Thursday, June 30th, 2011

Calvin and Hobbes and the Trouble with Nostalgia

My Calvin and Hobbes anthologies sat unread at home on the highest shelf of my parents’ living room bookcase for almost ten years. My father sent them to me last week, and when they arrived in a beat-up box lined with tennis ball cans (don’t ask), I couldn’t even think of the last time I flipped through Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cat or Weirdos from Another Planet, or any of the 12 collections my mom bought me when I was a kid. Not everyone had an obsession with Calvin and Hobbes, but I sure thought they were a riot, and still do now.

I first opened Attack of the Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Snow Goons, which I remember getting at one of my elementary school’s book fairs. In the title story, stitched together from strips that appeared between December 31, 1990 and January 19, 1991, Calvin believes he has brought a snowman to life. This snowman goes on to build an army that terrorizes the neighborhood. But Calvin’s parents and his arch enemy neighbor Susie Derkins don’t play along. When Calvin explains that he’s hiding in his snow fort from snow goons, Susie replies, “Oh is that what all those ugly things you made in the front yard are?” His father similarly asks, “Why can’t you make a normal snowman?” No one sees the world the way Calvin sees it, and the tension between Calvin’s imagination and the mundane real world of school, chores, homework, dinner, and baths, provides the central source of conflict and humor in the strip.

In an explanation of Hobbes’s dual reality (a living, breathing, wiseass wild tiger to Calvin, and a stuffed animal to everyone else), Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson explains “I show two versions of reality, and each makes complete sense to the participant who sees it. I think that’s how life works.” We see the world through Calvin’s eyes. This perspective distinguishes the strip from Peanuts, in which kids talk like adults, or Cathy or Doonesbury, in which adults talk like adults. Watterson constantly fought with Universal Press Syndicate and newspapers to get more space, and to break the rigid rules of comic strip formats in order to formally explore Calvin’s imagination. As a result, no daily comic in wide circulation during the Nineties provided such regular and creative insights into a child’s interior life. In Calvin and Hobbes, Watterson takes us inside Calvin’s dreams, his fears, and the stories that he makes up for himself.

That these stories take place in multiple forms and styles marks the strip as a product of a particular moment in which the playful exploration of a multiplicity of genres was in vogue — but in which the ur-medium for consuming multiple genres at once was only just entering the American home. Calvin and Hobbes ended 1995, the same year the Aronstein household got AOL, so my first interaction with the strip was in its daily newspaper format.

Only later did I start collecting the anthologies.

As a second grader I diligently traced my name in pencil on the inside front cover of Snow Goons. To see my handwriting hanging there last week was to confront the prior existence of a chaster, sweeter, more innocent iteration of myself. That is: the kind of confrontation a lot of us spend our adult lives trying to avoid, mostly out of disgust at our gluttonous, passive-aggressive, neurotic, impious, balding selves.

In my case, there once was a sweet, well-behaved, straw-blonde kid with a quiet affection for books, and a secret desire to be the spiky-haired, mischievous Calvin. Calvin who terrorized his parents, invented hilarious games with no rules, rebelled against his babysitter, and brought snow monsters to life. Calvin, whose intelligence no one understood. Calvin, who transformed into Stupendous Man or Spaceman Spiff, and whose backyard crossed three state lines, and whose wagon flew through the air.

Calvin, whose stuffed tiger embodied the Platonic ideal of a friend.

But here’s the thing. It’s not hard to find articles about Nineties nostalgia, many of which begin with this kind of personal narrative about one’s emotional connection with a cultural object. Though enjoyable, such pieces often fail to ask a single critical question about Snick, Metropolitan, ‘NSync, Beanie Babies, or whatever. Their discussions remain rooted in emotional reactions, barely departing from claims like “I LOVE Land of the Lost and you should watch it on Netflix Instant!” They end up saying little about either the object or about nostalgia itself. Perhaps more importantly, readers often feel entirely left out of such articles if they don’t already have affection for the thing being discussed. Nostalgia pieces can seem incredibly defensive, precisely because they focus on feelings, and not on ideas. They defiantly insist that the joy in revisiting the near past resides in reproducing the experience of falling in love again. And if you’re not already in love, too bad. Go watch the first season of Ren and Stimpy (look, I’m guilty too), and get back to us.

