clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Image: Bill Watterson/Andrews McMeel Publishing

Filed under:

Calvin and Hobbes and quarantine

Bill Watterson didn’t predict the current world, but he prepared us for it

If you buy something from a Polygon link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

When I think of Calvin, that glorious little menace, I first remember the depth of his imagination. His was an external life born explicitly of the internal: distant planets, bed monsters, mutant snowscapes, gravity-defying wagon rides, crass Transmogrifications, and of course, one tuna-loving tiger BFF.

But the second thing I remember was exactly why the kid had such a big imagination to begin with: Calvin was looking for a way out. He was trying to escape.

He didn’t like school, so he fled it as Spaceman Spiff. Bathtime, a nightmare for small children, saw Calvin turning into a tub shark or being attacked by a bubble-bath elemental. He escaped the corporeal form of a kid’s (arguably limited) body with the Transmogrifier, and most importantly of all, escaped loneliness by befriending a stuffed tiger who Calvin knew was actually real. A tiger who listened to him, who challenged him, and who ultimately loved him.

Because that’s the thing, isn’t it? Calvin went to school, had a loving family, but even still, he felt alone. And his imagination gave him a way not to feel that anymore.

In lockdown, we’re all Calvin.

calvin sets his transmorgifier box in a calvin and hobbes comic Image: Bill Watterson/Andrews McMeel Publishing

Now, the obvious thing is to say, yeah, no, Bill Watterson didn’t write Calvin and Hobbes in response to a pandemic. The strip, which ran in papers from 1985 to 1995, is just about childhood. Calvin is the model of a kid, but expressly the type of kid who doesn’t get along with his family, who doesn’t have many (any?) friends, who doesn’t grok school, who bristles against authority. Certainly we’ve all shouldered hard into that authority, right? The immovable force of parental rule or teacher law? (I once had a teacher swear that a word I used in a story — ”rictus” — wasn’t a real word, and I went to war to prove her wrong.)

As a kid, that’s what I felt. I lived in my own head a lot (okay, a whole lot) (okay, a whole whole lot), and wandered rural acreage while making up all-too-real adventures about monsters and treasure and spaceships. I didn’t always have the greatest home life, and so escape came however it could — books, TV, games, but a lot of times, on my feet and in my head. Out the door I went, disappearing all day outside while simultaneously disappearing into my own skullscape.

Like Calvin, you’re never bored as long as you’re daydreaming.

I see the same in my own kid, too: stuffed animals can be real to him in a way they are not to adults. Sticks become swords, or blasters, or sonic screwdrivers. He writes and draws elaborate narratives, flings himself around his room in these kinetic adventures, and can be hilariously melodramatic when asked to do something he doesn’t want to do. Telling him to do 15 minutes of homework? You might as well ask him to dig a ditch and lay in it with the earthworms. (Then again, who the hell thinks third graders are suited for homework?)

It’s not performative. I hear him up there talking to … I’m guessing his toys? An imaginary friend? There’s a lot of tumbling and peril. He doesn’t know anyone is listening. He’s just doing it. Just like Calvin.

calvin flies a kite with a fan saying “darn ol’ rain” Image: Bill Watterson/Andrews McMeel Publishing

So, again, it’s tempting to say, well, that’s just childhood, but look around. We’re all people trapped in their houses and apartments. All of us, with minimal way out. Social distancing ourselves into near-total isolation except from our nearest and dearest and the delivery guy we can see through the glass. (Thanks for the grocery order, Dave! What’s that? No toilet paper again this week? No problem, I screwed up making a couple face masks out of old shirts, I can probably use those.)

Calvin was trapped with his parents, with teachers, with the limitations of childhood. A day he wanted to spend with Hobbes was spent seated in a classroom. Then there’s bathtime. Or swimming lessons. Or buckled up in the car as his mother runs errands. In lockdown, we’re all in the house on a rainy day. Caught in endless Zoom meetings for work or, if we have kids, in school. (We’re all in the classroom now.) We all are in our own heads, and we all just wanna go out and play.

There’s not as much to do as there once was, and yet, in other ways, there’s so much more to do. I can’t focus on things like I did. I am in dire need of escape. My dreams and my waking imagination are on LSD — Spaceman Spiff by way of Hieronymus Bosch. We customize our masks based on our personalities; they become an extension of who we are, what we like, and what Animal Crossing/Mad Maxian version of ourselves we hope others will see when we’re out in the world. Not that we go out in the world that much, because other people are a dangerous place, and so now we’re all alone, and lonely, and reaching out with the pseudopods of the one thing we have, for sure: our imagination.

There’s one strip, an early one, where Calvin tells a story about a time he became immune to gravity. In the moment, he can no longer hold on to the Earth and falls upward into the sky, until he hangs on — barely — by catching the tail of a plane going past. It’s just a story, but Calvin believes it. It’s just a metaphor, but one I think we all understand intimately, right now. Even the old laws of gravity feel like they’ve gone broken, and we’re all falling upward. Barely hanging on before getting pitched into space.

calvin loses his gravity and a grabs a plane in a calvin and hobbes comic strip Image: Bill Watterson/Andrews McMeel Publishing

There’s only one rule in Calvinball, and that rule is that you never play it the same way twice. Otherwise, you make it up as you go. You change the rules as you see fit, and arguably, if you care to find a game in the gamelessness of it, it’s a game of one-upmanship where invented rules defeat rules that defeat other rules. It is a chimera. A slippery eel. It is the search for order swiftly dissolving into the delight of anarchy and entropy.

