The Score Is Still Q to 12

The Artistry of Autistic Humor in Calvin and Hobbes

The pathos that is not safeguarded by the comic is an illusion; the comic that is not safeguarded by pathos is immaturity.
– Søren Kierkegaard

As the parent of a three-year-old boy now included in the growing ranks of children being diagnosed with an autistic spectrum condition, I have found myself in a very short period of time being compelled to swim—and sometimes drown—in a sea of medical information and misinformation about autism. Official diagnoses, behavioral treatment plans, approved medications, theories about white and gray brain matter, theories about empathy deficiency, theories about oversized male brains, sponsored walks to fund finding a cure, and claims from researchers everywhere that eradication of autism (and a Nobel Prize) awaits just around the corner. Make little mistake about it—academic science has discovered autism in a big way and is now stamping its powerful and collective perspective upon our overall perception of this condition. Fortunately, we have ingenious, non-academic art to counteract all that.

My own thrashing about in these seas has left me convinced the medical and public perception of autism—as mostly a psychiatric and developmental disorder—is in many ways misleading since it remains blind to the fact autism represents so much more. Autism is a genetic neurological condition, to be sure, and does create developmental challenges for nearly all autistic children, a percentage of whom will continue to struggle their entire lives to overcome such challenges. But for the many autistic individuals who will in large degree hack their way through these difficulties and grow to mature as functioning adults within a somewhat misunderstanding society, they will receive as compensation perspectives upon this world that not only enrich their own lives, but also help open new doors of knowledge, understanding and indeed beauty for all mankind. Autistics, as a direct result of their condition, find themselves less cognitively constrained by the conventions of human and social norms, and discover they are more fundamentally attuned to the underlying structures and patterns to be found in the surrounding environment. Autistics carry innate ability to perceive their world in a unique manner, and in retrospect it appears many of history’s most innovative individuals—such as Newton, Beethoven, Einstein and Turing—were likely inspired by the broadened context of such autistic traits and influences.

I have written elsewhere about these wider impacts of autism, and hope to continue to do so in the future, but today I want to focus on a piece of personal serendipity. For while I truly could not have expected this, while navigating the churning, crashing waves of facts, fallacies and speculations regarding autism, I have also come upon what I believe to be the answer to an enigma haunting me for nearly twenty years now. This has been a curious and perplexing question that has often kept me awake late into the night, and for which many times in shrugging despair I have concluded its answer is so deeply rooted in mystery there could be no hope of finding significant clarification. But now I see it differently—and if you have a moment, I would be more than willing to share my discovery with you. For you see, while looking deeper and deeper into the true nature of autism, I have also begun to understand why I have found Calvin and Hobbes to be so damnably funny.

The Strip

Calvin and Hobbes was a daily comic strip written and illustrated by Bill Watterson, featuring its two title characters, a six-year-old boy and his companion tiger. The strip made its first syndicated appearance on November 18, 1985, and quickly skyrocketed to widespread popularity. At its height, Calvin and Hobbes graced the comic pages of more than two thousand newspapers around the world, and even appeared in translation. Its success opened the way to several book form collections, the definitive version of which was published in 2005 as The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, a full-sized, authentically colored rendering of every Watterson creation.

It was not just the strip’s enormous appeal, however, that made it noteworthy. Although Watterson had been trying for nearly five years to break into the competitive world of comic strips when Calvin and Hobbes was first accepted, its sudden success appeared to catch him off guard. Within a few short years, he found himself furiously battling for his artistic rights against the licensing desires of the strip’s syndicate, which could see the lucrative potential in allowing the strip’s budding cultural icons to appear on coffee mugs, lunch pails, pajamas, and even television and movie screens. Watterson’s dogged resistance to merchandising was only the beginning of his fight against the business side of comic strips: he also argued for improved artistic conditions, railing against the shrinking page space being appropriated to comic strips by newspaper editors everywhere and castigating the prescribed and rigid comic strip form. He also suggested the regenerative value of giving comic strip creators some relief from the relentless work schedules and demanding deadlines.

