BY SEAN CLARK
[A new entry in our “I Loved This Book When…” series will appear every Monday this summer. To keep up with this series or any other, check out our Special Features page.]
I loved Weirdos From Another Planet when summers were timeless. Really, I loved (and still love) all Calvin and Hobbes, but Weirdos From Another Planet was the first I ever read, and it got me hooked. It was given to me and my little brother by a family friend when I was eight. I read it over and over that summer and in the summers to come. Soon I added the other great collections (with other great names like Scientific Progress Goes “Boink”).
I grew up at a summer camp, so my vacations were unique from those of most of my friends as a child. I didn’t do summer sports leagues, or participate in local swim clubs. I said goodbye to my school friends in June, and didn’t see them again until September. The second half of my summers I formally attended the camp my parents run, but the first half was a bit different. I lived at the camp as a sort of ghost–an eight-year-old staying at a summer camp, but not actually participating. I spent a lot of time occupying myself–mostly reading or playing Nintendo.
Reading has always been my number one escape from the world, the closest I will ever come to meditation. I know I’m not unique in this–otherwise I don’t suspect this site would have many readers. I was a geeky bookworm by first grade, but Weirdos From Another Planet is the first book that ever hit me like a drug. It was different from anything I’d ever read. I wasn’t big on comics as a kid (I’m still not), and I’m usually big on story and complex characterization when it comes to books I enjoy. While this collection of comic strips, like the others, contains a few story lines that wend through the pages, there is no overarching story line to speak of.
Calvin, however, is one of the most complex characters ever put to paper, despite being delivered through a mostly prose-less (and verse-less) medium. He is a confused and misunderstood little boy. He is a terrible student and a disobedient trouble-maker of a son. He has no friends, he’s bullied at school, he spends half his life being scolded by his teacher, his principal, his parents. The girl next door, Susie Derkins, occasionally gives him a chance at friendship, which he can’t help but trample.
Calvin perpetually finds himself required to participate in a world he can’t manage to fit into. So he creates his own.
First and most importantly, he creates a friend. Hobbes is his stuffed tiger. Calvin bestows upon him a personality completely distinct from his own. In many instances Hobbes is wiser, often playing a voice of reason for Calvin to ignore or refute. But he’s not infallible. Hobbes is often susceptible to Calvin’s faulty logic, especially when it comes to worldly things. That is, the two can have an intelligent discourse on the philosophical implications of a piece of trash left in the woods, but in the next strip, they might be completely baffled about how bread becomes toast.
Hobbes–and Calvin’s relationship with Hobbes–represents Calvin’s inability to interact with the world; the big words they use represent the ideas and sentiments that occur to him and yet he can’t articulate.
I identified with that, sometimes I still do. I sometimes felt that alienation at school–true or not, when I was in elementary school I felt smarter than a lot of my classmates, and that created gulfs that wouldn’t be bridged until high school. But I most especially felt these gulfs while I was laying alone on a July afternoon in our cottage at the edge the camp, listening to the other kids sailing, swimming, playing sports, having fun.
I didn’t have much sense of time in those early half summers. I shut out the camp and became absorbed with Calvin as he and his tiger took a stroll or wagon ride through the great expanse of woods behind his house.
I had plenty of woods to roam in, too. And sometimes I’d do that. But mostly I just lay in bed and shut my ears to the world. Like Calvin I’d close my brain to the structured world around me. I’d forget all about who my world wanted me to be, and how I was supposed to fit. It was just me and my thoughts, and Calvin’s stuffed tiger.
A book had never captured my imagination in such a way before. I became immersed in the pages, a participant. Single panes stretched into vast, living landscapes. I’d read plenty of adventure stories, but none ever gripped me like the imaginary adventures that occurred in Calvin’s backyard, or Spaceman Spiff’s intergalactic struggles, or the wagon trip to the prehistoric era of dinosaurs. Weirdos From Another Planet let me in and and engaged me like no book I had ever read.
I still reread Calvin and Hobbes every summer. A few years back I picked up the beautiful box set of the complete series (worth every penny). I guess I could probably read from it whenever I want, but it only ever feels right in the summer, when it’s so hot and sticky that the best feeling in the world is a breeze fluttering through the curtains. Right then is when I am brought back to that place of nothingness, not nostalgia, but something passed it. Calvin and Hobbes taught me how to make time disappear, to enter my own personal, if brief, nirvana.
I fell in love with these books when they taught me this, how to turn off time as I knew it. I fell in love them when they taught me how to read, really read–prose and paragraphs be damned. I’m thankful to them for it. And I still love them now, more than almost anything.