Essay / Art

What You Can Learn from Calvin and Hobbes about the Message and the Medium

Anybody who has a message that they care about communicating should pay attention to the great lesson taught by Calvin and Hobbes: The lesson is that not every message can be communicated in every medium.

Yes, I mean Bill Watterson’s comic strip about the tiger and his boy, not the theologian and the philosopher. The confusion between the cartoon and the thinkers is excusable, because the strip was named after the thinkers, of course. Watterson has said that the title was “an inside joke for poli-sci majors.” Watterson was himself a political science major in college, and like every other poli-sci major must have been assigned Richard Hofstadter’s book The American Political Tradition and the Men who Made It, which begins with the sentences: “Long ago Horace White observed that the Constitution of the United States ‘is based upon the philosophy of Hobbes and the religion of Calvin. It assumes that the natural state of mankind is a state of war, and that the carnal mind is at enmity with God.'”

Calvin Hobbes math atheistBut it’s the famous strip, not the famous thinkers, which has the important lesson to which we should pay close attention. Bill Watterson’s strip ran in papers from 1985 to 1995, an amazing ten-year arc that set a new, higher standard for newspaper cartooning. Calvin and Hobbes jumped to the top of the charts, hovered there for years, and then stopped suddenly as its creator retired from cartooning before age 40. Like Seinfeld and Gary Larson’s The Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes went out while it was on top. Its disappearance from the papers left a huge audience doing a thunderous standing ovation, demanding more. But there was no encore. There’s no more Calvin and Hobbes coming, because Watterson declared that he was done, and one of the few things we know for certain about this cartoonist is that he means what he says.

calvin hobbes boinkThe first time Watterson showed that he was a man of principle was when he refused to let his publishers exploit Calvin and Hobbes by making merchandise out of it. In an early interview (LA Times 1987), Watterson considered the constant requests he had already received for C&H sweat shirts, greeting cards, toys, and bumper stickers. “Calvin and Hobbes will not exist intact if I do not exist intact … And I will not exist intact if I have to put up with all this stuff.” “I’m very happy that people enjoy the strip and have become devoted to it … But it seems that with a lot of the marketing stuff, the incentive is just to cash in. It’s not understanding what makes the strip work.” The interviewer noted that Watterson was taking this stand “despite dangled millions,” and that the only explanation was: “Preserving the integrity and fullness of his characters is cardinal with Watterson.”

“Integrity and fullness.” Calvin and Hobbes is a comic strip about a friendship and a world of imaginative play. That’s not the most important thing in the world, but if it is to retain its integrity and show forth its fullness, these things have to be guarded jealously. Watterson is one of the few creators I can think of who understood this, and who stuck to it even when the millions were dangled in front of him.

The fullest public justification Watterson ever gave for his stance was in a long interview in the February 1989 issue of The Comics Journal. The interviewer asked him why he had resisted (for four years now!) licensing his characters for merchandising. Watterson replied:

Basically I’ve decided that licensing is inconsistent with what I’m trying to do with Calvin and Hobbes. I take cartoons seriously as an art form, so I think with an issue like licensing, it’s important to analyze what my strip is about, and what makes it work.

It’s easy to transfer the essence of a gag-oriented strip; especially a one-panel gag strip, from the newspaper page to a t-shirt, a mug, a greeting card, and so on. The joke reads the same no matter what it’s printed on, and the joke is what the strip is about. Nothing is lost.

My strip works differently. Calvin and Hobbes isn’t a gag strip. It has a punchline, but the strip is about more than that. The humor is situational, and often episodic. It relies on conversation, and the development of personalities and relationships. These aren’t concerns you can wrap up neatly in a clever little saying for people to send each other or to hang up on their walls. To explore character, you need lots of time and space. Note pads and coffee mugs just aren’t appropriate vehicles for what I’m trying to do here. I’m not interested in removing all the subtlety from my work to condense it for a product. The strip is about more than jokes. I think the syndicate would admit this if they would start looking at my strip instead of just the royalty checks. Unfortunately, they are in the cartoon business only because it makes money, so arguments about artistic intentions are never very persuasive to them.

I have no aversion to obscene wealth, but that’s not my motivation either. I think to license Calvin and Hobbes would ruin the most precious qualities of my strip and, once that happens, you can’t buy those qualities back.

Watterson speaks very simply but it is from a great wealth of self-knowledge and love of the cartoons. Every phrase in the interview reveals that he has turned the questions over and over in his mind: Licensing is inconsistent with what I’m trying to do … I take cartoons seriously as an art form … it’s important to analyze what my strip is about … These aren’t concerns you can wrap up neatly in a clever little saying for people to send each other or to hang up on their walls … Note pads and coffee mugs just aren’t appropriate vehicles for what I’m trying to do here … I’m not interested in removing all the subtlety from my work to condense it for a product.