Watterson’s tenacity, bolstered by his strip’s popularity, allowed him to prevail in most respects—Calvin and Hobbes has never been commercially licensed, Watterson gained the right to use a less restricted format for his Sunday strips, and he was offered and took two nine-month sabbaticals during the early 1990s. Nonetheless, disillusioned by the continuing pressures of economics over art, and perhaps feeling he had already given the best he had to give to his unique creation, Watterson informed his publishers by letter that Calvin and Hobbes would be discontinued after December 31, 1995, and in this manner, the strip came to its sudden end, its main characters riding the crest of their popularity, but also riding off forever on a sled down a freshly snowed landscape, nearly ten years to the day from their first appearance. Watterson has maintained a nearly complete reclusion ever since.

If ever there were a comic strip ripe for critical study, Calvin and Hobbes would appear to be it, although oddly enough such efforts have not been widely forthcoming. While it has become extremely common, almost clichéd, to see an author spice up a book chapter or article by incorporating an apt Calvin and Hobbes selection or two, few serious attempts have been made to analyze the strip itself. There could be several reasons for this. A comic strip, especially one that on its surface might be regarded as targeted more towards children than adults, would not readily be looked upon as art or literature by an academic community locked into more traditional avenues of inquiry. The strip’s popularity might also be seen to work against it in this respect, success sometimes taken as antithetical to true artistry, a misconception Watterson himself would find occasion to argue against. But I think more than anything, scholars have shied away from critical analysis of Calvin and Hobbes because the strip is diabolically challenging—it presents such a wide-ranging montage of character, imagination and atmosphere it can leave a reader feeling uncertain about where to stand in relation to it.

The strip’s characters, for instance, stubbornly defy simple description. Calvin on cursory glance would appear to be a typically mischievous six-year-old boy, but a closer inspection reveals he is anything but. Linguistically inspired, culturally resourceful and completely at odds with a human world he would give anything to ultimately conquer, Calvin exudes more the effect of a frustrated adult condemned to live out existence confined within a child’s body and milieu. Hobbes presents an even greater graphical and imaginative puzzle, a limply benign stuffed tiger in the presence of any character other than Calvin, but otherwise a depth-infused, worldly wise and vaguely aloof tiger of vitality, complete with ferocious mandibles of death and smooch-ready eyes. The strip’s supporting cast of characters, hovering just near the margins—Calvin’s parents, teacher, bully, babysitter and neighborhood girl—would appear in some sense to fill out the role of being the villains of the strip, in as much as they frequently thwart and misunderstand Calvin and his misadventures; yet each is presented with unmistakable tinges of warmth and pathos, so that they too come across as containing far more depth than would originally suggest itself to the eye. Finally, there is the easily overlooked but hauntingly effective environment of the strip, embodied in the large variety of visual landscapes, Watterson’s pen and brush deftly rendering scenes ranging from the quiet simplicity of a bicycle leaning against a suburban garage wall to the chromatic frenzy of fifty foot tall graknoid monsters holding sway over an alien planet—all done with such nuance of atmosphere that the former comes across as more sinister than the latter.

These combined effects of characterization, drama and scenescape clearly demark Calvin and Hobbes as something more substantial than the average play-it-for-gags comic strip, and even suggests a medium with a potential range of absurd to sublime that surpasses that of the more self-conscious and worn-out forms of modern literature and art. Still, there lingers a question here of what is really going on in the background, since above all else Calvin and Hobbes continues to work quite effectively on its most obvious level, as simply humor enjoyable to readers of all ages and circumstances. Faced with a comic strip that can turn so frequently on the concept of perspective, one finds oneself at a loss as to how to take a perspective upon the strip itself.

I feel I know a little something about this uncertainty as to how to regard Calvin and Hobbes because I have found myself not infrequently puzzled by the strip since it began showing up on the back pages of the Indianapolis Star, reading material of morning coffee breaks while working my first post-college job as an actuary. To give a sense of how the strip can fool you, I might note I began by cynically passing judgment on the strip’s Monday morning Star debut, proclaiming it most likely too silly and childish for my own tastes, but then admitting after chuckling just two panels into the Tuesday strip that this one was probably better than most, and ending finally by realizing in retrospect that upon reading the Wednesday installment, I had become hooked for life. The strip’s intense hold on me was confirmed several months later, after I had shown up at friends’ house in anticipation of going out to dinner and discovered they had just purchased the first Calvin and Hobbes collection, containing most of what I had missed before the Star had picked up on the strip. In less than five minutes time I was reduced to an uncontrollable, rolled-up ball of tearful laughter on my friends’ floor, speechlessly waving them on to dinner without me. I had finished the book and started over again by the time they returned.