You might have to make up a song. Or recite a poem. Maybe you go slow-motion, or turn invisible, or whirl about until you’re dizzy.

And once again it occurs to me: this is where we are.

Do the days feel like slow-motion?

Have I gone invisible?

Why am I dizzy? Am I dizzy? I’m dizzy.

We’re all touching the Opposite Pole. We’re all in the Song Zone. We’re all jumping about until we find the Bonus Box. There are no rules but the rule of impermanence. The score is Q to 12.

Time has gone melty. Once, a day seemed to have order to it — even as a writer and a work-from-home kinda dude, I still maintained a schedule. Do I now? Not really. I try! I add something to the schedule and another thing eats it. I invent a rule and another rule rushes into defeat it. Meals are both planned meticulously while also being the product of vast, vast amounts of improvisation because who knows what the hell I’ll be able to find at the grocery store. Existence resists imprinting. It’s like I’m wrestling with an angel, and not one of the fluffy angels from Hallmark cards but one of the nightmare entities from the Bible — an ever-shifting UFO wheel with a thousand eyes and a bouquet of goat hooves coming out of its ass. A truly Transmogrified creature, and a truly Transmogrified existence.

calvin and hobbes play calvinball in a sunday color comic strip Image: Bill Watterson/Andrews McMeel Publishing

There’s no Calvinball without Hobbes.

Hobbes, the stuffed tiger, was given an imaginative life, but a life no less real than Calvin’s, were you to ask Bill Watterson. On being challenged over whether Hobbes was real, Watterson once said, “That’s the assumption that adults make because nobody else sees him, sees Hobbes, in the way that Calvin does. Some reporter was writing a story on imaginary friends and they asked me for a comment, and I didn’t do it because I really have absolutely no knowledge about imaginary friends. It would seem to me, though, that when you make up a friend for yourself, you would have somebody to agree with you, not to argue with you. So Hobbes is more real than I suspect any kid would dream up.”

It’s tempting to delve into the nature of Hobbes’ namesake, the somewhat bleak philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, who himself had rather firm ideas on the nature and necessity of authority and order. Though the tiger is often making more rational arguments to Calvin (that Calvin ultimately ignores), Hobbes (the tiger) remains still a creature of chaos in his pounces and his bed-jumping and his insatiable desire for tuna. (In fact, in Hobbes’ first appearance, Hobbes has fallen for a trap — a tiger trap baited with irresistible tuna. Weren’t we just talking about traps?)

In Calvinball, Hobbes is often again the provider of order — but only the slightest veneer of it, a gentle ladling of rules. The rules change often, but there are still rules. Again, the feeling of our current peculiar moment echoes here: We have new rules, yes, but those rules feel like a crass facade, like draping a tea towel over a howling maelstrom. Sure, we still have work to do, homework to monitor, meetings to attend, but at least half the time we’re standing there like Calvin, holding in our sneezes to see if we can blow our shoes off. We’re all in a game of Calvinball, knowing that there are rules, but they are not the old rules, and they’re probably not even yesterday’s rules, because every day feels both somehow exactly the same (the game itself) and entirely different (for the rules have changed).

Calvinball — and Hobbes, and Spaceman Spiff, aaaaand pretty much all else in Calvin’s imagination — is the result of a search for a narrative. A story is itself a way to contain and contextualize chaos; we use storytelling to understand and categorize the world, and absorb it through the narrative lens. Just as we’re trying to do, now, in our own homes, with our kids, and even in our brains at night. I don’t know about you, but my dreamscapes have dropped some serious acid.

calvin holds an umbrella as hobbes flies through the air and a red wagon keeps hurtling forward Image: Bill Watterson/Andrews McMeel Publishing

Art is not a fixed point in time; it does not mean just the thing it meant when it was made or when it was first published. It takes on new meaning and new life through new eyes — and further, through old eyes changed by experience. The point here is not that we could all use some new Calvin and Hobbes, that if only someone would go and find Bill Watterson (stay six feet away, please, in fact make it 10) and tell him he’s the voice we need, we’d all feel better. We have what we need. Also, leave poor Bill alone, please.

I think here in isolation, where we’re alone and lonely, there’s more to find in the Calvin and Hobbes that Watterson gave us. We can find a small child, an anarchist boy, and his outsized imagination. We can find the friends he makes in his own mind, the adventures that exist in his head. We can find someone who already understands the rigors of being trapped by circumstances he did not approve of — no, not a rampant pandemic, but the doom of homework, the torment of bathtime, the particular trials of being trapped in the house with your family. And we see too the solutions to that: limitless, even lawless, imagination.

One day, this will all be over, and hopefully, we’ll be like Calvin and Hobbes, emerging into fresh snowfall on what was their last appearance on the funnies page. They saw a world gone blank, like an empty canvas. Maybe that’s the world we’ll find, too. All that was familiar is gone. And maybe like them, we can still step out of our own heads and step into a changed place with new magic, eager to explore what comes next.

calvin and hobbes final comic strip Image: Bill Watterson/Andrews McMeel Publishing

Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. For more information, see our ethics policy.