Spaceman Spiff and the Stupendous Man: The Culture Industry in “Calvin and Hobbes”

“The paradise offered by the culture industry is the same old drudgery”

-Theodor Adorno and Marx Horkheimer

Fantasy and imagination have been the central and recurring theme in the comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes”. Its creator Bill Watterson himself has admitted that the strip revolves around the subjective nature of reality. When for Calvin, Hobbes is very real, to all others he is just a stuffed doll. The reader–better informed of the situation than the characters of the strip– fluctuates from Hobbes being a talking tiger to a mere stuffed toy that comes alive only to Calvin and is therefore unconsciously forced to choose continuously between these positions while reading the strip. Thus, the choosing of ‘reality’ takes place not only at the level of the characters of the strip, but also at the level of the readers of the strip. This is a trap that the reader of this strip may not, but would do well to avoid. Watterson is not concerned with the ‘truth’ but with the subjective nature of reality, which lends immense power and flexibility to the strip.

As Watterson puts it in an interview that appeared in Comics Journal (Issue no 127, Feb 1989):

“I should also mention, just in that con­text, that the fantasy/reality question is a literary device, so the ultimate reality of it doesn’t really matter that much anyway. In other words, when Dorothy’s in Oz, if you want to make this obviously a dream, it becomes stupid – you confine yourself”.

This paper while choosing not to focus on fantasy/reality dichotomy of Hobbes’s character, would be dealing particularly with the many alter-egos of Calvin, the central character of the strip and examine Watterson’s choices of Calvin’s alter- egos and their usefulness to the overarching philosophy of the strip .

 

It is evident that Calvin possesses a highly imaginative mind and fantasy is his escape route from the tough situations of life. These situations are normally tasteless food, school quiz, boring classes, “persuasive argument”-style assignments, or a meeting with the principal on the counts of indiscipline and short attention spans. Calvin regularly imagines himself to be Godzilla, a predatory dinosaur, large mammal, killer shark, eagle, bat and other such creatures, sometimes with the help of a ‘Transmogrifier’ which is nothing but a big cardboard box with its top open. He is also fond of acting out the parts of forces of nature- thunderstorm, active volcano, tsunami like wave, solar eclipse causing planet, C-bomb and even an omnipotent deity. Calvin is also shown watching films like, “The Cuisinart Murder of Central High” and “Attack of the Co-ed Cannibals” and making heinous looking snowmen on the front porch.A common feature in all these parts is a passion for acts of violence and destruction.
Perhaps, it is pertinent to wonder why Calvin enjoys playing these parts that are destructive in nature and what kind of a society necessitates such destructive streak from a six year old? Though it is all innocently done, I argure that what these Calvin personas actually do is to reflect the violent nature of the American society, where guns and acts of violence are so common, that news of high school kids shooting their classmates fails to shock anyone anymore.Obviously, there is more to the strip than about a six year old and his pet. Using Calvin, his alter egos and the fantasy sequences, Watterson exposes, problemetizes and dismantles what is called ‘The American way’and in that process cuts down to size, an indulgent mass media, a highly commercialized popular art and finally, a capitalist-consumerist society. In fact, Calvin is an archetypal American “raised to an alarming extent by the Madison avenue and Hollywood” (“Calvin and Hobbes” 31 Oct.1995) who demands to be shocked and titillated by the media because he has the money (“Calvin and Hobbes”24 July .1995).

Watterson, like Adorno finds fault with the American culture industry for production of standardized cultural fare that lulls the public into passivity and into a false sense of well being. Calvin represents a society that is constantly assured that they, the consumer, is the king, while in reality they are only mere appendages to the machinery of culture industry. Hollywood, comics industry, television and other forms of popular culture are ridiculed for selling twisted values. He does it by developing a set of Calvin alter- egos that closely resembles the stereotypical characters of the popular culture which Calvin or any child growing up in America would naturally subscribe to. Watterson employs all the worn out clichés of each genre, from the language to lighting, tone and style to show how clichéd and predictable they become once they compromise on innovation, originality and artistic integrity in the name of quick money and a “Hey,its popular culture!” attitude.

 

 

It is a well recorded fact that Bill Watterson has always been a critic of rampant commercialization of the popular art who has repeatedly rejected offers to license his characters, saying that:

“Note pads and coffee mugs just aren’t appropriate vehicles for what I’m trying to do here. I’m not interested in removing all the subtlety from my work to condense it for a product. The strip is about more than jokes. I think the syndicate would admit this if they would start looking at my strip instead of just the royalty checks. Unfortunately, they are in the cartoon business only because it makes money, so arguments about artistic intentions are never very persuasive to them. I have no aversion to obscene wealth, but that’s not my motivation either. I think to license Calvin and Hobbes would ruin the most precious qualities of my strip and, once that happens, you can’t buy those qualities back.….. The world of a comic strip is much more fragile than most people realize. Once you’ve given up its integrity, that’s it. I want to make sure that never happens. Instead of asking what’s wrong with rampant commercialism, we ought to be asking, “What justifies it?” Popular art does not have to pander to the lowest level of intelligence and taste”. (Comics Journal Feb.1989)

A close analysis of the important Calvin personae reveals how Watterson offers a critique of the denigration of the popular culture, particularly the American comics’ scene.

