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.

Calvin and Hobbes and the Trouble with Nostalgia