanent press cycle. When the buzzer sounds, Calvin opens the door to the machine, and Hobbes (as a living tiger) emerges asking Calvin to request that his mother, “put some conditioner in the wash next time” (Watterson 1988, 214). Clearly they are the “same” Hobbes. Hobbes as a toy is wet as he is pulled from the washing machine by Calvin’s mother, and Hobbes as a live tiger has clearly been through a drying process as he emerges from the dryer with fur very strongly affected by static charge. By intermingling Hobbes’ two existences, Watterson shows them both to be sound and neither is refuted. Hobbes, and the two separate ways which he is considered, suggests that reality is subjective. Watterson explains his thoughts about the character of Hobbes in the introduction to The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book.

I don’t think of Hobbes as a doll that miraculously comes to life when Calvin’s around. Neither do I think of Hobbes as the product of Calvin’s imagination. The nature of Hobbes’ reality doesn’t interest me, and each story goes out of its way to avoid resolving the issue. Calvin sees Hobbes one way, and everyone else sees Hobbes another way. I show two versions of reality” (Watterson 1995, 22).

Watterson suggests that the “realness” of a situation is entirely dependent on the person viewing the situation.

The comic is an ideal medium to accurately and simplistically show the idea that Watterson aims to show. Through his ability to illustrate both versions of Hobbes side-by-side, he is able to create contrast between the two realities in which Hobbes is a character. Text alone would not be able to achieve this. If written in prose only, Watterson would have to verbally identify when Hobbes is seen as a live tiger, and when he is seen as an inanimate object. If Watterson is uninterested by Hobbes’ reality, and actively attempts to avoid “resolving the issue” of whether or not Hobbes is “real”, a medium in which he can simply draw the appearance of Hobbes in different situations shows Hobbes’ two realities without the need to create specific, written descriptions and explanations.

Acceptance of Hobbes as a characters whose being changes depending on the audience is the first step to entering the world that Calvin creates for himself. Watterson’s character is a six-year-old boy whose hijinks often cause his parents to consider how their lives may have panned out if they had simply gotten that dog. Calvin is a rambunctious child, often running around the house and frequently getting into trouble at school. Many of the behavior issues that Calvin engages in are results of a wildly active imagination. Calvin’s fantasies of intergalactic travel and roaming with dinosaurs are not contained to weekend and after-school playtime. Calvin is often whisked away to imagined environments and situations during class and in the middle of conversations with his parents. Once the reader has accepted Hobbes’ dual realities, it is also possible to consider the reality within Calvin’s fantasies. Is it not possible that like the conversations and adventures with Hobbes, Calvin’s forays into day dreams and imaginative thoughts are just as much his reality in that moment as the math lesson that everyone else in his classroom is experiencing?

In his book Imagination and Meaning in Calvin and Hobbes, Jamey Heit analyzes one example of Calvin existing in two realities, much like his best friend Hobbes. One is the generally accepted “reality” of a classroom within an elementary school. The other, a wild ride on the back of a Styracosaurus.

March 19, 1989

The strip begins with Calvin seated at his desk, head in hands, sighing in boredom (Watterson 2005, 84). Suddenly, Calvin’s desk is transformed into a Styracosaurus which places the boy on its back, crashes through the wall of the school, and races down the street. As Calvin is gleefully hanging on to his new steed, his teacher, Miss Wormwood, smacks his desk (which now looks very much like a piece of furniture and very little like a prehistoric reptile) causing Calvin to abruptly reenter the “primary reality”. Heit states that Calvin uses imaginative day dreaming as an escape from “a reality that often must be endured rather than enjoyed” (Heit 2012, 35). In the final panels of the strip, Calvin is seen sighing and resuming a bored slump before he is pictured riding on the back of a pterodactyl in flight in the final square. Although the other people (primarily the adults) in Calvin’s primary reality constantly attempt to confine him to the “real-world”, Calvin often chooses to remain in or create an imagined reality.

While the strip that Heit analyzes, Calvin experiences a switch, back and forth between “reality” and his imagination. However, there are occasions in which Calvin remains within an imagined reality in spite of attempts by those around him to force him back to reality as they know it. In the Calvin and Hobbes strip published on January 16th, 1989, we see Calvin as one of his alter-egos, Spaceman Spiff (Watterson 2005, 56).

January 16, 1989

Spaceman Spiff has landed on “the planet closest to Star X-351”. He is blinded by the light on the planet, but sees an approaching figure. While attempting to determine if the creature is “friendly or hostile”, we move to the next panel, in which Calvin is kneeling on his bed, squinting at his mother as she scolds him for still being in bed and not getting ready for school. Although the reader is able to see the reality accepted by Calvin’s mother (Calvin remaining in bed despite needing to get ready to go to school), Calvin remains within the fantasy of Spaceman Spiff — identifying his mother as a “definitely hostile” alien creature. Whether he does this for enjoyment, or simply to avoid an aspect of his life that he does not enjoy (school), the fact is that in that moment of Calvin’s life, his reality was that of an intrepid interstellar explorer making his way through uncharted space and encountering antagonistic beings along the way.

