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The Joys of Agonistic Life

March 23rd, 2023 | 6 min read

By Andrew Hubbard

I was pleasantly surprised when he came up the stairs with a number of Calvin and Hobbes collections. The used bookstore owner had forgotten to price them; so, to make things easy he said they would be $10 each. The price sounded fair to me, and I bought six books/collections.

A month earlier, my eight-year old son had his first introduction to the dynamic duo. My wife had given The Calvin and Hobbes Lazy Sunday Book to him, along with a number of other books, as an Advent gift. He thoroughly enjoyed it; reading it alone in bed, laughing and giggling.

I was confident my son would be excited for another round of adventures with Calvin and Hobbes. My wife and son were soon headed on a flight to visit relatives and I thought such a collection would be an ideal gift.

Calvin and Hobbes, created by the brilliant Bill Watterson, is illustrated and written in a way that just about anyone can enjoy. But perhaps Calvin and his family are especially suited for certain palates. Of course, our palates can change and maybe even develop over time.

I was likely also eight years old when I first encountered Calvin and Hobbes. That was about thirty years ago. This comic, along with a few others, were in the collection that my then piano teacher had on hand. Or, rather, the collection that was in a bin just to the left of the couch. I read it to stave off boredom as I waited for my turn to come up, or, alternately, for my brother to finish his lessons.

Though I read, I didn’t “get.” Having eyes to see, I did not perceive. The truth is I didn’t connect with Calvin at all. I was a compliant child; Calvin hated obeying authority. I was generally not rough; Calvin threw snowballs and water balloons at friends, enemies, and parents alike. I loved to be comforted and didn’t see life as agonistic; Calvin’s view of the world was similar to that of Thomas Hobbes — a sort of rough brawl, where each is against the other. My preference was for the tranquil life; but Calvin bubbled with a kind of energy and self-will that I found off-putting. I found safety in boundaries and in guarding them; Calvin liked to pretend they should not be there. Calvin and I were opposites and in this case opposites did not attract. I found myself skimming over my way through my piano teacher’s Calvin and Hobbes collections.

But my son does connect with Calvin. They seem to share the many things that I did not: Calvin’s wild imagination; Calvin’s negative view of authority figures; his extreme reactions to things like having to eat food he doesn’t like; his evil plans and wild desires to throw snowballs or water balloons; his enjoyment of destruction. My son just eats that stuff up. He has found, in some sense, a bosom buddy, a kindred spirit, in Calvin.

There are, however, aspects of Watterson’s classic comics that my son doesn’t get, where he, too, is seeing but not perceiving. The flavor hits his tongue, but he has not yet developed the palate to enjoy them. There is a time for every season, I suppose. For instance, it is hard for my son to grasp how Watterson’s comic-squares alternate between depicting the realities of Calvin’s imagination on the one hand, and the comic’s scenes of actual reality on the other. Indeed, sometimes Calvin’s imagination and the reality of the comic-world are in the same square!

In other cases, my boy simply doesn’t have the experience, as when Calvin and Hobbes are playing baseball or football and breaking the rules that my son does not know in the first place.

Lack of experience or maturity is showing in other areas as well. My eight-year-old doesn’t understand why Calvin’s parents are so frustrated most of the time or why the dad keeps on thinking that it would be easier to be at work on the weekend than to try and relax at home. However, my boy does see that the parents get upset. He is bright, however, and learning new things.

My son’s delight in the Calvin and Hobbes comic drives him to ask for explanation and this has become a bonding experience. Sometimes he reads; sometimes I do (mostly, I do). My boy asks questions. He laughs. He is eager to read another. Sometimes I am doing something else and he trudges over to me, flops the book down with a bang in front of me (usually while I am trying to focus on something) and asks for some explanation as to what is happening in this particular comic strip. “Wuds going on here?”

Frankly, I’ve begun to enjoy the comic as well. My delight in my son and our times of bonding has driven me to look a little deeper. I’ve begun to understand and appreciate the art form that is the comicstrip, and the particular ways that Bill Watterson used that form for the decade that he wrote and illustrated Calvin and Hobbes (1985-1995).

The illustrations are quite amazing. There is an economy of form that has amazing explanatory power. One simple expression or line, or the way a body is leaning can make all the difference. And the employment of various complementary colors presents a certain familiar world and landscape. Watterson and other such artists are adept at using marks, lines, words, colors as if on a budget. Making due with little, they bring riches out of apparent poverty.

Certain scenes, scenarios, vignettes or tropes are repeated over and over again: There is the riding down the hill in the wagon that will eventually fly down to the earth after it launches off a cliff. There is the difficulty with eating food. There are the water balloon or snowball fights. There is the boredom and daydreaming at school. All of these become enjoyable in part because of the repetition of them. These scenarios become familiar and lovable; and new nuances in common tropes are both delightful and familiar. A slice of heaven.

And this is also everyday life. There is nothing new under the sun. My life, as Calvin’s, is familiar and repetitive, but not without grades of novelty and certainly not without delight. In Calvin and Hobbes we have life mirrored to us in a certain way. And this is delightful.

I love that it is just a story of normal life, albeit a very interesting and imaginative life. Through Calvin, the almost-forty man that I am has a fresh picture of what he was not, but his son is: a boy who lives a dynamic life, has a fresh imagination, loves the particular joys a boy has, and his particular and peculiar troubles (why is food such an issue!?), his place in the family and struggles with friends.

And there is therapy here. Though it was not therapy for me as a kid, it certainly is as an adult. I see my own young family displayed on these pages. This brings me relief, since, well, I am not alone in these frustrations and joys. And it helps me to laugh a bit at us. My stress washes away as I get to laugh at the craziness on the page and am in some way laughing at my own life. All the wildness and frustrations are all of a sudden not so enclosing, not so desperately constricting and hopeless. There is a wilder world out there. The sometimes dreary atmosphere or stormy clouds around the place dissipate with the chuckles.

Sometimes I wish my son were more like I was at his age. That is, I would like it if he were happy, but tame. Joyfully compliant. This is my comfort-loving, risk-averse self shining through once again.

But when we read Calvin and Hobbes together, I am glad my son is not like me. He is a surprising being — willing to take risks, bubbling with energy and self-will. He is a boy, thinking and acting in boy-like ways. And, though there are many frustrating moments, I love, enjoy, and am absolutely delighted with him.

I have a long way to go, so much to learn — and a lot more to laugh about! This morning, as we were reading together, my son explained some of the nuance in one of Watterson’s comicstrips, to me! Here is the scenario: Calvin’s dad tells Calvin that he would give him bike-riding lessons. Calvin reacts strongly with a “NO-OOOOOO!!” and runs away. I didn’t get it. But then my boy reminded me of previous comics where Calvin’s dad gets in bike accidents and comes home half dead. The light of insight dawned on me: For Calvin, his dad teaching him to ride a bike meant that he would be lead to his death! I just cracked up. Then we cracked up together. Indeed, two are better than one.

I gave my son this recent collection a day before he travels, along with my wife, to visit family. I hoped that he could have something new and interesting for the times of travel. Something he could enjoy for himself.

But now I wonder if giving him the book a day early was a mistake. For he has been attacking the book, devouring it, even as Hobbes sometimes pounces upon Calvin. We will see if there is any book left undigested by the time the plane takes off.

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