This time around, I decided I’d take a break from film criticism and turn to the second-most-influential visual medium in my life: the comic. Though in my preadolescence and early teens I was a keen True Believer, the one comic that has never failed to delight, entertain, engage, and move me is Bill Watterson’s daily Calvin and Hobbes.
Calvin and Hobbes ran from 1985 to 1995, and concerns the exploits, adventures, conversations and moments shared by six-year-old Calvin and his imaginary tiger, Hobbes. Through their friendship, Watterson explored everything from alien planets to existential philosophy to the minutiae of family life to the humour, pain and joy of growing up, in stories that were equal parts slapstick, wit, observation, deadpan and heart.
Though countless Calvin and Hobbes strips are pitch perfect examples of fine comedy, Watterson was also a master of gentle, honest, poignant emotion, and it is one of these particularly heartbreaking strips that lodged itself in my mind, from the first time I discovered C&H, when I couldn’t have been much older than Calvin himself. It comes at the end of a short series of strips that tells the story of Calvin rescuing a baby raccoon, only for it to die in the family’s care overnight. To read the full series, click here.
The final strip of that series is the subject of this article.
Though the power of the strip speaks for itself loud and clear, I am going to analyse it in depth to explore how it represents Watterson’s growth as an artist, and the numerous implications of the strip that create a multitude of different, but nevertheless complementary, emotions.
The easiest way to begin to analyse the strip from an aesthetic standpoint is to compare it to an earlier, but visually similar, strip (the strip below came out a year and four months before the strip in question; henceforth I shall be referring to our first strip as the “1987 strip”, and the second one as the “1985 strip”).
The arc of the two strips are superficially similar in so far as Calvin deals with a troubling emotion concluding with a hug from Hobbes, reaffirming their friendship, but they differ in terms of Watterson’s treatment of childhood and life. The 1985 strip, typical of the early C&H comics, is founded primarily on a romantic idea of childhood, akin to the one put forward by AA Milne in his Winnie the Pooh books, as one can see in the very simplistic way that Calvin and Hobbes deal with a rather simplistic problem. However, by 1987, Watterson had begun to move away from these romantic beginnings and, though remaining optimistic and nostalgic, began to introduce Calvin to the realities of bullying, school life, existential philosophy, and the real world in increasingly large measures. This is reflected, in the 1987 strip, by Calvin and Hobbes spending three quarters of the strip standing apart and talking about mortality in a frank, neutral, insightful manner, saving the hug for when they need it most, for when they realise they need a friend in face of the world.
It is also significant to note that, in the 1985 strip, Calvin and Hobbes are positioned close to the centre of the frame, facing towards us, and each of the frames feels full with picture and text. This not only represents the child’s egocentric view of the world (Calvin is literally the centre of his own world, and his experiences fill that world up), but it also represents Watterson’s subliminal intent to present Calvin and Hobbes as characters purely for the enjoyment of the readers: since both characters are facing towards us, their emotions are projected towards us. Our emotional response requires no effort, and hence the strip makes one feel warm and cuddly, but has comparatively little staying power.
Note, however, in the third panel of the 1987 strip, Calvin and Hobbes have their backs turned to us. By this point, Watterson was treating his strips less as a creation and staging of emotion, and more as an observation. Though obviously we are aware that the strip was created by an artist, in having their backs turned to us, we begin to subliminally think of Calvin and Hobbes as independent consciousnesses, carrying on with their lives regardless of whether or not we, the readers, are there. The artist is no longer a director, but an observer, and hence, so are we. In thinking that Calvin and Hobbes are experiencing a genuine, spontaneous moment that we are privileged enough to witness, the emotion gains significance.
It is also important to note that the left-hand side of the final frame of the 1987 strip is visually empty. This emptiness has a triple effect: first, it gives weight to the hug shared by Calvin and Hobbes, as our gaze leans towards their side of the frame, with nothing on the left to distract us; second, it shows Calvin’s worldview slowly moving outwards, as he begins to recognise that his experiences are but a small part of the bigger picture; and finally, it allows room for us to emotionally interact with the frame.
In the final frame of the 1985 strip, Calvin and Hobbes fill the frame. There is no physical space on the page for anything else, and hence no emotional space for the reader to move in: we are obliged, by the sheer directness and fullness of the frame, to feel warm. However, by leaving a great deal of space in the final frame of the 1987 strip, Watterson allows room for the reader to emotionally move into the frame. We need to move closer to Calvin and Hobbes, who are substantially smaller, and hence more distant, in the frame, to fully grasp the multitude of the emotions they are feeling. The blank space is a space for the reader to enter, to empathise with the characters, and once we enter that space, we are more invested in the strip, and hence the emotion is earned, and shared, between the artist, the characters, and the reader.
Finally, the last panel, in all its simplicity, brings with it an emotional complexity worthy of the finest novel. What are we actually observing here? In a factual manner, we are watching a young boy bonding with his imaginary friend, who, despite the wishes of the boy and the calming voice of the tiger, will eventually have to leave as the boy grows up and moves on with his life. However, we are watching this moment as if it were real, as if Hobbes was right there with Calvin, and with us. This is what makes this final panel so moving: we feel a twinge of sadness that Calvin, and we, are so close to Hobbes, who will eventually have to leave. But, we also feel a sense of joy, that it is possible for there to be such a powerful connection between two characters, and, in that way, Hobbes will always be a part of Calvin, and will always be there for him as a steady, warm presence guiding him through life.
Either way, neither of these characters are going away. They are immortalised on the page by the gifted hand of Bill Watterson, and as long as people are reading comics, I am sure that Calvin and Hobbes will be there for them, to remind them that even in the midst of tragedy, there is a beauty and love within every person that is not going anywhere, and we’ll never have to worry about that.