All I Really Need to Know I Learned From Calvin and Hobbes

Without a doubt, Calvin and Hobbes is my favorite comic strip. I have all the book collections, I've been reading them since I was little, and sometimes stuff that happens will make me think of a certain strip from so long ago. In fact, for any situation in life, there's probably a Calvin and Hobbes strip that relates to it.

I credit my granddaddy with introducing me to the comic strip. He'd let me read the books, and one of my favorite things to do was read them out loud to my cousins. I also read them in the daily newspaper, until Bill Watterson retired the strip in 1995. I started collecting the strips in my own book; every day, I'd cut out the strip, layer the back with rubber glue, and press it on a sheet of cardstock paper. With the Sunday strips, large, full-color spreads, I'd carefully cut out each panel and arrange it on the page of my book. Looking back on it now, I think I was a pretty meticulous, nerdy kid!

Calvin and Hobbes taught me a lot about life, too. Here are some of the lessons I learned from a six-year-old boy and his tiger.


It pays to have a sophisticated vocabulary

Calvin is a perennial six-year-old. I started reading his strip when I was about the same age, and some of his words left me scratching my head. The mischievous scamp is also something of a philosopher. Teachers always say that reading increases people's vocabularies, and Calvin and Hobbes is no exception. Look at some of these words and concepts that Calvin drops into his conversations:

  • Hippocratic Oath (when he's lambasting his "quack" doctor)
  • avant-garde (remember his snow sculptures?)
  • vicariously ("Dad, are you vicariously living through me in the hope that my accomplishments will validate your mediocre life and in some way compensate for all of the opportunities you botched?)
  • corollary
  • tedious
  • glandular (as in, Moe is a "glandular freak")
  • dismemberment ("Here we are at the top of 'Dismemberment Gorge'")
  • plea bargain
  • supply and demand

Baby-sitters are not to be trifled with

Rosalyn, Calvin's baby-sitter, does not suffer fools gladly, and it's amazing that she keeps coming back for more (either she's a glutton for punishment, or she's happy jacking up her rates). My brother and sister and I never tormented a baby-sitter as much as Calvin does; we actually adored our baby-sitters and would practically push our parents out the door. They were pretty good sports about some of the tricks we'd play, though. One would pretend not to notice us tying her shoelaces together. Another time, I kept pulling out the plug when the baby-sitter was vacuuming. Looking back now, I think it's amazing that a baby-sitter would take it upon herself to vacuum her client's house...also, what a stinker I was!

Calvin looks upon Rosalyn with a mixture of fear and grudging respect. She is, in a sense, his true rival, the one wise to his tricks. After locking Rosalyn out of the house and threatening to flush her exam notes down the toilet, Calvin got his comeuppance when she used the haphazard rules of his own game Calvinball against him. Rosalyn touches Calvin with the baby-sitter flag. "It means you must obey the babysitter...who says it's a half-hour past your bedtime now. Let's go in." What a sport.

What do tigers dream of when they take their little tiger snooze?

Years before Stu Price posed the question in the 2009 comedy The Hangover, Hobbes gave us the answer. I'll never forget the strip of Hobbes waking up snarling, having mauled his pillow in his sleep. He just gives Calvin a big grin and goes back to sleep, leaving Calvin a nervous wreck. Don't forget, Hobbes is a homicidal psycho jungle cat! (I always loved Watterson's hyperbolic descriptions, like "Attack of the Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Snow Goons.")

Artistic integrity

Bill Watterson has explained that he will not allow Calvin and Hobbes to be commercialized and merchandised, made into toys, apparel, or movies. I'm not slamming cartoonists who merchandise their creations. They have a right to make money off of their work. (Then again, look at those Garfield movies...Sheesh!)

But I respect Watterson for holding to his ideals, resisting pressure from his publishers and even some fans. He said that merchandising his strip would devalue the characters and cheapen the series. I can see his point. If movie producers picked one of the Jonas Brothers to voice Calvin I think I'd scream. Of course, I've always wanted to make a Hobbes doll. If I just knew how to sew...

Calvin's well-behaved duplicate: too good to be true!
Calvin's well-behaved duplicate: too good to be true!

Make kids happy, give them a cardboard box

Forget the Wii or Tickle Me Elmo. There really is no cooler toy than a cardboard box. My siblings and I were ecstatic when our parents bought a new fridge because we got a tremendous fort that sat in our living room for a week. I sat inside, it was dark and private, and I read The Hobbit.

For Calvin, a cardboard box becomes a transmogrifier and a duplicator. He learns what it's really like being a tiger when he transforms himself into Hobbes's mini-me. In the hilarious duplicator story, Calvin faces his worst nightmare: himself! When Hobbes points out how much Calvin's obnoxious duplicate is like the original, Calvin cries, "What are you talking about! This guy is a jerk!" Watterson himself said that it would probably be anyone's nightmare to meet himself and see how he really is. It's a scary thought!

Building character is not easy

Every time Calvin complains about something--shoveling snow, fishing in the rain, waiting for dinner to be ready--his dad tells him "it builds character." Calvin often complains about the everyday grind. His dad may think Calvin has it easy, but how many of us can honestly say that we loved grade school? Or high school, for that matter? After a particularly grueling day at school and at home, Calvin says, "Some days even my lucky rocketship underpants won't help.” So true.