Again, the value of the comic as a medium can be clearly seen. In the creation of his comic strip, Watterson is able to depict the generally accepted reality and Calvin’s reality side-by-side and as equals. Calvin’s reality is not depicted as a thought, or as a dream sequence, but as a situation as equally real as the scenarios prior to and following. Watterson is able to place two different, and sometimes opposing views next to each other without having to specify which is the primary.

In a January 1986 interview with Honk! magazine, Watterson comments on the separate existences of Hobbes by saying, “I’m juxtaposing the “grown-up” version of reality with Calvin’s version, and inviting the reader to decide which is truer” (Christie 1986, 31). So the question becomes, what is reality? Is reality the existence that is most widely accepted (a classroom, a stuffed tiger) or is reality a set of principles and ideas that one chooses to believe (a conscious feline playmate, an experience with extinct megafauna or exploring deep space)? In his comic series, Bill Watterson creates a world in which all realities have equal validity, depending on who is observing the situation. Watterson’s success stems from his ability to create characters which suggest that imaginary worlds are just as valid as “real-life”.

So the final question becomes, as it often does, who cares? What is the importance of a comic strip which stopped running two decades ago? Aside from the joy associated with childhood hijinks with a best friend, Watterson creates within Calvin and Hobbes an argument for the validity of imagination and personal realities. The Calvin and Hobbes series finds itself in a relatively exclusive group: things discovered by and enjoyed by children, who then grow up and continue to enjoy the thing. I, like probably thousands of other children, often giggled myself into a fit of hiccups while reading about Calvin and Hobbes’ shenanigans, and frequently wished that I could (almost literally) lose myself in my imagination as Calvin did. As an adult, I can appreciate how Bill Watterson creates a youthful interpretation of an important psychological principle: perception is reality. This principle states that an individual’s perception of a situation becomes their truth. While validating a first grader’s wild ride on the back of a long-extinct reptile is a rather extreme example, Watterson makes a strong argument for how real Calvin’s perception of his reality is. Unlike other creators, Watterson is not proclaiming the importance of imagination, or warning readers of the dangers of an imagination let loose; instead he creates a strong argument for the validity of one’s imaginative thoughts. Watterson creates a universe in which whatever you believe is valid and real, as long as it matters to you.

References

Aronstein, AJ. 2011. “Calvin and Hobbes and the Trouble with Nostalgia.” http://splitsider.com/2011/06/calvin-and-hobbes-and-the-trouble-with-nostalgia/

Christie, Andrew. 1986. “Bill Watterson.” Honk! (Jan): 31.

Heit, Jamey. 2012. Imagination and Meaning in Calvin and Hobbes. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc.

Watterson, Bill. 1995. The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book. Kansas City: Andrews and McMeel.

Watterson, Bill. 2005. The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, Book Two. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing.

Watterson, Bill. 1988. The Essential Calvin and Hobbes. Kansas City: Andrews and McMeel.

Acknowledgments

I would like to acknowledge and thank the people who helped me to create a cohesive, purposeful piece. First I would like to thank Professor Harris for providing me with clear, concrete suggestions to improve my piece (like discussing why the comic strip is an effective medium for the idea being discussed). Thanks to Joe for acting as both my copy and developmental editor, I appreciate his willingness to go over my piece and discuss with me how the piece could be improved in terms of both grammar and overall flow and ideas.

Author’s Memo

The topic of my essay as it stands is quite different from the essay I proposed weeks ago. Initially, I intended to craft a piece discussing Bill Watterson’s method of incorporating philosophical and theological issues and topics into a comic strip. However, the topic was quite broad and when I attempted to draft the idea, the resulting piece seemed choppy and unclear. I took time to reread the Calvin and Hobbes comic strips, focusing on the strip itself rather than trying to search for strips that corresponded to my particular topic. I took time to consider the main characters, Calvin and Hobbes, specifically their relationship to one anther and their relationships with the people around them. I am proud of the piece I wrote which now discusses Hobbes as a character who exists in dual realities, and how Calvin’s perception of Hobbes is evidence for Calvin’s own subjective reality. I am most proud of the organization of the piece. I believe that I move from idea to idea, leading the reader to my conclusion using the evidence that I am explaining. I am also proud of my selection of strips to be incorporated into the piece. There are literally thousands of Calvin and Hobbes strips, and I think that I chose strips which perfectly demonstrate the point that I am making. Overall I am content that I have been able to convey my ideas onto paper (metaphorically speaking).