Perhaps I should offer as fair warning from the outset that analyzing humor for what makes it funny is never going to be a perfectly rewarding activity, one I myself have found best reserved for the wee hours of the morning. In recalling my wincing dumbfoundedness at my father’s penchant for fart jokes, and noting the blank stares I often receive upon telling others Slaughterhouse-Five is the funniest novel I have ever read, I do realize with some sheepishness my own sense of humor does not run to the ordinary. In attempting to explain this to myself, I have most often settled on words like depth or resonance—that is, for me, finding something to be funny usually means it has to work and connect on more than one level. That all sounds fine as far as it goes, but has done little over the years to help convey to me why I continue to carry such fascination and unbounded joy for Calvin and Hobbes. That the strip harbors abundant depth and rich resonance I have had little doubt about, but I have also had very little success putting a finger on exactly what it is about this strip that seems to radiate in so many telling directions. That is, until the perspective of autism came along.

To state it baldly and without further ado, I have come to think Calvin and Hobbes is at heart a comic strip about an autistic individual, or at least an individual greatly influenced by an autistic point of view. The strip boldly captures the offbeat drama of what it means to strive towards becoming a functioning autistic adult within a strangely askew world, presenting a fascinating juxtaposition of the relentless needs and mostly frustrated efforts required to overcome and belong in such a world, alongside the nearly mystical perception of beauty and understanding that serves as the unexpected reward for pressing all those needs and making all those efforts. Calvin and Hobbes is about—no, more accurately, Calvin and Hobbes is—the bittersweet comedy of being autistic in the modern world. I imagine you might be finding yourself understandably skeptical of this thesis, wondering among other things who this autistic individual could be that I am referring to. Yes, that part will take a little explaining, although I can begin by pointing out ironically enough that the individual’s full name was proudly and colorfully displayed each and every week, right there as the logo of the Sunday strip: Calvin and Hobbes by Watterson.


Many people’s initial acquaintance with Calvin has come not through an authentic version of him but instead through one of the many illegal rip-offs made in his image, including the rendition ubiquitously popular with Chevy pickup truck owners, the crude decal depicting Calvin pissing on a Ford logo. Still, I think there must be something culturally essential, indeed almost poetically just, about this widely advertised and blindly accepted misconception as to who Calvin is and what he is most apt to put his best efforts towards. Part of the ingeniously constructed metaphor underlying Calvin is that he represents those among us who are the most fundamentally misunderstood, a misunderstanding reflected in the bemused reactions of the strip’s supporting characters, many of whom can honestly confirm there is something not quite normal about this kid (even if at a loss as to say exactly what). The effect, however, remains quite subtle within the strip itself, done with an ease of touch that can be easily overlooked, trusting to a sensitive reader to recognize there is something more substantial to be grasped here. Thus I see it as reflexively appropriate that it is left in the capable hands of small-minded, money-grubbing gewgaw purveyors everywhere to so perfectly embody the common blindness and stupidity regarding the character. That evil-minded expression on the face of the pissing Calvin represents that of a typically miscreant six-year-old boy, proving the decal stamping machines and copyright-infringing xeroxes have failed to capture their target accurately. Anyone with even the slightest appreciation for the genuine Calvin can tell you without a moment’s hesitation there is nothing typically anything about him, and I would dare say it remains open to interpretation as to whether he is actually six years old, and not instead an adult—or even a god.

The first thing to notice about Calvin is that he is the quintessential loner. He has a best friend, true, but in Calvin’s social world, that best friend is a stuffed tiger. Calvin’s interaction with the human characters of the strip is distant and awkward at best, and in storylines chronicling Calvin’s attempts to join the scouts or organized baseball, for instance, Calvin’s status as the strangely regarded outsider becomes thoroughly ensconced. Notwithstanding the presence of Hobbes, the number of installments in which Calvin appears entirely by himself runs to an extraordinarily high percentage, making even Charlie Brown appear socially popular by way of comparison.