Calvin's dad's response is tough but true: Life isn't fair. To which Calvin would grumpily reply, "Why isn't it ever unfair in my favor?" Their camping vacation is a memorable story because it shows the dad's dogged attempts to have a good time even when everything is going wrong--it rains the entire week, Calvin drops their luggage in the lake, the mom misses the conveniences of civilized life. The dad has the "We'll have fun even if it kills us" attitude. Watterson was smart to show his characters struggling to make the best of situations. It's also humorous because it's so true to life: how many of us always have perfect, completely stress-free vacations?

Nobody has all the answers

And that's okay. Watterson introduced a more serious storyline when Calvin's family comes home from a wedding and find their home has been burglarized. Calvin's first reaction is to worry about Hobbes, which shows how much he cares for his friend. From Calvin's eyes, his parents have a realistic adult response: calling the police, reassuring their child, trying to make everything better. But when the mom and dad are alone in bed, we see their true feelings, their fears and sense of being violated. "This is what you expect to happen to other people," they reflect. As a child, this was my first exposure to the idea that adults don't always have all the answers. It's a sobering realization for a kid, figuring out that there is no Life Manual handed out to adults when they come of age.

Watterson also touched on death, a risky subject for a comic strip. Calvin and Hobbes find a sickly raccoon. Calvin hopes that his parents can make him better, and he's devastated when the creature dies. Calvin goes through the stages of grief: denial, bargaining, anger, and acceptance, and the strip even includes some existential questions about life and death. "Why did that little raccoon have to die? He didn't do anything wrong," Calvin says to Hobbes. "He was just little. What's the point of putting him here and taking him back so soon?!?" Overwhelmed by these questions that have troubled people since the beginning of time, Calvin and Hobbes hide under the bed. "It's either mean or it's arbitrary, and either way I've got the heebie-jeebies." This is pretty deep stuff for a medium that most people would read with a bowl of cereal, but Watterson earned points with fans for introducing a sensitive and touching story to the comics page.

It's okay to be yourself

It's hard standing apart from the crowd, being different. Calvin is famous for retreating into his own world, relying on his imagination and daydreaming at school and at home. If he didn't there would be no Spaceman Spiff, Tracer Bullet, and the fearsome Calvinsaurus. Calvin tries a few times to fit in with the other kids, but always finds himself more comfortable playing with Hobbes or by himself. In scouts, he purposefully tries to "get lost" in the wilderness, separating himself from the troop. He faces even greater pressure when all the other boys in his class join a baseball team during recess. The rejection he faces when he doesn't live up to their expectations of organized sports is a sting.

Calvin: I don't understand it, Hobbes. The kids teased me when I wouldn't play baseball. Then they yelled at me when I did play. Then the teacher called me a "quitter" when I stopped playing. Unless you're a star you can't please anyone.
Hobbes: In that case, why not just please yourself?
Calvin: Because Mom won't let me move to Madagascar.

Hobbes cheers him up with a game of Calvinball. Sometimes it's okay to let loose and play by your own rules. Not fitting in can be painful, but Calvin realizes that he would rather be himself than conform to something he doesn't believe in.

The world is a beautiful place

Calvin and Hobbes fostered an appreciation of nature and the wonders of each season. The summer brought days outside, riding in a wagon, exploring the woods, running around. For kids, each day is a lifetime. You really can pack so much into each day, which is something that adults forget with harried, stressful lives. In the winter, Calvin and Hobbes build their infamous snowmen, go sledding (and crashing), and paste each other (and poor Susie Derkins) with snowballs. Calvin worries about being "good enough" for Santa.

Despite all the troubles in the world, seeing a boy and his tiger living life to the fullest, out in the wild (their backyard looks like a national forest) makes the outdoors so much more appealing. We should go back to the lazy days of childhood, lie in the grass outside, find shapes in the clouds, examine an anthill, climb trees, catch fireflies. "The days are just packed," Calvin says. They can be for us, too. 

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Comments 12 comments

samboiam profile image

samboiam 6 years ago from Texas

This is great. I am a big Calvin and Hobbes fan.


Eric 6 years ago

I grew up on Calvin and Hobbes. It means so much more to me than a comic strip should have any right to. Just a beautifully done strip about the power of friendship, critical thinking, and imagination.


Eric Calderwood profile image

Eric Calderwood 6 years ago from USA

Always loved reading Calvin and Hobbes, thanks for bringing some of it back.


RedElf profile image

RedElf 6 years ago from Canada

Love this - I am a FAN of Calvin and his buddy!


Browland profile image

Browland 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Thanks everyone! Calvin and Hobbes has always been dear to me, not only because it's hilarious, but so often touching and poignant.


Neil Ashworth profile image

Neil Ashworth 6 years ago from United Kingdom

Nice article, heading back later for another look...


Bettina 6 years ago

Beautiful post! Found my favourite quote here: "It's either mean or it's arbitrary, and either way I've got the heebie-jeebies." :) Especially liked your finding "In fact, for any situation in life, there's probably a Calvin and Hobbes strip that relates to it." - that's exactly so.


Browland profile image

Browland 6 years ago from Georgia Author

So true! Thanks for visiting, Bettina!

Thanks, Neil!


Calvy 6 years ago

Its such a wonderful post! Calvin and Hobbes are an all time favorite!

here's a list of my favorite strips by them!

http://calvy.wordpress.com/2010/08/02/best-of-calv...


Browland profile image

Browland 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Thanks for sharing, Calvy! I agree, the raccoon storyline was one of the more touching ones.


Njhnjh9 4 years ago

I love Calvin and Hobbes and totally respect bill waterson on how he didn't care about making money but cared about preserving art.

Forever loved: Bill Watterson


Browland profile image

Browland 4 years ago from Georgia Author

I agree wholeheartedly. Thanks for stopping by, Njhnjh9.

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