The most acclaimed comic strip of its era, Calvin & Hobbes ran from 18 November 1985 to 31 December 1995. Calvin is a six-year-old boy, Hobbes a stuffed tiger who in Calvin's presence, and Calvin's presence only, comes to life and is capable of speech. (One of the strip's many ironies is that Hobbes - supposedly the product of Calvin's imagination - is not only more lucid than Calvin, he is on occasion more lucid than Calvin's parents.) Calvin is named after the sixteenth-century religious reformer John Calvin, famous for the doctrines of election and predestination. Calvin likewise exhibits a fatalistic attitude towards human striving - particularly homework - and an unshakeable belief in his own special destiny. Hobbes is named after the seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who in Leviathan (1651) propounded the bleak view that life in the state of nature is a bellum omnium contra omnes (war of all against all) and consequently "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." In the strip Hobbes casts a jaundiced eye over humanity's manifold failings, but without his namesake's faith in the redeeming power of consensus. Bill Watterson, the strip's creator, has written that his characters' "emotional centers are very close to the way I think. Hobbes got all my better qualities (and a few quirks from our cats), and Calvin got my ranting, escapist side."
Watterson has poked fun at academic excess (at one juncture Calvin submits an assignment entitled "The Dynamics of Interbeing and Monological Imperatives in Dick and Jane"; regrettably, the minutiae of his engagement with this important text are not recorded), but his naming of the strip's two central characters does invite analysis of the kind that will be attempted here. One must tread carefully, however. Hobbes is in many ways no Hobbesian. His cynicism about human motives does not extend to motives tout court. In fact, on questions of ethics he is an idealist, and tends to adopt deontic positions - Calvin is the one who argues from expediency, with greater or lesser conviction, depending on the extent to which he feels his personal interests are at stake. Hobbes would also, I think, disavow the central Hobbesian insight about the contractual basis of social obligation. The concept would baffle him, largely because his sympathies lie with agencies - animal and environmental - that by definition cannot be party to contracts. Calvin's Dad is much more Hobbesian than Hobbes in this respect. He is a patent lawyer and a less-than-entirely-willing provider for an ungrateful and perpetually whining child, so on matters contractual he knows whereof he speaks.
Calvin for his part is more antinomian than Calvinist in a strict sense. His incorrigible nonconformity excludes him from the company of the elect (i.e. other, more tractable, children). The strip's sadness comes from the gulf between his sense of his own righteousness, and how he is perceived by those around him - as a social pest, a problem, the reverse of righteous. He is, then, a heretic, and as much a victim as a proponent of the doctrine of election. Or, Calvin is what Watterson seems to regard, unsympathetically, as a typical late-twentieth-century American - the product of a culture that has blurred the distinction between worldly accidents providentially attached to, and worldly proofs of, inner grace. He yearns for popularity (which for him is synonymous with the power to enforce obedience), wealth, a plethora of material satisfactions - things he has been encouraged to believe are the sole measures of individual worth. But the strength of his desire for worldly goods, respect, fame, etc., is matched only by our certainty that he will never attain them.
At some level Calvin knows this, which might explain why he has felt the need to "invent" Hobbes. It would be wrong to reduce Hobbes to a defense mechanism, but this is certainly one of the functions he fulfills. The dialogues with Hobbes enable Calvin to articulate his yearning for conformity (conformity is what is expected from him and, unhappily, what he tends to expect of others), while at the same time acknowledging his constitutional incapacity to conform. Whether the private worlds Calvin constructs with Hobbes are a stable refuge is a question to which we shall return.
This essay will explore these issues through a close reading of one of the more elaborate Calvin and Hobbes storylines, referred to here - for reasons that will become clear - as "Time-traveling chowderheads." The story ran on 21-23 May, 25-30 May, 1-6 June 1992 (Complete Calvin and Hobbes 3:18-22). A strip-by-strip synopsis is given below:
1 [21 May]: In lieu of writing his assignment, Calvin is playing in the sandbox. He laments the fickleness of his Muse.
2 [22 May]: Calvin complains about having to write to deadline. He and Hobbes discuss the pros and cons of untrammeling the creative instinct.
3 [23 May]: At 6:30 Calvin decides to travel into the future and collect his homework from his future self. Hobbes expresses reservations.
4 [25 May]: 6:30 Calvin and 6:30 Hobbes travel into the future (Hobbes experiences time-sickness) and meet their 8:30 counterparts.
5 [26 May]: It transpires that 8:30 Calvin hasn't done the homework either.
6 [27 May]: 6:30 Calvin and 8:30 Calvin discuss the situation.
7 [28 May]: They decide that as neither of them has done the homework, it should have been done at some point in the intervening two hours.
8 [29 May]: The 6:30 and 8:30 Calvins travel back to 7:30 to pick up the homework from that Calvin. They leave the two Hobbeses at 8:30.
9 [30 May]: The 6:30 and 8:30 Calvins arrive at 7:30, and attempt to force 7:30 Calvin (who is reading a comic-book) to do the homework. 6:30 Calvin threatens violence to 7:30 Calvin, who points out that it will be 8:30 Calvin who suffers.
10 [1 June]: The two Hobbeses decide to write the assignment themselves. It will be about Calvin.
11 [2 June]: The three Calvins ponder their predicament.
12 [3 June]: The 6:30 and 8:30 Calvins return to 8:30, where they learn that the Hobbeses have done the homework. 6:30 Calvin and 6:30 Hobbes prepare to return to 6:30. 6:30 Hobbes is holding the homework.
13 [4 June]: Calvin (but which one?) is in bed. His Mom asks him if he has done the homework. He reveals that he has, but that he hasn't read it. Mom is nonplussed.
14 [5 June]: Calvin is in school and discovers, to his chagrin, that the story the Hobbeses have written is about the idiocy of his time-travel scheme; it is entitled: "How Hobbes, the Handsome Tiger, Saves the Day, No Thanks to Calvin the Time-Traveling Chowderhead."
15 [6 June]: An angry Calvin confronts Hobbes. It emerges that the homework got an A+.