Philosophy From the Funny Pages (w6)
Life after death, free will versus predestination, the existence of original sin — all topics considered by scholars, philosophers, and one particular six year old child. The character of Calvin in Bill Watterson’s comic series Calvin and Hobbes routinely questions the world and his place in it. For my second essay, I am interested in discussing both the medium and the characters that Watterson chooses to discuss philosophical issues. Watterson is able to create a surprising level of profundity within a comic strip about a mischievous six year old and his stuffed tiger.
On the surface, Calvin and Hobbes appears to be just another set of drawings amongst the assortment of boxes which make up the comics section of the newspaper. The main protagonist is Calvin, a young child whose antics often cause his parents to consider how their lives would have turned out if they had just gotten that dachshund. His partner in crime is Hobbes, a (stuffed) tiger. However, one needn’t go beyond the title of the series in order to see that Watterson’s dynamic duo were created to be more than silly characters. Calvin is named for the 16th century French theologian John Calvin, famous for his belief in predestination. As evidenced in the strip below, Calvin aligns himself with Calvinistic principles while maintaining the recklessness associated with young children.
Within the strip, Calvin directly questions whether or not human behavior is controlled by a grand, outside force- in this case, the stars. Calvin promptly asserts that he does believe in the power of these cosmic forces, but only so that his less than stellar behavior cannot be blamed on him. Calvin’s youthful desire to act as he wishes without consequences can probably be found within the hearts of many adults, along with his existential curiosity.
The character of Hobbes is named after Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher famous for his support of an absolute monarchy due to his belief that human nature is that of inherent selfishness. Hobbes’ comments are often in stark contrast to Calvin’s “predestined” self-indulgent actions.
Hobbes, in this strip as well as others, often acts as the voice of reality, a voice which generally stands in sharp contrast to Calvin’s grandiose musings. Hobbes’ comments are also made more powerful by the fact that he is a tiger, and not a human. He is able to comment on Calvin’s actions, and the actions of humanity as one who is not a human.
In addition to the association of the characters with philosophical figures, the dynamic between Calvin and Hobbes that Watterson has imagined creates a perfect dynamic for existential thought. Because Calvin is speaking to his imaginary friend, it is as though he is speaking with himself. The ability to have two characters of the same mind creates a give and take style of communication which allows for the consideration of opposing views.
To me, it is interesting that Bill Watterson is able to pose these questions and lines of thought to his audience without suggesting any kind of answer. In other works that I have come across which discuss philosophical topics such as man’s place in the universe, the meaning of life, and what true happiness is, authors often seem to muse on and on leading the reader on a winding path to an answer with which the author is satisfied. Watterson drives the reader to a point on the road from which an infinite number of path branch off, opens the car door, pushes you out, and leaves. However, the reader is not left feeling unfulfilled and lost. Instead, the reader is able to contemplate alongside Calvin and his tiger and reach a conclusion which aligns with their beliefs. However, because the reader has been led to the paths by Watterson, the points addressed by Watterson thorough Hobbes and Calvin are able to be considered by the reader while still allowing the reader to enjoy their own moment of contemplation.
One example of this is in the following strip:
Calvin’s dialogue introduces the ideas of a finite lifespan and satisfaction with one’s life in a tangible way by comparing one’s life to a sidewalk square. After setting up the metaphor, the final panel of the comic shows Calvin and Hobbes still considering what Calvin has said. Neither Calvin nor Hobbes draw any conclusions, however the depiction of the two friends lost in thought after a significant amount of time has passed invites the reader to consider their own life and their own square of pavement as intently.
As interesting to me as the characters the Watterson has chosen as modern day philosophers, is the medium in which he works. Comic strips are generally considered to be, at best, silly pictures to be enjoyed on Sunday mornings, and at worst, juvenile wastes of time. Watterson has used the comic strip as a method of thought-provoking expression. Through his illustrations, Watterson is able to depict scenes and situations which add power to the written words.
In the above strip, Calvin is proposing to Hobbes that ignorance, as defined by Calvin as an absolute and complete lack of knowledge of one’s situation and surroundings, is bliss. By placing the two characters in a wagon careening down a wooden path, Watterson creates an extreme example of ignorance to one’s surroundings.
Calvin and Hobbes was, and continues to be, one of my most favorite texts. Watterson’s ability to juxtapose childhood situations (both the imaginative and the mundane) with thoughtful insight through text and images is very intriguing.