Vulture recently launched a series that purports to correct the tone of schlocky affection for the Nineties, but based on the introduction to the project, the “Nostalgia Fact Check” might be a red herring. Writers will ask, “What holds up? What doesn't? What was once groundbreaking but now seems unavoidably and distractingly tame? What comedy is as funny now as it was then?” In other words, they seem interested in a project of comparing present feelings to past feelings. They want the fun parts of nostalgia while forgetting a few things:

That the painful part of nostalgia has to do with the impossibility of going back at all, let alone deciding what’s changed.

That we are no longer as adorable or angelic as we were in 1992, and that this sucks in a sort of cosmic way. That we miss the joy of waiting in anticipation and finally getting to read the next installment of our favorite comic, and that “kids today” don’t understand patience because everything is On Demand.

That it can be, purely hypothetically, difficult to imagine how we started off reading comics at recess with juice boxes in hand, and ended up finding our Calvin and Hobbes anthologies in the lobby of our building, ten minutes after puking like an 18-year-old sorority girl, too hungover to see.

Or, to put it in Calvin’s words, the days are “just packed,” but these particular days aren’t packed with Calvinball, or hunting for squishy bugs. They’re packed with student loan payments, and expense reports, and $4.39 gasoline, and my god if the neighbors don’t stop having earth-shaking sex, I’m going to scream.

An overdose on nostalgia for the things we once treasured often does them injustice by simplifying our memories of them. In the worst cases, it prevents us from seeing what they actually say about the world.

For example, far from portraying childhood as a laugh riot, Calvin and Hobbes depicts the sad, lonely, alienating side of being a kid. In a direct exploration of this persistent theme, Calvin’s mom calls to him to wake him up. “I bet…” Calvin thinks to himself, and then the strip goes through his imagined day. There’s a humiliating moment for Calvin at the blackboard. The school bully Moe holds him against a locker and threatens him. Then Calvin has to go home and do his homework. He has to take a bath and stop playing with his toys. He’s not allowed to watch TV. The final panel shows him in bed in the dark, sighing. Childhood, just like any other time in our lives, is structured, regimented, and confusing, filled with obscure and unfair laws and irrational authorities.

In a related strip, Watterson takes a swing at nostalgia itself. Moe approaches Calvin and shoves him down for no reason. “People who get nostalgic about childhood were obviously never children,” Calvin says, lying bruised on the ground. Nostalgia colors the past. We feel it often, sure. And in small doses, it can give us a nice little high. But when used as the primary means of talking about the past, it limits us to one particular point of view, rather than expanding our possibilities of interpretation.

For example, though it seems that Calvin uses imagination to break free of his ordinary life, Watterson ultimately suggests that the world of the imaginary exists most of all to enliven our engagement with each other in the realm of the everyday. In the final strip, Calvin and Hobbes find a fresh blanket of snow. “It’s a magical world, Hobbes ol’ buddy…let’s go exploring!” Calvin says. It’s easy for a child not to be nostalgic. For us it’s more complicated. We need to find a measured way of grappling with the histories that tug at our guts. The world expands in front of Calvin the same way that it expanded in front of us when we were seven years old. But if nothing else, Calvin and Hobbes tells us not to wallow in nostalgia for childhoods that were more complicated than we remember. We should spend our time exploring more worthy terrain.

A-J Aronstein loves summer. He has vacation from the University of Chicago where he teaches writing, and is spending his time biking around the city looking for squishy bugs. He lives on Chicago’s Northwest side and blogs at The Tasty Spoonful.

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  • http://twitter.com/joshung Joshua Ungerleider

    Nice article, from the headline I kind of thought you were going to say that Calvin and Hobbs didn't hold up, then I started hyperventilating, then I read a little more, and calmed down.

    I was 15 when the strip ended, I specifically remember having a conversation in my Chemistry class including the teacher (a near retirement ex nun who'd say the name "Joshua" in a very accusing tone) about the last strip. I've passed a test in History class on Philosophers because of this strip.