I would not make the mistake of diagnosing Calvin as autistic—thereby trivializing a rich character by medicalizing him—but in addition to the lack of social skills and interaction, I might also note the long list of Calvin traits and behaviors many parents of autistic children would easily recognize. Odd use of toys. Learning difficulties in school while possessing encyclopedic knowledge of favorite topics, such as dinosaurs. Zoning out in the presence of others. Awkward gross and fine motor skills. Trouble falling asleep, and unusual eating habits. Calvin’s emotional responses too often tilt to the extreme, triggered by circumstances revealing much about Calvin’s contrarian edge, for we tend to find him at his most sullen while caught in the grip of humanity’s customary and prescribed courses of activity, and most ecstatic on those rare occasions he manages to extricate himself. Calvin would appear to regard his status as a six-year-old, suburbia-fed, characteristic boy as though it were the cruelest of jokes ever to be perpetrated, and fills nearly the entire history of the strip with a seldom-disguised rage against it. Calvin’s incessant demand is that his true self be placed on stage instead, a self that can only be described as … otherworldly.

Autistics, particularly those considered to be high functioning, are born into a no-man’s-land of an intriguing conflict between humanity and a not-so-passive world. Having not experienced from early age a deep connection to their human surroundings, and generally faring poorly at customary tasks of social interaction, autistics learn little of their worldview at the hands of others or from the normal channels of socialization. Instead, they are cognitively drawn to the structural features of a much broader, non-human environment, focusing first on simple symmetries, repetitions and easy patterns, and expanding from there to incorporate wider visions of the more complex forms and concepts to be found around them. At some point, however, an autistic individual’s expanding view of his world inevitably puts him face-to-face with his own biologically human nature, and although at first he might wish to ignore this sometimes uncomfortable fact, there will always be the persistent, well-intentioned efforts of relatives, schoolmates and government officials to remind him constantly of his human duties and expectations. This awkwardly unfolding revelation can produce a wide variety of results—not all of them positive—but often enough, autistics acquire a taste for embracing the challenge, bringing to it a splendidly volatile background. Having been cognitively informed and shaped as outsiders, but under steady pressure to find the means to conform and fit, autistics approach their place within the human world with a sense of need, duty and even desire to belong, alongside nearly overwhelming urges to rebel and conquer.

Calvin and Hobbes lays out a delightful feast from one such conflict. Although we frequently find Calvin alone or solely in the presence of Hobbes, hiding from the demands of a society to which he clearly does not see eye to eye, it also seems as though Calvin’s scheming and plotting for his next engagement with that society—whether it be for good or ill—can never stray far from his most immediate thought. The strip’s energy derives almost entirely from Calvin’s ongoing confrontation with a human world of expectations, Calvin ever optimistic he can bring that world at least marginally under his own control, and in the end it seems scarcely believable he almost never succeeds, given the ingenuity, range and sheer gusto of his attempts.

In the early days of the strip, Calvin’s struggles with his parents, teacher, principal and the neighborhood bully have something of a primordial feel to them and do vaguely suggest the extreme emotional dramas common to an autistic child. But as Watterson’s comfort level with the character increases, he begins raising the poignancy of Calvin’s efforts to a much higher plane, casting them as more ageless. Eager to burst the skin of his prescribed childhood, and donning with glib ease cloaks of jargon and form available in bulk from the sciences, academia, pollsters, crime novels, magazines, advertisers and so on, Calvin begins sounding more and more like an oddly talented adult, the eerie combination of polymath postgraduate and door-to-door huckster. We begin to marvel as Calvin increasingly unearths preternatural ability to exploit the artifacts and trends of human culture in inspired and restless attempts to hoist that culture on its own petard. The battle would seem well matched until we realize its most resourceful combatant must also deal with the disabling incarnation of being a six-year-old boy. The opponent, more naturally self-protective and seemingly much broader in scope, always manages to sniff out Calvin’s true intent in the end. “I exist for the well-being of all and not for you alone—surely you’ve learned that lesson this time,” the common wisdom would seem to mock him. “Never!” Calvin rejoins, and begins searching once more for the nearest weapon at hand.

Although they are the least likely to accept any advice from me, to the portly professors of philosophy wont to grumble and complain about lack of examples for Nietzschean will to power, I might direct their attention no further than the character of Calvin. In addition to the unflagging efforts towards dismantling his everyday world and reassembling it for his own tastes, the oft-frustrated Calvin presents still more vivid, more richly drawn and more real glimpses into the array of forces he feels compelled to discharge, by giving them full channel where they can flow the most freely—in his fantasies. In the goriest of technicolor, we stumble upon Calvin the Tyrannosaurus rex on the loose, indiscriminately crushing cars, buildings, security guards, art patrons and other dawdlers underfoot. We traverse alien planets with Calvin as Spaceman Spiff, braving the scorching deserts of boredom and turning table on monster-masked authority figures, disposing of them blithely with death stares and ray guns. Here is Calvin as Stupendous Man, foiling the clutches of babysitters and history tests. There is Calvin as Tracer Bullet, Bogart-like master of household crime. Finally, as though the hints from the other sequences were not enough, we encounter Calvin as God himself, and not a kindly god, no—this is the all-powerful Old Testament-style god, hungry for sacrifice and unquestioning obedience. Ask Farmer Brown—soon to be crushed simultaneously with airplane, locomotive and propane explosion—about Calvin’s Yahweh-deep compulsions.