Calvin Hobbes careeningThe interviewer pushes back a little bit: “I’m sure some of the readers will say to all this, ‘Come on. The comic strip is a popular art form. What’s wrong with indulging the public’s interest?'” And Watterson replies:

Nothing, so long as it doesn’t compromise the art itself. In my case, I’m convinced that licensing would sell out the soul of Calvin and Hobbes. The world of a comic strip is much more fragile than most people realize. Once you’ve given up its integrity, that’s it. I want to make sure that never happens.

Bill Watterson undertook a number of worthy crusades during the decade in which he made comic strip history –what fan of the Sunday Comics section can forget his epic battle to get the funnies printed at a decent size?– and he railed against “the cheapening of the comics” on a number of fronts. But it was his decision not to extract his characters from their natural setting and transfer them to “bedsheets and boxer shorts” that provides us all with an unforgettable living parable of artistic integrity.

Calvin Hobbes vistaMarshal McLuhan may have overstated the case when he pronounced that “the medium is the message,” but he surely indicated the way that what you say is entangled with how you say it. If you want to make a statement about people in relationships over time, you had better not try saying it on a t-shirt or bumper sticker. Communicators need to understand their message well enough, organically enough, to pick an appropriate medium for getting it across. Insensitivity to the medium-message connection is what makes most pop music so bathetic when it attempts profundity.

It also explains why the Christian message seems so bizarre and irrelevant when it is communicated via slogans, marketing campaigns, fashion, and advertising knick-knacks. Pointing this out hardly qualifies me for prophet status; any sensitive person confronted with the modern Christian marketing machine is bound to feel queasy. Keith Green had a famous rant to that effect:

It pains me to see the beautiful truths of Scripture being plastered about like beer advertisements. Many think it is wise to “get the word out” in this way but, believe that we are really just inoculating the world with bits and pieces of truth – giving them their “gospel shots.” (And we’re making it hard for them to “catch” the real thing!) People become numb to the truth when we splash our gaudy sayings in their eyes at every opportunity. Do you really think this is “opening them up to the Gospel”? Or is it really just another way for us to get smiles, waves, and approval from others in the “born-again club” out in the supermarket parking lot, who blow their horns with glee when they see your “Honk if you love Jesus!” bumper sticker?

And of course the Catholics are as far ahead of the evangelicals in unspeakably tacky art as they are in good art –probably a lot farther, if you direct too much attention to the Leaflet Missal Co.

If the subtle message of Calvin and Hobbes doesn’t fit on t-shirts, bumper stickers, and bedsheets, then it seems unlikely that the message of Christ does. That the almighty and entirely holy God would undertake the costly work of reconciling sinners to himself — that one of the Trinity died on the cross for us and our salvation — that the Spirit would be poured out and dwell in a created temple without consuming it — who is sufficient for these things? If we can easily rule out some media as being inadequate for containing this message, is it possible to identify any medium that could be adequate?

Keith Green concluded his rant with, “I think the world is completely sick to its stomach with our sayings and ‘witnessing tools.’ It’s time for us to be expressing the truth with our lives, and then the whole truth of God with our lips!”

The only appropriate media for communicating the gospel are lives and words. Christians have to wrap themselves up in the good news of Jesus Christ, live that mystery together in the fellowship of the church, and give the world something worth seeing. And they have to explain it in the form of sound doctrine, explaining biblical truth, making the message clear as only words can. There is a strong temptation these days to seek refuge in the claim that “my life is my testimony,” as if a set of behaviors could take the place of preaching, teaching, witnessing, and the host of other verbal interactions the New Testament is about. But the gospel is wordy, just as it is lifey. It just isn’t very bumper stickery.

With words and lives in place, maybe there’s room for a slogan or a coffee cup or something like that. Perhaps, as long as we know that lives and words are what it takes to carry this particular message, we can have some doo-dads as well, as reminders or cues. Perhaps.

Or perhaps not. Watterson was worried that the very existence of these products would sap the power from the real thing; that a million Calvin window decals would make the Calvin comic strip harder to read. It’s possible that too many ineffective Jesus reminders all over the place might have a degrading effect on our ability to read Jesus where he really is. The only way to know if that’s the case is to know our message as well as Watterson knew his. Watterson could spot a deviation from the integrity and fullness of the Calvin and Hobbes mystique in an instant. Do modern Christians have senses so well trained, or a grasp of the gospel message so acute, that we can spot such deviations?

Calvin Hobbes paperA couple of years ago the big expensive Complete Calvin and Hobbes was released. The publisher put together a brief interview in May 2005, in which fans sent questions and Watterson emerged from his Salingeresque hiding long enough to answer. One of the questions was “What led you to resist merchandising Calvin and Hobbes?” Watterson replied:

For starters, I clearly miscalculated how popular it would be to show Calvin urinating on a Ford logo. . . . Actually, I wasn’t against all merchandising when I started the strip, but each product I considered seemed to violate the spirit of the strip, contradict its message, and take me away from the work I loved. If my syndicate had let it go at that, the decision would have taken maybe 30 seconds of my life.

It was easy, he says. He knew the spirit of the strip, and its message. He said “no” and stuck to it. “We and our bankers still weep,” says his publisher, because there was a lot of money to be made there. But more important than the money to be made, there was a comic strip to be made.

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