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‘Imagination and Meaning in Calvin and Hobbes:’ Book Review

I have read Calvin and Hobbes practically every day for as long as I can remember.  Once the books starting rolling off the presses, I spent endless hours immersed in Snow Goons and Calvinball, exploring with Spaceman Spiff and hiding from the trustworthy monsters under the bed.

All of this reading and re-reading has spanned my preteen, teen, college-age, early adult, and now, not-so-early adult years.  My relationship with Calvin and his ever-present sidekick became something new in each of the different phases of my life, but never so much as now.  In my mid-40s, I find myself a player in a Calvin and Hobbes “family unit.”  My spouse and I are parents to a school-age boy, an only child with a highly active imagination.  His favorite stuffed animal is a monkey named “Monkey.”  I’ve never seen Monkey eat a tuna sandwich, but I suspect he has midnight snacking tendencies.

I’m acutely aware of how differently I view Calvin’s world as a parent than I did before.  Today, Calvin’s adventures offer up entirely different lessons (frequently about how to keep the bathroom from becoming a swamp during bath time).   There is a new level of nostalgia, poignancy, and even urgency in every panel I read.

This idea that there is an infinite levels of meaning to be found even in a “simple” comic like Calvin and Hobbes is at the center of Imagination and Meaning in Calvin and Hobbes.  Jamey Heit describes the thesis of his text thus, “Calvin and Hobbes enables an imaginative search for meaning that is unique to the space it occupies.”  That is to say, Watterson’s work is particularly open to multiple interpretations.  This is especially true in the moments when Calvin’s imagination launches into full gear.

And, since his imagination is on constant display at one level or another (as he imagines Hobbes as a real tiger), there are always multiple viewpoints on display in the story (as the adults view Hobbes one way and Calvin another).  In a contrasting landscape of imagination and reality, where there is a constant tug and pull between the visual elements of the illustration and the verbal text, heavily influenced by sarcasm and irony, Watterson explores every theme you can think of: Life; Death; God; Love; Contentment; and on and on.  While in many cases, Watterson seems to have a clear point of view, it’s also very apparent that Watterson allows his characters to think their own unique thoughts.

Heavily based in the literary theory of Deconstruction, I found Heit’s logic to be very solid and straightforward; however, the extreme level of academic jargon he employs was very daunting for this too-long-out-of-college brain.  I kept wishing for a Young Adult summary.  In spite of the jargon morass, Heit soon moves into a very satisfying topic-by-topic discussion, parsing individual strips and story arcs, analyzing them through the academic lenses of Plato and Aristotle and the like.  The final chapters covering themes of individuality, friendship, and the larger meanings of life were especially enlightening and satisfying.

Heit quotes Pascal in his conclusion, “Imagination decides everything; it creates beauty, justice, and happiness, which is the world’s supreme good.”  A particularly apt description of the world of Calvin and Hobbes, and something I’ll continue to read and re-read, late into the night while my kid and his “Monkey” snooze away in the other room.

Claire Thorne, Fanbase Press Contributor



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