Yes, humans fare poorly in Calvin’s imagination, cast impersonally when spared and devoured messily when not. Unsuspecting first-time readers of Calvin and Hobbes can often find themselves horrified and sometimes offended by this seemingly complete disregard for humanity and its decencies. What these readers fail to take into account is that good taste is such a small and fragile container for holding a mindset forged almost entirely from the expanses of time and space.

Autistic perspectives are developed primarily out of the laws and underlying structure that give meaningful form to an otherwise chaotic world, making it unsurprising the accompanying feelings are sometimes experienced as godlike or mystical in scope, and that the inner forces engendered are often destructive, given they must be funneled through such small and immediate incarnations. The sensations are not dissimilar to those forms of sudden conscious expansiveness Carl Jung frequently described and cautioned against, having so frighteningly experienced them himself. Their untrammeled expression goes a long ways towards explaining the common perception of autistics as egotistical and iconoclastic. But if we are to regard as progress the unfolding course of human transformation—which after all is itself a saga of expanding temporal and spatial awareness—we must also be willing to give due regard to the potency arising from such cataclysmic tendencies. In Calvin, we are witnessing a pent-up new wine attempting to burst its old bottle, and if the tragic side effects are projected to be some muddy footprints across new carpeting or the trampled remains of a few innocent bystanders, well then, so be it.

Of course, to speak about Calvin’s exploits and adventures as though they manifest a broadly sourced will to power is in an obvious sense comical, a mere repetition of the strip’s modus operandi. Over the course of three thousand plus installments and despite an imaginative exertion that is second to none, Calvin fails in even the slightest respect to advance his cause any tangible degree. By the strip’s end, Calvin remains the same six-year-old boy we found at its beginning, lives in the same house, wears the same clothes, stands in the rain yet once more to be bussed to a school he most thoroughly abhors, is forced to take baths against his will, do homework and eat green glop, and he continues to be incapable of renting those enticing videos, the ones featuring cannibals and vixens. If Calvin’s visions and plans have remained as large and far ranging as ever, his ability to bring even the most childish versions of them to fruition within the time and space of his own neighborhood remains as frustrated in 1995 as it was in 1985. Calvin demonstrates again and again a lesson he cannot quite bring himself to accept: progress is bound to be slow when you are just one outsider swimming against a crowded tide.

No, wait—that last sentence does not belong here. The dramatic, the tragic, the pathos-filled side of attempting to bring what is universal into the more constrictive realm of humanity, that has been dealt with elsewhere, in other forms of literature and testimony—in other testaments. In Calvin and Hobbes the emphasis remains squarely on the comical. This too is a characteristic Nietzsche could have appreciated; it was Zarathustra after all who so frequently extolled the virtue of laughter, celebrating its strength and praising its value for embracing the failure of noble attempts. With Calvin—and those in the know would understand this could be said of autistics too—we are not meant to wail loudly, beat our breasts and wring our hands. We are meant to laugh and to celebrate.

The possibility for celebration must seem absurd to those who cannot see it, and admittedly, concentrating on Calvin’s worldly advancement alone would do little to clarify one’s vision. Calvin represents just one aspect of the autistic individual, the aspect destined to struggle ceaselessly (because struggle is what gives energy and life to the celebration) and the aspect destined to be frustrated nearly always (because tension is what provides the celebration with depth). Calvin is not fated to experience the rewards of his efforts directly, not through the conquering or assimilative achievements that can be attained in the everyday world. Instead, Calvin’s reward will greet him unexpectedly, paradoxically and rambunctiously, bursting upon him through the door nearly each and every day. To experience what is truly wondrous and uplifting inside the autistic spirit—that requires a change of aspect. And in the dynamic of Watterson’s richly constructed comic strip, it requires embodiment through a different character. It requires Hobbes.


