Calvin and Hobbes has had some dark comics throughout its 10-year run. It’s always been a known fact that the comic has a more mature sense of humor. Not because it is raunchy or bloody, but because they tackle some surprisingly heavy subject matter, more so than most of its contemporaries at the time. Most newspaper comic strips tended to be of the lighter variety. Things such as the childish shenanigans in Peanuts or the mundane musings of Jon Arbuckle in Garfield (although both of those certainly had their dark moments as well). Regardless, Calvin and Hobbes was just different.
Down to Watterson’s last comic, he still showed his deeper musings on life. Even so, Calvin was still just a young boy despite his wisdom for his age. Hobbes being an imaginary friend certainly does make some comics a bit sadder in retrospect. Bill Watterson was a man of strong convictions, and as much as he appreciated the whimsy in the world, Bill Watterson was never afraid to tackle the sadder aspects that could be found in mundane life. Still, even if these particular comics are dark, they are without a doubt memorable moments in the esteemed history of Calvin and Hobbes and remain beloved to this day.
A Dead Bird
Calvin and Hobbes is a weird change of pace for people used to the standard slice-of-life antics of most other newspaper comic strips. For example, this particular comic is kicked off by the death of innocence, manifested in the shape of a fragile bird.
Calvin goes off on a tangent about how precious life is, and yet, it’s so very fragile. There’s just this constant, looming reminder that it could end at any minute. Still, Calvin is just a kid, so he thinks it’ll all make sense when he grows up. The final panel is a stark reminder that it won’t.
Waxing existential is a tried-and-true trope of Calvin and Hobbes, but this one is about as blatant as it gets. The background is a stark black and starts with Calvin shouting about significance, only to be met with the unflinching silence of the void. Calvin is just a speck of dust in the universe.
This comic sums up Calvin’s core personality. First, he’s loud and an unrepentant attention magnet, which contrasts well with his more cerebral philosophical side. Everything that he is or ever will be is less than a blip in the grand scheme of things.
Predestination is a big word to throw out in the middle of a fun garden wagon ride, but that’s always been the flavor of Calvin and Hobbes. Calvin suddenly asks Hobbes if he believes in fate, and Hobbes responds that the idea frightens him. In contrast, Calvin finds comfort in the idea. The idea that humans have no say in what they do, fundamentally, is an upsetting one. In contrast, the idea that humans alone are responsible for their actions is certainly a contentious opinion to have.
If nobody is responsible for their actions, life is a lot more fun. In theory, at least. Since Calvin and Hobbes are named after philosophers, it only makes sense for them to have this back-and-forth on heavy topics like these.
The Big Picture
This particular Calvin and Hobbes comic is as dark as it is hilarious. Calvin is rarely seen not in a state of goofing around, so it’s interesting to see him verbally sparring with characters besides Hobbes or his parents. His verbosity certainly doesn’t save him from failing math. This comic is one of the many times that Calvin tries to avoid learning anything in school.
The content of his words is no less dark. It’s quite worrying that Calvin’s first reaction to any struggle is a rant about the pointlessness of life. Punctuating all of this anti-school rhetoric is the controversial comic of Calvin blowing up his school, but that’s just a childish fantasy, albeit a dark one. It’s certainly funny but very worrying as Calvin grows up.
The comic starts out cute enough, with Calvin proudly showing off a butterfly he caught to Hobbes. Rather unexpectedly, Hobbes tells Calvin that if rainbows could be caught in cages, they’d be in zoos. Calvin sits on that thought and decides to let the butterfly go. This was a realization for Calvin that his own happiness was not worth caging up another living thing’s life for his amusement.
He found something he thought was beautiful, but it didn’t sit right after he stopped to think about it. Calvin’s immediate regret is relatable to Bill Watterson. On a broader scale, this comic is a statement on the rather upsetting reality that humans have made the beauty of nature a corporate institution.
The Christian doctrine of original sin is one of the oldest ways humanity tackles the age-old question of whether humans are born sinful. Such a heavy topic is obviously good grounds for frolicking conversation because Calvin asks just that of Hobbes. Hobbes says they’re quick learners, which is indicative of how clever Hobbes is against the more winding tangents of Calvin.
It’s also a very cynical way of countering Calvin because it implies that babies are quick to learn “sin” anyway. Hobbes’ answer sums up his character pretty well. Either way, the answer is sliced, the conclusion reached by both Calvin and Hobbes is that babies are sinners in some way, be it nature or nurture.
Trouble At Home
Calvin and Hobbes may have a lot of somber and existential moments, but sometimes, some of the darker moments happen at home. Calvin here is almost unrecognizable from the philosophical child in all the other comic strips he’s been in. Instead, he throws a tantrum over having to eat oatmeal. The suddenness of Calvin’s mom wishing for a daughter instead is pretty depressing, but it does end on a lighter note with the dad’s little joke.
Parenting someone like Calvin is hard and this comic strip is a great summary of that. It’s dark in the sense that as smart as Calvin is, he is still ultimately an immature child. It’s a reminder that even as we all get philosophical about things, we’re ultimately still emotional, flawed human beings, throwing oatmeal at each other.
After all the antics brought on by Calvin in their day-to-day life, it’s easy to forget that Calvin’s parents are still people. Both the mom and dad can’t seem to sleep, and the dad starts a monologue about how reaching adulthood didn’t change how confused he was all those years ago.
Despite Calvin’s parents never being named, this strip does a fantastic job of humanizing them. If anything, not naming them makes them feel far more universal. Many parents are flawed, and it’s a dark albeit comforting thought that parents are just as lost as their children are sometimes.
Inherit The World
Calvin and Hobbes is no stranger to tackling heavy global issues, and one that had been gaining traction in the 80s was environmentalism. Calvin’s spots are all being taken away by land development. Hundreds of years of nature bulldozed in a matter of days. It makes Calvin wonder if he can refuse to inherit this world.
Hobbes’ response is a stark reminder that there was never a choice. Money always talks, and things like the controversial Calvin decal prove that even Bill’s own attempts to not have his works merchandised aren’t a perfect solution. People just have to live with the fact that today’s world is a capitalist hellscape.
What A Stupid World
The entirety of the dying raccoon story arc is one of the darkest moments in the Calvin and Hobbes saga. For the first time, Calvin confronts death, and it deeply upsets him. Calvin’s mom hadn’t failed him in his short life so far, but for the first time, she did, and he’s in emotional turmoil. The final words of this arc, “what a stupid world”, resonate more deeply as a result.
This strip changed Calvin and Hobbes in a fundamental way. It would mark the shift for Calvin and Hobbes to be far braver in tackling the darker aspects of the world. It’s important to note, however, that though the world may be stupid, there’s always hope to be found. If that hope’s just a speck in the endless void, then so be it.
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