Stupendous Man: A super hero part that Calvin adopts by donning a crimson cape and mask his mother made for him. Even though he claims to have only won “moral victories” Stupendous Man is found using his ‘stupendous powers’ for silly personal gains. Stupendous man is the ‘Champion of liberty and Defender of free will’ and his enemies are Evil mom-lady (Calvin’s mom), babysitter girl (his babysitter) and annoying girl (his classmate Susie). In one strip, Calvin on donning the stupendous man mask and the cape, asks a perplexed Hobbes- “seen any crime?” imitating the American state’s eagerness to play the ‘global cop’. Right from their golden age (late 1930’s) the American superheroes have remained great propaganda machines for the state, with superheros like Captain America having played played a significant part in convincing the American public to enter into and support allied forces’ operations in World War II. In their claims of being the protectors of democracy, law, freedom and liberty, these superheroes have traditionally endorsed the use of might and muscle power as the best way to deal with ‘problems’ often taking law into their hands while assuring us that “with great power, comes great responsibility”.This idea of a superhero, quintessentially American, is an extension of the aggressive policies pursued by the American state.

 

 

Watterson parodies the American pantheon of macho- street vigilante and the state using the very same literary device extensively used by the industry in their role as the state ideological apparatus – caped crusaders with secret alter-egos.

Captain Napalm: Another super hero persona that Calvin draws from the comic book he reads. Captain Napalm is a thinly disguised Captain America. He is the leader of the ‘Thermo Nuclear league of Liberty’ and protects “truth, justice and the American way”. His name triggers associations with the Napalm bombs that were used extensively in American military operations in Vietnam and around the world.

Spaceman Spiff: Valiant Spiff, “interplanetary explorer extraordinaire,” zips around in a red flying saucer with a bubble canopy and explores the galaxy carrying a ‘napalm neutralizer’ with which he fights hideous aliens who in real life are usually his parents or his teacher, Mrs. Wormwood. The galaxy is a cruel place and a substitute for the tough ‘real’ world in which Calvin lives. A spoof on Star Trek, Star Wars and science fiction adventure comics like “Flash Gordon”, Space man Spiff brings mock heroic elements to the strip. Watterson while drawing the space sequences adopts a completely different style and tone so that the connection with the space adventure comics/films/TV series is immediate and inevitable. Spiff is shown carrying an array of intricate and mean sounding weapons like The Atomic Napalm Neutralizer, Death Ray Zorcher and Demise-O-Bombs, while aliens use Deadly Frap Rays to shoot his flying saucer down. The Spaceman Spiff alter -ego throws light on the American psyche of the cold war years when the race for arms and dominance of outer space was at its zenith.

Tracer Bullet: Tracer bullet is a private investigator and is a spoof on the genre of film noir, Frank Miller’s Sin City series (comic noir) and popular detective fiction with stereotyped characters and narrative techniques. The film noir style used in drawing and in dialogue is so clichéd that it reflects the lack of originality and specter of standardization that haunts the American popular culture.

Calvin is named after the 16th century theologian John Calvin, the founder of Calvinism and a strong believer in predestination. To Watterson, Calvin’s choices have been predestined. Not by fate, but by the ideology of his society. Calvin is the eternal customer, the object of the culture industry of whom Adorno and Horkheimer writes about. It is to be understood that unlike Wertham’s (Seduction of the Innocent, 1954) criticism of popular comics which led to the setting up of the Comics Code Authority, Watterson’s criticism of popular culture is not myopic in nature, but stems from the understanding that all popular culture, including comics, reflect the ideology of the society that gives birth to them. Even though he condemns the cheapening of popular art forms in their overarching bid to affirm the status quo, his critique of the popular culture is essentially the critique of capitalist- consumerist ideology of the American society. The choice of the above described Calvin personae for their politically charged nature enables Watterson to highlight the mutually beneficial relationship that exists between the state and the culture industry.

 

 

 

In 1995, after ten years of drawing the strip, Bill Watterson declared that he would be discontinuing the strip. By then, the strip had appeared in 2400 newspapers around the world and had won a large fan following.Everyone was taken aback by this “strange” decision, for it is unusual in the comic strip industry for an artist to quit when a strip is at its best and turn back on millions of dollars that it generates.Watterson in his letter to the readers cited the constraints of smaller panels and deadlines as the reasons for this decision and expressed the desire to work at a more thoughtful pace with lesser artistic compromises. His constant tiffs with the Universal Press Syndicate over licensing rights, repeated demands for larger spaces and steadfast refusal to compromise on the integrity of his strip might have been acts of resistance against the consolidation of the power in the hands of a few media syndicates. One may safely assume that it was these fights with the ‘culture industry’ that finally prompted Watterson to quit drawing the strip and embrace self imposed anonymity.

Traditionally, main stream comics have been hesitant to explore sensitive subjects or question the accepted norms and beliefs of the society. They have happily remained as propaganda for the established socio-economic and political order. Thomas M. Inge in his book, Comics and Culture finds that comic strips always conclude with a trust in the larger scheme of truth and justice and adds:

They (comic strips) soften the impact of reality by providing a comic distance on life’s dangers, disasters and tragedies and enable us to laugh at ourselves as the pretentious characters we happen to be. (15)

Comics can do much more than enabling us to laugh at ourselves. The real power of comics lies in its ability to ask questions and shock us out of our state of complacency. What is important here is that Watterson locates himself within this site of popular culture and then proceeds to deconstruct the very same space. Watterson may not have had the last laugh, for the culture industry does permit deviants and dissidents even though only as a kind of novelty that fosters its business. But with Watterson, the comic strip medium attains the maturity to break away from the claustrophobic hold of the market and becomes self reflective enough to ask some very significant questions.

 

by Gokul Gopalakrishnan
Gokul is a cartoonist and researcher based in Kerala, India, whose cartoons and comics have appeared in Asian Age, Deccan Chronicle, The New Indian Express, DNA, Mint, Fountain Ink, Kindle and various comics anthologies. He has written extensively on comic art for both academic and popular publications.
Published in Conspectus Volume IV, 2007, P 46-54.
Image Copyright: Bill Watterson
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West, Richard Samuel. Interview with Bill Watterson. Comics Journal 127(1989)