While the common misperceptions regarding Calvin are produced most egregiously outside the strip, the blindness directed towards Hobbes is a showcased feature of the strip. Some commentators get caught up in a debate over the nature of Hobbes’ two realities, never quite sure whether to ascribe his transformations to magic, imagination or perhaps a technological advancement soon to be unveiled from the toy industry. Watterson himself has never been hesitant in pointing out the futility of such lines of inquiry: Hobbes’ paradoxical nature, much like that of particle/wave duality, is simply a question of perspective. The more fruitful line of inquiry would be to ask why the perspectives differ so greatly. What is it that allows Calvin to experience in Hobbes his most intimate and profound companion, while everyone else is left gazing at little more than a propped-up rag?

What the other human characters of the strip share in common is that, unlike Calvin, each has to some degree ceased to struggle against his or her prescribed role, and has come quietly to accept it as a matter of course. Calvin’s parents do what most suburban parents do, they work for a living and keep house, while looking forward to vacations that never turn out to be quite as refreshing as hoped for. Miss Wormwood puts forth her lesson plans and quizzes as though she has been doing this by rote for nearly thirty years now. And Rosalyn, she babysits because like all teenagers she simply needs the cash. Even Calvin’s first grade classmates have gotten with the plan already: Susie Derkins has plotted out the entire course of her educational career, all the way through her masters degree, and Moe the bully, he has acquiesced to being, well, the bully, for what else can an oversized, shave-ready, six-year-old boy be expected to do? But we do see glimpses all is not well behind these conventional arrangements, and we begin to suspect Calvin’s antics and challenges do more than just exasperate and nonplus—they must also occasionally rub off. For in those rare moments we do get to listen in on the thoughts of the others, alone for just a moment, we are seldom chorused with a set of triumphs and hurrahs. From Miss Wormwood’s repetitive chant of “Five more years to retirement,” to Susie’s gentle “Poop,” we seem to hear most noticeably the outlines of a collective human sigh.

I know I am being too heavy-handed here, but still, were it in my ability, I would impress this lesson to be gained from Hobbes’ two realities upon the legions now descending upon the autism industry. Doctors, authors, researchers, therapists, evaluators—they arrive with such earnestness, but they also come yoked to the ideas of making a good living and establishing their place, and thus perhaps are a little too amenable to falling in step with the prevailing wisdoms, approved procedures and ingrained attitudes. I grant the ready appeal of all that—Calvin himself after all daydreams of becoming rich and famous—but there is an exacting cost such an acquiescence demands. For it can indeed be sigh producing to find oneself standing in the presence of an entity most deeply profound—though its outward form be orange, striped and fuzzy, or perhaps with a medical label attached—and to be rendered incapable of seeing that form’s rich and inner vitality. Calvin enjoys the splendor of Hobbes because Calvin has earned it, earned it through his uncompromising efforts to be that self he truly is.

Drawing proudly upon his animal nature, Hobbes brings to the strip a non-human perspective and palpable relief in the form of a character able to experience a full degree of contentment. Like Calvin, Hobbes too is otherworldly; but whereas Calvin cannot cease from plunging himself into the battles of immediacy and societal friction, Hobbes retains his distance, happy to take a broader and more leisurely look around. You can see the contrast on the rocky, tumbling wagon rides down the slopes of the backyard, Calvin focused on the thrills and chills but Hobbes perched more attentively behind, with one eye open appreciatively for the nature whizzing past and the other cast warily towards the dangers approaching ahead. You can hear the gained wisdom in Hobbes’ articulate and ironic capitulations of the lessons learned from Calvin’s downfalls, articulate because Hobbes avails himself of the wider context, and ironic because Hobbes seldom places himself in a position to actually need such knowledge. Hobbes is something of a tourist in this culture, not yet certain the destination was chosen all that propitiously, and his wit can occasionally be biting and superior—see his comments regarding religion, evolution and television. But more often than not Hobbes’ passing remarks take on the form of playful reminders, a gentle tugging at humanity’s chain. What can possibly be the sum value of all these feverish human affairs compared to the simple delights of a summer afternoon or the tasty joy of a tuna fish sandwich?

