How Calvin and Hobbes Made Me a Better Writer

3 min read

As a kid, I remember waking up early on Sundays, sipping (and pretending to enjoy) a tall cup of Folgers, and cracking open the Toys “R” Us ad like it was the Wall Street Journal. I’d kick back and ogle the Nerf guns and Super Nintendo games, calculating the chore money I had in my coffers, usually coming to the conclusion that I couldn’t afford much more than a pack of Tropical Fruit Bubblicious.

Once my toy lust subsided, I’d read the funny papers. I’d read them all: Peanuts, Garfield, Beetle Bailey, FoxTrot, Hägar, The Far Side—I even liked Dilbert. Pretty much everything but Prince Valiant and Cathy. Obviously.

But the crown jewel—the comic strip I’d always save for the very end—was Calvin and Hobbes.

Bill Watterson’s iconic strip singlehandedly started my love affair with words. As an 11-year-old, I’d never seen words like “corporeal,” “countenance,” “transience,” “evanescence,” “philistine,” “abstraction,” “oeuvre,” “visceral,” or “monochromatic” before.  (Those are all from just three daily strips—a characteristic rant from Calvin defending his art.)Calvin & Hobbes comic strip

I don’t know if it was the perfectionist in me or an unwillingness to be ignorant, but I looked up every single word I couldn’t define. Because I read Calvin and Hobbes every day, those definitions got a lot of positive reinforcement.

Yes, this made me a better writer. But Calvin and Hobbes benefitted my prose more than that. Because there was also the sarcasm and irony—about writing in particular.Calvin & Hobbes comic strip

Before Calvin and Hobbes, I had no grasp of sarcasm or irony. But Calvin taught me the subtle (and not-so-subtle) art of harnessing these two literary weapons. Which pretty much turned me into an obnoxious smartass overnight as I tinkered with the delicate balance of authenticity and sarcasm/irony in my own writing.

Yes, Calvin is a curmudgeon. He’s a nihilist. He has no respect for authority. But he’s also a contradiction: the proverbial smart slacker. Despite his cynical nature, he has such reverence for nature and art and the power of imagination. His deceptively mature worldview fundamentally changed not only the way I write, but my perspective on just about everything. All this from a 6-year-old misanthrope and his stuffed tiger. It goes to show that resonant, suggestive work transcends any medium (as Calvin might say).

Watterson’s obvious love of language helped me understand how language and words are perpetually evolving. What’s “correct” today will probably sound clunky or obsolete tomorrow.screen-shot-2016-09-27-at-4-22-25-pm

And let’s not forget about altering and abusing words for our own purposes.screen-shot-2016-09-27-at-4-22-44-pm

There’s no doubt that Calvin and Hobbes had an indelible influence for the better on my development as a writer. Sure, sometimes Watterson’s iconic comic strip was little more than a reprieve from the hypnotic Toys “R” Us ads and the relentless banality of Dilbert. But more often than not, it gave insight into a novel way of thinking and writing—and I still can’t turn it off 20 years later.