    I don't get nostalgic on my childhood in general, but I do get nostalgic for the time in my life whn I could look forward to new Calvin and Hobbes strips.

  • Joshua Kurp

    What Other Josh said. I was terrified you were going to say the comic isn't as funny anymore. Like probably everyone else on this website, I burned through Calvin & Hobbes and have probably read and re-read the anthologies about a dozen times, and it actually taught me something about nostalgia: become nostalgic about other things. Or, more specifically, don't just keep reading the same thing over and over again; try comics or TV shows or movies or whatever that are similar and approved by the source material, and become a fan of that, too, instead of glancing at the same Spaceman Spiff strip. Then become nostalgic for the new material, and move on again. (I believe, even if you’re one of those people who don’t “believe” in nostalgia, that it’s impossible to not fondly reminisce about pretty much everything in pop culture.)

    Also: I hate people who have never read Calvin & Hobbes before. Not because they never gave it a chance or because I’m a snob (well, maybe that), but because they have the opportunity to read the strip for a first time, something I’ll never be able to do again.

  • AJA@twitter

    Thanks for these awesome comments guys. Josh U, I think your point about nostalgia for a certain kind of engagement with material is an incredibly important thing–and one that I wasn't really sure how to write about. I think it's exactly what we can't get back, and represents what's *actually* lost. We can always reread the strips, but it's the form of serial or scheduled engagement with comics in print that these damn millennials are missing out on. It kills me. I'm shaking my fist at them from my porch saying "you have no idea what it's like to wait for the newspaper and then fight with your sister for it!" Does that change how they think about the world? Engage with comedy? Share media? Engage with culture in general? I think definitely. How exactly is what I don't really know for sure…I'd love to hear what you think.

    And Josh K, I agree with you on the last paragraph. Anyone who writes these articles about nostalgia is DRIPPING with jealousy of people that get to read the stuff for the first time. And as a result, they try to convey (via the mechanism of nostalgia) how freaking awesome it is to have this stuff in their childhood memory banks–how much more authentic is their experience, or something stupid like that. I hate "authenticity" as it relates to nostalgia and think that we should just own how much we miss certain things and try to share our love of these things by asking *new* questions of old objects, and soliciting answers from people with fresh eyes.

    Or something super corny like that. In any case, I'm starting a Chicago chapter of G.R.O.S.S. I can mail you a decoder ring if you want.

    • Joshua Kurp

      @AJA@twitter Only if I can be Code Expert.

    • http://twitter.com/joshung Joshua Ungerleider

      @AJA@twitter Definitely, there have been some shows (like Party Down) that I was definitely late on, and when watching it in order on Netflix, I thought, "this is nice that I don't have to wait for the next episode" but as great as that show was, I never had that anticipation that I had with Calvin & Hobbes and other things. I think when the viewer can watch/read whenever they want, it becomes more solitary, something you do on your free time, but when the schedule is dicated to the viewer, and you need to wait a day/week for the next installment, it starts to seep into other areas of your life. Calvin and Hobbes wasn't just a strip I read as a kid, it was a shared experience. Not something I can say for Party Down (through no fault of its own, and many times I do enjoy being free of Appointment TV).

      Also, it breaks my heart anytime watching a sporting event, I say "The score is still Q to 12" and nobody gets it (Calvinball).

      @Joshua Kurp: "Other Josh" might be my favorite nickname, and I might just start to use it, even in situations where I am the sole Josh.

    • Joshua Kurp

      @Joshua Ungerleider Thank you for not being offended by the title. Technically, I believe you were here (Splitsider) first, so I should be "Other Josh" and you should be "Original Josh." Or O.J. I and O.J. II, for short. I can't possibly think of a negative connotation for someone being named O.J.

    • http://twitter.com/joshung Joshua Ungerleider

      @Joshua Kurp That's the guy from Naked Gun and absolutely nothing else worth noting, right?

      Also, you're a contributor, that trumps anything else in my opinion, you may be Original Josh.

