As Cool as Calvin

[1 January 2000]

By Patrick Schabe

“Wish I was as cool as Calvin,
This sort of thing wouldn’t bother me”

- Too Much Joy
“Making Fun of Bums”

I owe a great debt to Bill Watterson for bringing a seven-year-old boy and his stuffed tiger into my life. Calvin and Hobbes may be the best comic strip ever drawn, and even if that’s debatable to the world at large, it holds true for me. From the time I was 10 years old until I was about 21, I could count on Calvin to give me the perspective of brilliance, youth, and imagination in a daily dose of relief from the world. Somehow I missed the appearance of the last strip when Watterson retired the comic after 11 years, but I rushed down to the mall when it was finally printed in book form and read it fervidly. I’m sure the people in B. Dalton thought I was nuts for crying while holding a book from the Humor section.

When I decided to get my first tattoo, Calvin seemed like the perfect subject. I always had the idea that a tattoo should be like a diary and mark a personal stage of life. As my childhood waned and adulthood dawned, Calvin became a symbol of what I never wanted to forget about being young. I got the ink done, and have never regretted it.

But that’s not the end of my fandom. I’ve purchased the licensed book collections, and I’ve also owned a T-shirt and decorated my car with those decals you can get at your local head shop. Unfortunately, aside from the books, everything Calvin and Hobbes that I own is illegal. Bill Watterson refused to license the strip for merchandising. He valued the integrity of the strip, of his craft, and his ability to make Calvin and Hobbes personal more than he valued the millions of dollars to be made off selling desktop calendars.

At first I thought this was a bit shortsighted of Watterson. Just because it’s commercial does not mean that it is worthless. The people who purchase millions of Far Side calendars each year do so because they love and respect the comic strip. In Watterson’s own words, “The world of a comic strip ought to be a special place with its own logic and life. I don’t want some animation studio giving Hobbes an actor’s voice, and I don’t want some greeting card company using Calvin to wish people a happy anniversary, and I don’t want the issue of Hobbes’s reality settled by a doll manufacturer. When everything fun and magical is turned into something for sale, the strip’s world is diminished. Calvin and Hobbes was designed to be a comic strip and that’s all I want it to be. It’s the one place where everything works the way I intend it to” (from The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book). It wasn’t until Calvin wound up in a hellish afterlife that I understood why Watterson felt the way he did.

Every day I see a truck (and it is invariably a truck) drive past me with a Calvin decal on the back window. It’s not one of the comic strip knock-offs that I have on my car, it’s a Calvin with his bare ass pointed to the world, looking over his shoulder at us with his evil grin while he’s taking a leak on some symbol of the auto industry. Depending on whose truck you’re following, you learn that Calvin doesn’t like Fords, or Chevys, or Toyotas, or Dodges. Calvin has moved off of the comic pages and onto the shelves of your local auto parts store where he can be found pissing on everything from Japanese imports to Clinton.

I imagine Bill Watterson cries now for different reasons than I did when I read the last strip. As for myself, I never want my kids to see my tattoo and say, “Who’s that? Oh, I know, that’s the little guy who pees on everything!”

There’s something underneath the crass commercialism here, and it’s not just the rot of dirty money. We seem to have lost respect for our own icons. Calvin was never meant to identify brand loyalty, and as his image has changed, so has his identity. What we lost when Calvin left the newspapers was eternal youth. It’s been replaced by the ugliest part of our symbol structure. Iconography loses relevance when it’s taken out of its original context and enters open season for cultural hunters. Countless jokes have been made already about the gay relationship between Bert and Ernie. What’s next? Mother Goose running a whorehouse with Snow White and Cinderella offering their wares?

What we’re seeing more and more is that iconography is taking on a life of its own. Historically, the icon has been a gateway from “reality” to the subtextual symbolism beneath the icon. Lately, icons have been breaking away from their role as catalyst and have begun to evolve into their own ethereal reality. Without the fixed meaning of the icon, we lose our ability to access the symbol structure. Without us, the symbolism begins to reflect on the icon itself, further validating the new “life” of the icon. We’ve now got a bifurcated picture of Calvin. On the one hand he’s the imaginative and rambunctious child archetype designed by Bill Watterson. On the other, he’s an asshole punk who indicates disrespect and banality. And there’s nothing we can do about it, because we invested ourselves in the original icon, gave it life, and now its subjugation is a part of its existence, irrevocably and forever.

The sad fact is that every one of those Calvin pissing stickers is owned by someone who identifies with the sentiment, the same way that my tattoo is meant to identify with the sentiments expressed in the comic strip. Despite all of Bill Watterson’s efforts, Calvin is used as an icon of extreme commerce, and worse, Calvin’s original meaning has been subverted by crass cynics who might never have understood the comic in the first place. Taking a cue from Too Much Joy’s favorite band, The Clash, “They think it’s funny, turning rebellion into money.” But who’s laughing?

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