Hobbes colors Calvin’s world with a palette of joy and pleasure not to be found in the endeavors of human convention. The aimless play of Calvinball, the silly camaraderie of the Get Rid of Slimy Girls club, the splashing horseplay around a fishing hole—there is nothing practical to be gained here, nothing that will improve Calvin’s grades, reform his behavior or help him earn a dime. But in Hobbes’ presence, Calvin loses much of his sullenness and vexation, and if not quite able to acknowledge it directly or experience it inwardly, Calvin still gains from Hobbes’ proximity the hints of rich knowledge and ineffable beauty surrounding us all, unworldly treasure available in abundance to those somehow open to it.

Here is the thing. I have watched my son run back and forth, back and forth in our living room more than half an hour at a time, flapping his arms wildly and laughing in singsong. I have observed him lining up his toys in rigid geometrical patterns that have nothing to do with any human schema. I know that one day I will be unable to nudge him out of his book or away from his computer screen while he memorizes the entire history of space travel or plumbs the nuances of the Petroff’s Defense to the seventeenth move. People remind me, and I worry too, that he must also gain experience in the social world, the one packed with so many subtle expectations and seemingly necessary demands. But how am I to help him do that without also crumbling his inner sanctuary or fracturing his creative spirit, or without blinding myself to the fact my son is actually a messenger, a herald from that which speaks most eloquently from the surrounding world.

Not that Hobbes is an easy partner, mind you. He and Calvin are much like two sides of one coin, intimately attached but also irreconcilable, each making no bones about the fact they face in opposite directions. They tussle, they pelt each other with snowballs, they mock and tease. Hobbes dreams of stalking Calvin, pouncing upon him and devouring him, and occasionally nearly carries off this subliminal scheme, while Calvin sets doorway traps and orders mountains of demerits for his fuzzy friend. Each fulfills the other not through commonality but through a tension-building contrast, and perhaps the most revealing moment in this isometric relationship comes shortly after Calvin employs his multi-faceted cardboard box to transmogrify himself into a copy of Hobbes, and in no time at all the two find themselves bored beyond words. Calvin needs Hobbes’ perspective in order to gain a glimpse of reward for his otherwise fruitless efforts, and Hobbes requires Calvin’s immediacy to negotiate grounding within the human world—the fodder for his curiosity, commentary and contentment.

Autistic individuals have a multitude of paths open to them. I have seen some so withdrawn from contact with their everyday world there is really no connection at all, and although far be it from me to assess the peace or nightmare such an existence might bring, I cannot help but note how Hobbes mostly just lies around the house and sleeps while Calvin is away at school, and appears to be relieved and boundingly exuberant upon his return. I have observed other autistics who have pushed themselves—or who have been pushed by others—to be exceedingly capable and impressively functional within their careers and day-to-day routines, but as a result carry about them such bitterness and depression over the requirements of their efforts they practically beg the world to shove them away. Here I would note that if somehow Calvin has remained endearing to us throughout all his roguery and gripes, it is just barely so, and one cannot help but wonder how he might fare out from under the umbrella of Hobbes’ influence. Autistics who know they are autistic, and can appreciate all that that means, will tell you there is no easy path to follow, no comfortable route to guide them throughout a lifetime. The most meaningful course would appear to be the one most razor thin, passing between the precipices of two enormously engulfing chasms:

The world of the close and immediate. The world of the eternal and beyond. Putting them together has been described as the absolute paradox, the pinnacle of the absurd. I have to think Kierkegaard would have enjoyed Calvin and Hobbes, would have recognized something powerful and familiar in its strange combination of character and circumstance. Here again we have a philosopher who was cognizant of the value of the humorous and the comical, and one who also understood that paradoxical existence does not come about in a vacuum, but must be provided with an appropriate and fertile setting—or as Kierkegaard would have named it, the occasion. Such settings do not arise out of customary practice; no recipe or formula is going to bring the occasion into existence. What is needed here is a powerful and enveloping force that can build and nurture from without, while allowing freedom for growth from within. What is needed is an entity that has the capacity, will and scrupulous care to bring meaning and value where none was expected. What is needed here is—do I really need to say this—the creator.


Foreground and background. Setting. Context. These concepts loom large in an autistic’s world because its cognitive foundation is built primarily from the outside, there being a shortage of species-aware instincts to help mold from within. Those who would suggest autistics can be guided through their development more successfully—more normally—by honing in exclusively on useful social skills and desired personal behaviors, while shutting out the distractions from the surrounding world, are simply betraying they do not understand what autism is.

