So I just read this article by Kiel Fleming, which purports to explain why Calvin and Hobbes is the best strip ever (better than Peanuts, even.) It’s not intended to be a serious or logical argument; the five “reasons” for Fleming lists to support his view are just gags from the strip (Calvin and Hobbes is the best strip in the world because it includes Calvinball and Susie Derkins — that kind of thing.)
Fair enough — but in fact this take on C & H actually does sum up my own attitude towards the strip. Not the part about it’s being the greatest thing ever, but the part about it’s being a series of fairly funny gags, and that’s about it. Great claims have been made for Calvin and Hobbes, but I don’t see much about it that distinguishes it qualitatively from something like, say, Foxtrot. Bill Watterson’s pretty funny, but most of his humor falls comfortably into competent sit-com territory — snappy one-liners playing off routine formula (my, bad boys sure are something, aren’t they?) He doesn’t have anything like the surreal goofiness of Gary Larson or Berkely Breathed, and he’s miles away from the quietly doddering genius of Schulz. Calvin’s imaginary life (the strip’s central hook) is cute, but fairly pedestrian. He imagines himself as a dinosaur, he imagines himself trapped by space aliens, he imagines making duplicates of himself — and then at the end of the strip we see the world as it really is, where the space alien is actually his teacher, or whatever. The whole thing is grindingly literal. Even the ambiguity — as in the moments where questions are raised about whether Hobbes is or is not real — seems plodding. Certainly there’s nothing as weird or as ontologically indeterminate as Snoopy’s fantasies. Most of Calvin and Hobbes really boils down to “kids say (or do) the darndest things.”
What really distinguishes C&H from its competition is its pomposity (the leaden decision to name the strips stars Calvin and Hobbes more or less sums up Watterson’s clumsy philosophical flailings) and its excellent art. Watterson’s probably the best artist (other than Schulz) I can think of in the strip form over the last couple of decades. His facility and invention, especially in many of his Sunday strips, make his work a treat to look at. And Calvinball and the rest of the gags are quite funny too. I don’t hate it or anything; it’s just not all that.