29 July 2015

Bill Watterson, (still) a philosopher for our times

Since returning to the United States last month, I decided it would be a good idea to revisit some of my old friends from when I was seven or eight years old: Calvin and Hobbes. No, not those ones; the comic strip characters! The recent sentimental tribute to the old Calvin and Hobbes comics by Pants Are Overrated, as well as the guest appearance by Bill Watterson himself drawing several days’ worth of Stephen Pastis’s comic Pearls Before Swine, rekindled my interest in a major way. And going back and reading my old Calvin and Hobbes collections, I continue to be stunned at how well they have aged. Or rather, perhaps, how badly we and our society have aged, that these comics drawn in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s can still be so relevant. Calvin and Hobbes was never an explicitly political or religious comic, but there remain some incredibly trenchant moments in the shenanigans and Ohio forest romps of the titular boy and his tiger, the travails of his parents and the more-than-occasional sesquipedalian discussions of advertising, consumerism, mass media, environmental destruction, regurgitation-oriented school ‘reform’, the pretentiousness of modern ‘art’, the cult of therapy, the battle of the sexes and other perennially-timely topics.

I wouldn’t be so arrogant as to say that Bill Watterson’s politics are similar to mine, except possibly to say that his comics are certainly to be counted as a deep early influence on my own romantic anti-capitalist and anti-war convictions. But the comics that strike home hardest these days are those that attain for his views on technology in general, and television in particular. One can see in Calvin’s cynical endorsements of the consumerist conformity brought about by television advertising and his deliberately-complacent attitude about being told what to think by the tube exactly where Watterson’s worries lie, though of course he was drawing just as the 24-hour cable news network was starting to become a phenomenon.

Also, he delved fairly deep into some of the classical questions of Western theology with his work: human nature, death, original sin, fate versus free will, the problem of evil, the harm principle, the nature of the good. And he did it for some serious chuckles, often with a sarcastic quip from Hobbes or a deliberately crass or hypocritical attitude from Calvin.

At any rate, lots to admire in Watterson’s work! Childish fun, of course, but obviously so much more than that.

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