Bill Watterson’s simple delight in demonstrating the intellectual and emotional power that setting and landscape can deliver forms over the entire history of Calvin and Hobbes a pictorial tour de force. Here we find dabblings in crippled chroma, negated hue, crashed perspectives, flatland frolicking, doodled drama, cubist flirtation, comic noir, mimeographed mockery and inky rainstorms. This oddball inventiveness with the representational toolkit might lead one to think Watterson lacks respect for his form, until we realize these examples are simply Watterson overflowing with the exuberance of his art. When he is not playfully snatching the reader by the visual collar and drawing his attention to the intellectual jesting and emotional flooding a clever setting can deliver, he is working quietly in the background to provide his characters with envelopment that both shapes and informs.

Many examples might serve to illustrate Watterson’s meticulous care towards meaningful setting. I will focus here on one from the early days of the strip, that of May 27, 1986. It is late at night, Calvin has lost Hobbes to a dog during the day, and now kneels alone before his open bedroom window imploring the dark outdoors for aid and understanding. In the panels where Calvin speaks, he retains something of his over-proportioned size and characteristic bombast, but in the third panel, where there is no dialogue, Calvin appears suddenly small and swallowed. His visual world has gone strangely askew: the window extends above the roof line, rafter angles are now oddly aslant and disappear into blackness, the furniture stands arranged all out of perspective, and in the distance through the window is that cold sliver of a back-turned moon. Even the scene’s point of view is not conventional—where exactly is the reader standing—and the sight of Calvin appearing suddenly so overmatched and puny in his offsized, distorted world forms an eerie and pregnant turnabout. It is only a scene from a comic strip after all, critics might say, but Watterson’s eye and hand demonstrate afresh the immense representational power the graphical arts can bring to bear, all the more surprising in an era when the rest of the art world seems to have entirely abandoned the concept.

There is something wry about Watterson’s depictions of Calvin as the bloodthirsty, demanding style god, for as the supreme being of his own form of creation, Watterson could hardly have been more kindly and care giving. In addition to breathing independent life into his creatures from the wells of his own wit and angst, and in addition to rendering fertile landscapes in which his title characters could paradoxically romp, Watterson went to tremendous lengths to shield his charges from the ever-present calamities threatening to bring ruin upon them. It could not have been easy maintaining the artistic integrity of Calvin and Hobbes—artistic integrity sounds more like a nudge-in-the-ribs joke than a concept with standing in the business world of comic strips. Watterson left an enormous amount of money on the table with his stubborn stands, not only his own share but also that which could accrue to his syndicate and to potential business partners, and Watterson frustrated more than a few editors and the occasional reader with his strange obsessions about form and creative energy. Even fellow comic strip authors seemed to be suggesting that Watterson, unappreciative of his big break, was doing little more than rocking the boat for everyone else. The word offensive seems to be lingering in the air here. Watterson is a crank pot. Watterson does not understand how things are done in the real world. Watterson is a raging egotist. At the very least, Watterson is a little … odd.

As for me, I really know next to nothing about Bill Watterson the man—his background, personality, etc.—certainly not enough to conjecture whether all that fits in well with my thesis or whether he might regard my ideas as perceptive, insulting or simply bizarre. But I will venture this much with conviction: Watterson single-handedly saved late twentieth-century American literature and art from a nearly complete sterility. Think, for instance, of how simultaneous with the ten-year history of Calvin and Hobbes, a mammothly proportioned professional writing community, in a machinelike and methodical grab for the remnants of grant money and tuition dollars, cranked out literally thousands upon thousands of poems, short stories, personal essays, reviews, articles and oh-so-trenchant letters to the editor—with scarcely a single one possessing the verve or depth of a Watterson panel. (The endowment-inspired art community would appear to have fared little better.) It is a truism of the finest of all forms of art, but seems particularly so here in the States, it will blossom the most hauntingly in the most unlikely of places: Thoreau in the woods, Coltrane at the microphone, and now Watterson before the drawing board.

I would like to think autistic perspectives have something to do with such truisms. The familiar, the well trodden, the well funded—it seems a shame so many writers, artists, scientists and philosophers now want to hang out in those coffee shops, seeing as how the raison d’être behind the sciences and humanities has always been to broaden horizons, widen the context, and take us all a little farther away from where we have been and a little closer to where we are going. Autism confronts us with the value of the unconventional; for it is nearly always the unexpected perspective that connects animal and god, powers tragedy and comedy, and enables the sublime to flower where we might least hope to find it—including on the funny pages.

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Copyright © 2007 by Alan Griswold
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