  • Q.B. Fox, Esq.@twitter

    This is a nice piece, but I have one small correction: Calvin's "I bet" in the comic you describe is a response to his mom's assertion that she is not going to tell him to get up again; he knows that she will. The remaining panels are not his imagined day, as you say, but his real day.

  • AJA@twitter

    @Q You know, I think that's an interesting reading and one that I think is very possible. It would be more obviously a projection if it were an ellipses, as in "I bet…" There were two reasons I ultimately read it as imagination, despite the period that Watterson uses.

    1) It fit my argument better (haha)

    2) I looked closely at the panel itself and based my reading on the image of Calvin in bed. He seems to be squeezing the pillow and squinting, as if painfully imagining what the day will look like. I've done that before…a kind of worst-case projection about what the day holds before I swing my legs out of bed. There's a great Warhol quote that comes from the beginning of his memoir that goes something like "I wake up every day. I open my eyes and think: Here we go again." I think this is that kind of moment.

    But really, I think the strip is definitely open to both readings.

  • Q.B. Fox, Esq.@twitter

    I suppose it is susceptible to both interpretations. One reason I think mine is more likely is because some Sunday comics pages would not print the strips' first two panels, opting instead for an abbreviated version of the title panel (cheap bastards). As such, these would always involve some little joke that was not relevant to the substance of the strip. On your reading, the strip has a different meaning if you don't know about those first two panels.

    I'm just splitting hairs, though. These strips really defined my childhood. Thanks for the reminder.

    • hypnosifl

      @Q.B. Fox, Esq.@twitter yeah, I was thinking that too, for some other examples of two-panel starting jokes that are only loosely connected to the rest of the strip, see See for example this strip, this one and this one and this one. The one with Calvin saying "I bet" definitely seems like it's in the same vein.

  • Ken Wheaton@facebook

    Just for the record, I bought the 23 pound complete hardcover edition for my kid on his 7th birthday and not only did he tear through them, he'd carry the 7 pound things into the bathroom with him. Much like classic Warner Bros. cartoons, Calvin & Hobbes worked on multiple levels — as a young child, you're fascinated with the mutant snowmen and transmorgrifier; as a slightly older child, you appreciate more the realities of the parents and bullies and teachers keeping you down; as an adult, you watch it all play together (and finally come to understand the parents as well — and identify with his dad a little maybe).

  • Tyler Jagel@twitter

    Many write about remembering things, few write about remembering.


  • Sam V@twitter

    Nothing to add except to say nice piece and that QBFox is right about the 'I bet' thing.

  • Hrishikesh

    Extremely well written,AJA. Loved the narrative arc,( if I may use such a term). Those short sentences that bring a lump to the throat and mist the eyes….when WHAM! You hit us with the turn around! ( A classic case of havingthe tables turned and realising one is immersed in the text as the reader vs.the author who then gives his 'solution' -that bit about the emotional journey …and not ideas…the object or nostalgia itself.
    Just wanted to tell you that you made my dull day sparkle with hope again.
    As an aside- i wish it should have ended quickly then, (the second strip about you bet and the device you use to illustrate seem a tad light compared to the mastery of your previous arguments).(…almost like you're trying to complete the articles stet 1000 words).
    But never mind my subjective opinions after a fast read on an ipad…I thank you for a great whiff of oxygen to a brain tired of fb drivel and Unclear words.
    Perhaps you can direct me to more of your writing….?

  • Darryll Sherman@twitter

    Dang, AJA, What a wonderful piece!!!

    I also have every Calvin and Hobbes book that Watterson ever released holding a proud position on my bookshelf! No matter how many times I read them, I am always amazed at his humor, insight, artistic abilities and wisdom. Of course, so much of his stuff is way over the heads of kids, but it seems to hit us big kids right where we live!

    Your analysis of the imagination of Calvin’s mind is right on. His ability to create huge and epic worlds in his mind – be they evil, asinine or insane – is something that we all had as little kids. The lucky ones are those of us who still venture into those worlds in our adult life – without losing a grip on reality, of course. :)

    The sense of nostalgia in his comics is undeniable. I love the one where he’s explaining to Hobbes that his dad (or grandpa – I’m not sure which one) has told him that modern comics have lost all the art and style they used to have and that now they’re nothing more than the same frame photocopied and different words written in the bubbles – which is exactly what he did in that strip. A perfect exclamation point to his argument! I don’t remember the final joke, but the strip led me to appreciate his artwork and his understanding of his craft all the more.

