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My Christmas shopping tends to begin and end in a fevered rush on December 24, but chances are it will include Bill Watterson's The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, which to my mind is among the most remarkable American creative achievements ever put between two covers (or six, in this case — it's a three-volume set).
For the uninitiated, Calvin and Hobbes is a daily comic strip detailing the antics of an unruly six-year-old and his misanthropic stuffed tiger. The boy, whose vocabulary is packed with more 10-dollar words than a GRE flashcard set, is named after John Calvin, the Reformation-era theologian who preached the doctrine of predestination. The tiger, who comes to life only in the boy's presence, is named after the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes (the life-is-poor-nasty-brutish-and-short guy). Not your typical funny pages fare.
Calvin is a prospective parent's nightmare: he has no interest in receiving approval, parental or otherwise, and he survives the daily drudgery of childhood by escaping into imagined realms crowded with space monsters, dinosaurs, and strange creatures of all kinds. It's his insistence in transcending his mundane responsibilities through wild acts of imagination that makes him so aggravating to his parents. It's also what makes him so irresistible to the reader. Many of my friends have at one point wished they were Calvin, and I certainly did (still do). By most rubrics of childhood success, Calvin is a failure. He's a terrible student, awful at organized sports, has no friends, does not play well with others. But he imagines so exuberantly that his shortcomings are no more than the dull dust orbiting a star. He finds magic everywhere. In his care a cardboard box becomes a time machine, a replicator, a transformation chamber. He lives with the certainty that out there, just beyond the focus of most eyes, are incredible worlds waiting to be discovered. He might be a poor student, but he's an excellent teacher. No fictional character has made me believe more fully in a reality rich with possibility.
So why would I, or you, give this lavish and admittedly pricey gift? Well, it's hard to think of another body of work that is more universally beloved — I don't think I've ever met someone who has encountered Calvin and Hobbes without falling for them. Calvin and Hobbes are the only two characters from my childhood reading that I return to with any regularity, and they have grown with me, yielding newer and deeper meaning. It's not all mutant snowmen, though there are plenty of those. The strip also tackles the fate of the planet, the responsibilities of citizens, the profit-driven brainwashing of mass media, the morality of ambition, the kinds of unanswerable questions I began asking as a child and continue asking to this day: Why do we want what we can't have? Why is it so difficult to understand others and to be understood? Why do people we love die?
Bill Watterson argued with his medium even as he eclipsed it. He was all too aware that no artistic expression better exemplifies our disposable consumer culture than the daily newspaper comic strip: today's masterpiece is tomorrow's birdcage lining. The Complete Calvin and Hobbes is the perfect vessel to preserve and share his extraordinary creation.
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Anthony Marra, a Stegner Fellow, Iowa MFA, and winner of the Atlantic's Student Writing Contest, has won the Pushcart Prize, the Narrative Prize, and a scholarship to Bread Loaf. He has studied, resided, and traveled throughout Eastern Europe. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is his first novel.
Books mentioned in this post
Anthony Marra is the author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena