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An Anthropological Study of Calvin and Hobbes

Maddie discovered jokes several months
ago; I know I’ve blogged about her sometimes funny, sometimes
painful forays into the world of comedy and joke-telling.
She’d buy a book of children’s jokes and read the
whole. Thing. Out. Loud.

A lot.

Then she brought home “The Adventures of Tin-Tin” from
our used bookstore last fall, and discovered the world of comics.
Unfortunately, Tin-Tin gets himself in some serious scrapes and
Maddie had to abandon the books out of fear and worry; the images
of men chasing people with guns were just too much for her. And
truthfully, I’m ok with that being too much for my

But the Tin-Tin books did open Maddie’s eyes to comics, and
when she was hungrily patrolling through our family bookshelves
last month and came across Brian’s Calvin and Hobbes
collection, Maddie was intrigued and pulled a book off the shelf.

Half an hour later, she was hooked.

Most weekends or any time there’s a
stretch of free time, you can find Maddie curled up on the couch in
our library, a Calvin and Hobbes treasury in one hand and her silky
in another. She’ll sit and silently read for over an hour,
taking it all in, nodding solemnly and pondering quietly before
turning the page.

I get so tickled trying to figure out what Maddie’s
“getting” from these books; she certainly doesn’t
understand the larger commentaries on society that Bill Watterson
was making with his storylines about Miss Wormood, Suzy, Stupendous
Man, and G.R.O.S.S. (Get Rid Of Slimy Girls club). And most of the
time I’m pretty sure Maddie doesn’t get the basic jokes
in the book, either.

A couple nights ago, we read one strip that showed Calvin moving
through a series of non-verbal frames: in one frame he was a
squawking parrot; in another a cow being herded around violently;
the next frame showed the top of his head taken off and green goop
being poured inside it; at one point he was a slobbering zombie
– you get the point. And for the final frame, you see Calvin
flying down a hill in his red wagon, Hobbes by his side, and Calvin
says, “Boy did I miss you today.” To which Hobbes
replies, “Oh, another normal day at school, huh?”

“I don’t get it,” Maddie said finally.
“Well, baby, in every frame Calvin’s being treated as
something less than human, and I think he’s saying he
doesn’t feel like anyone at school really sees him for who he
really is – like he doesn’t get the chance to be who he
really is inside.”

Maddie, bewildered, said, “But how is that supposed to be
funny? If someone at school doesn’t have a chance to be who
he is inside, that’s just sad!”

“I know, honey,” I stumbled on, “I don’t
think the author was trying to make it ha-ha funny. Sometimes
grown-ups use silly, made-up situations to say something that we
might all feel inside a little bit, and this author does that a
lot. Like maybe Daddy feels like he can’t be himself or
isn’t appreciated at work a bit, an when he sees this strip
he chuckles because what Calvin went through is how Daddy feels. We
can all relate to Calvin.”

“I see,” Maddie said thoughtfully.

I do worry that Maddie, with her literal-mindedness and concerns
about justice and fairness, will either completely stress out about
Calvin’s sometimes incapability of doing the right thing or
– even worse – will get some ideas about civil
disobedience. That is, indeed, a teeny fear of mine. But for the
most part I can’t find a reason to ban Calvin and indeed,
have been enjoying re-reading them with her at night.

I think Maddie’s favorite strip so far – one of the few
she’s dog-eared to return to again – is one in which
Calvin wants to play with clay and gets a smock for Hobbes, who
then becomes so enthralled with the word “smock” that
he can’t stop saying it – “Smock, smock, smock,
smock, smock” – much to Calvin’s distraction,
until Calvin gives up and walks away. “Smock, smock,
smock,” Maddie chuckles to herself. “That IS a funny
word! But Hobbes is so annoying how he says it over and

In some ways Calvin is the anti-Maddie – pure kid, no
worries, no long-term stress, no thought for future consequences
– and Maddie examines him in these pages like an
anthropologist studying a strange new species. But occasionally
Maddie will read a story line that she can really relate to and
then, friends, it’s almost like free therapy: I see the light
come on in Maddie’s head, and see her relief that she’s
not the only person/kid/anxious one out there with these thoughts
and feelings.

Just last night, for example, the story line was about
Calvin’s attempt to kiss up to Santa and clean up his record
before Christmas, to ensure he’d get plenty of loot. On his
way to see Santa and plead his case, Calvin spies his arch-nemesis,
Suzy, and schemes to throw a snowball at her. Hobbes argues that
this will, indeed, hurt Calvin’s case that he’s been
good all year, and as Calvin wrestles with the decision – to
throw, or not to throw – Suzy spies Calvin, sneaks up on him,
and throws a giant slushball at him.

“I’m free! I’m free!” Calvin jubilantly
shrieks. “Now I can throw a slushball back at her and
it’s proven self-defense, since Suzy started it!”
“Or,” Hobbes calmly points out, “You could NOT
throw the justified snowball, and show Santa how good you really
are, even in hard situations.”

Calvin is motionless for a moment, then throws back his head and
yells in anguish, “I DON’T WANT TO BE THIS GOOD!”

I read the strip aloud, then laughed at the end. Maddie though,
shook her head, tsk tsk-ed, and said, “Boy, do I know what he
means! Sometimes it’s just too much work being that good in
the face of all that temptation. But I know I have to just put down
the imaginary snowball and walk away from Cora. C’mon,
Calvin, we can do it!”

And that, my friend, is another profound life lesson, courtesy of a
small boy and his stuffed tiger.


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