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How Calvin and Hobbes tackled existentialist thought and standardized learning in a single strip

by Joe Zador on April 20, 2015

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I’m confident that Calvin and Hobbes was the definite piece of literature of my youth. Calvin, a rebellious 6-year old misanthrope, was the first fictional character I truly connected with on an emotional level, the first that I could call mine. Sure I was older than him (I was eight years old when I first started reading it), I had human friends, and I like to think that I was better behaved than he was, but I saw myself in him. I identified with his anger, his rejection of the adult world that had begun to seem more and more monotonous and austere. And this future that I so feared and despised was epitomized by one thing: school.


Like Calvin, I was stuck in a school system that I didn’t exactly get along with. At the time, I was attending an all french school on the West Island of Montreal. “École Primaire Pointe-Claire” was its name, and to this day its very utterance rouses feelings of dread. My teachers were harsh and often callous, and I had trouble getting along with many of the other kids. As a result, I acted out, which made my teachers dislike me even more. This, combined with the complete lack of interest I had in what was being taught, created a deep hatred for anything school related. My parents, who both have a history in international development would tell me that I was lucky to have an education, that there were children in third world countries who could only dream of having what I have. So there I was, eight years old, miserable, and being told that it could be worse. Now, as a young adult, I can see that my situation wasn’t that bad, but as a kid it felt awful. Which was I felt such a bond with Calvin. He was a misunderstood little rascal, who struggled to maintain his youth and imagination in an increasingly serious world. A victim of the one size fits all education system. Exactly the type of “victim” that I could identify with.


The final panel of the Sunday-morning gem pictured above, captures the futility of life in one image. With a single, heartbreaking “sighhhhhh”, and a look of pure defeat on Calvin’s face, Bill Watterson captures pure hopelessness. He summarizes the suffering of the everyman trapped in his cubicle, the housewife who knows her future holds only domestic activities, or in this case, the students left floating down a river of standardized education for their first thirteen years. You see, Calvin withstood all the trials and tribulations the average, public school attending child could experience in one day. He endured humiliation, physical abuse, and most devastating of all, a play time cut short. To put it simply, Calvin had a bad day. And all he got in return, was the assurance that the same obstacles await him when he wakes up the next morning. It’s a goddamn tragedy. And a most familiar one at that.


I don’t believe that this one strip is simply about Calvin having a bad day. Even as a child I could sense something deeper in Mr. Watterson’s writing and art. Firstly, there’s the panel that features Calvin in math class. The depiction of Miss Wormwood, Calvin’s teacher was Watterson’s attempt at critiquing the American education system. Sour, unsympathetic, and completely missing any sort of passion for her work, Wormwood is an amalgamation of everything wrong with the school system. Although its gone through quite a few changes since Calvin and Hobbes was written (the 1980’s), school is still a very standardized experience. Every kid is taught the same thing, the same way (with few exceptions), and the choice of what to learn is only given in high school. In Calvin’s case, this system is not working. He has no interest in the information he’s being force fed, and all of his real learning is done independently (Calvin has an encyclopedic knowledge of both dinosaurs, and modern weaponry, talk about eclectic). As mentioned earlier, Wormwood is completely unsympathetic in regards to Calvin’s situation. It’s quite evident in the above strip, where instead of helping Calvin with his math troubles, she simply orders him back to his seat. Like many other teachers, she makes no attempt to step outside the curriculum, she simply serves it to the students. If they don’t get it, it’s their problem. Watterson however, has quite a biased opinion concerning school, which is evident in some of his other Calvin and Hobbes strips. As he says regarding Calvin’s teacher: "Miss Wormwood believes in the value of education--so needless to say, she's an unhappy person”. As a kid, I didn’t really notice the fact that Watterson was so blatantly critiquing our school systems, and seeing it now only makes me love his work more.

    I promised in the title that I would at least attempt to talk about existentialism, so here goes. As I mentioned earlier, Bill Watterson does an expert job of capturing sheer defeat in the strip above. I believe with this comic, he was trying to express his own existentialist, semi-nihilist view of how the world operates. Without a sense of meaning or purpose, life can be cruel in its monotony. Life can truly be a hollow experience, and the routine can break even the sanest of men. As Taxi Driver (another one of my favourite things) protagonist Travis Bickle puts it: “The days go on and on, they don’t end”. In the last panel, after his mother reminds him of the repetitive nature of the world (“Tomorrow’s another big day!”), Calvin reflects on the previously mentioned futility of his existence. Having no words to describe this incredibly depressing realization, he can only let out an exasperated sigh of defeat. Pretty deep stuff for a Newspaper comic huh?


    I love Calvin and Hobbes, I really do. I love its often dark sense of humour, its simple yet oddly beautiful art (the landscapes sometimes featured in the Sunday comics really are breathtaking). It’s hard to describe how much Bill Watterson’s masterpiece of the Newspaper genre meant to me as a child, and revisiting it today only added to my appreciation. Watterson really is a genius, and I don’t throw that word around often. He managed to tackle some serious issues and themes, often using only a handful of panels at a time. I really do owe him my thanks, as without his comics, my childhood would’ve been far less interesting (and probably a lot more angsty). So thank you Mr. Watterson, you Sunday morning miracle maker, for making growing up a little bit less confusing.




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