The Calvin and Hobbes Lazy Sunday Book by Bill Watterson is one of the few books I’ve kept from my childhood.
The book was a compilation of full-color, multi-panel Sunday strips from Watterson’s iconic cartoon, which ran from 1985 to 1995. At one point I had all of the Calvin and Hobbes collections. I don’t know how or where I lost them. My copy of the Lazy Sunday Book is now falling apart.
The strip is about a boy, Calvin, and his stuffed/real tiger, Hobbes. Hobbes is inquisitive, often hungry, more cerebral than his companion, more inclined to inject a note of caution. He’s also very much a cat. Calvin is an intelligent, reckless, and not unfocused boy; but it’s clear that he prefers to keep his attention to his own imaginative world, which puts him at odds with the one his parents live in. Only Calvin sees Hobbes as a real tiger—his parents and most of the people around him see Hobbes as a stuffed animal; the strip plays off the tension between Calvin’s elaborate fantasies and the “real” things happening behind it. When Calvin plays Spaceman Spiff, he soaks his neighbor/classmate/enemy Susie Derkins (who is at first drawn as a huge bug-eyed alien) with a ray gun that turns out to be a water pistol. In another strip, we’re shown a dinosaur chomping through his meal—until Calvin’s mother yells at him to use better table manners; then we see a Tyrannosaurus Rex shamefacedly eating with a fork and knife, knobby elbows tucked in.
I loved Calvin and Hobbes from the day the first black-and-white strip appeared in my childhood local newspaper, The Winnipeg Free Press. (Wikipedia tells me this day was November 18, 1985.)
My parents subscribed to the Free Press, which had a full-page black-and-white comics spread on weekdays and a color funny paper on Sundays. Along with Calvin and Hobbes, I read Peanuts, Cathy, Bloom County, and many others; I was so devoted to the funnies that when I went away to university, my parents saved great piles of them, and even though I told them they didn’t need to do so, I’d go through those when I came back home, too.
I loved Watterson’s illustrations, which, depending on the bent of Calvin’s imagination, looked like lush watercolors or saturated, eye-popping 1950s superhero comics. He plays with perspective in some panels, and in others he tries styles of art from different periods. And always, the dialog is smart, funny—sometimes heartbreaking.
I didn’t always identify with Calvin. (As a child, I was more of a Susie Derkins.) I enjoyed Calvin—his creativity and his intelligence. But despite that, Watterson never hides how difficult Calvin is. He’s hard on babysitters (and his babysitter is also hard on him). He’s greedy, mischievous. He isn’t a kid who gets As on his report card. Sometimes, he sits at his desk dreaming. Often, he gets in trouble with his teacher, Miss Wormwood.
Maybe at the time, I gave a thought to why such a smart kid had so much trouble at school, why he had no non-tiger friends. Only now do I begin also to think about Calvin’s frustration—all the characters’ frustrations, really.
Calvin’s dad is a enthusiast of the outdoors and cold weather; he bikes to work at his corporate job—and comes homes to chaos and disappointment. In one strip, he goes out early on his boat during vacation. “This is the life! A brisk swim at dawn, a morning out on the boat.” But when he returns with a freshly caught fish, Calvin’s mother sits bleary-eyed at the table and says, “You eat your dead animals. All I want is some coffee.” Calvin complains that there is no TV on this holiday. The dad’s balloon is punctured.
Calvin’s mom is a sharp woman who is clearly not willing to be an acquiescent, smiling spouse. She’s often exasperated by her difficult kid. And Calvin’s neighbor/enemy Susie Derkins is a rule-following, at times anxious perfectionist who has big ambitions. One time, when Calvin does ask Susie to play, she takes over: “OK, we’ll play house now. I’ll be the high-powered executive wife. The tiger here can be my unemployed housekeeping husband…” Calvin immediately regrets inviting Susie, but oblivious, she takes off, saying, “I’m off to Wall Street. Don’t wait up.”
At other times, Susie’s annoyance with Calvin often ironically results in her abandoning decorum and rules as she explodes over his antics.
In all of the human characters in the strip, there is a mismatch between their ideals and what they have right now: the dad would like a more outdoorsy, enthusiastic family; the mom would like a more sedate life; Susie has a clear vision of what she will do in the future and worries about how she can put herself on the right path now. And Calvin—well, the whole strip is really about how in real life a six-year-old is pretty powerless—forced to take baths when adults make them, told to sit in school instead of being allowed to have space adventures.
I find myself more in sympathy with Calvin now.
Childhood can be lonely and frustrating. Kids are stuck in an adult reality learning rules that don’t seem to make sense, conventions that people already seem to know—or assume one should know. I don’t blame Calvin for taking to his own worlds, despite the havoc that he wreaks on the adults and other people in his life. At this point, I probably have more in common with Calvin’s parents than with the kids. But paging through Bill Watterson’s Lazy Sunday Book, I laugh out loud at Calvin and Hobbes’s quips, I marvel at the illustrations, and I find myself remembering and holding onto my enjoyment for just a minute longer—just another minute—before Monday morning comes.
Top photo: “‘Calvin and Hobbes’-style snowmen,” Wikimedia Commons / Vegas Bleeds Neon