    You spoke about nostalgia – I was a kid in the ‘70s and wrote a book about it. Could I send you a copy? I’d love to hear what you think about it. You can check it out here http://my70sbook.com and can email me at darryll.sherman@gmail.com. I’ve had many favorable reviews from those in their 20’s to those in their 60’s.

    Thanks again for the Calvin and Hobbes infusion – I’ll be grabbing one of my books… probably The Essential Calvin and Hobbes on my way to my “room of refuge” tonight!

  • AJA@twitter

    Thanks everyone for the comments so far. I've really enjoyed them. As a follow up, I wanted to post a link to the fantastic "Calvin and Hobbes Search Engine," which was really helpful to me in writing this piece. You can use it to do a natural language search of the entire Watterson oeuvre. Just set an egg timer or something, otherwise you'll be reading this stuff for three full days. Go outside. Ride your wagon or something. It's summer.


    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Daniel-Hall/1605914261 Daniel Hall

      @AJA@twitter I think you hit the nail without realizing it when you pondered why there isn't much articles on 90's nostalgia. It's not about the people not relating to the thing that the writer loved or that it was so much better than what is available today. I think you got to the heart of the fact that nostalgia is about ourselves and being retrospective about life being better back at the time we're being nostalgic about. We might have been more open to things and our minds and lives weren't closed off yet by the reality of our lives as we get older. I think the nostalgia comes from a place in time where we thought better about ourselves and the world than we do now and we want to get back there.

  • Sharada Prasad Mohanty@facebook

    Great post.But the title of the post is little confusing.


  • Paul W. Coenen@facebook

    I loved Calvin and Hobbes. And still love it, though I haven'te read it in a while. I was 11 and 12 when I first started reading it, and would cut out of the newspaper each strip everyday, for at least months or a year. I put the strips in photo binders. Then the anthologies came out, and I didn't have to cut them out, then the strip ended. I agree with the point about nostalgia. Especially nostalgia about 'pop culture', toys, movies, tv shows, etc. Most of the toys and tv shows were full of marketing and ads. I loved GI Joes grwoing up, but really GIJoes were like 'pro-war' propaganda, which I only realized as an adult. He-Man glorified some really great stereotypes of manliness as I recall. But as a kid they were just toys, and I loved playing with action figures. I also remember I really liked the show 'Alf', and had the trading cards, my brother had a stuffed animal Alf. But seeing just one rerun (only part of it, I had to turn it off) made me realize how terrible a show it was. but man when I was 7 or 8, I thought it was funny!

  • Crystal Spradlin@facebook
  • Ben Spradlin@twitter

    AJ, you're spot on with your analysis of nostalgia. In my opinion, we tend to remember the "good" things over the "bad" things in life. I'm not talking tragic events here, just stuff like TV shows or music – pop culture.

    I caught an episode of Knight Rider a while back on RetroTV. Boy was it terrible. However, my 4 year old son sure loved it. What we remember as being "good" while young children doesn't really hold up too well as an adult, but C&H is one of the rare gems that does – almost biblical in some ways (especially with the debate here in this very thread on what Patterson's overall message could be). Hopefully a thousand years from now, undergrad literature classes will be studying Patterson's work.

    I was 17 when they stopped running. My favorite time in the day was coming home from school, grabbing the comics section from the newspaper, and reading every comic, saving C&H for last.

    Also, thank you for sharing some examples. I now am seeing them from a father's perspective. My son is ultra-smart like Calvin, but also annoying at times with his incessant questions. I try to be patient with him and answer every question he has, but sometimes I just want some peace and quiet. I will try to remember the strip where his mother is trying to get him out of bed next time my son is getting on my nerves. I certainly don't envy his position – trying to figure out the world as a kid.

    Thank you for your stellar writing and analysis.