Textual Analysis of Calvin and Hobbbes

Comic strips appearing from 03/01/93 through 03/05/95
by Paul Polar for RCM 126, 04/24/95

Panel by Panel Analysis

 Panel 1

Miss Wormwood the teacher is sitting behind her desk marking papers. This serves to introduce her role as the authority figure. Her question, "WHERE IS CALVIN?" serves to introduce the multiple points of view and constructions of reality utilized in the strip. It also introduces the teacher's goal of maintaining order and the status quo. To accomplish her goal she must find out where Calvin is and make sure he's where he's supposed to be and doing what he's supposed to. Since the questions are addressed to the class, we are led to believe her students will help her achieve her goal. When the teacher says, "DIDN'T HE COME BACK FROM THE DRINKING FOUNTAIN?" it serves to identify her as being oriented in the material world. The teacher's act of asking the questions indicates Calvin is in trouble/causing trouble since he hasn't returned within the time the teacher thinks he should have. Furthermore, it indicates that Calvin had to plead his case before the teacher/judge before she gave him permission to leave the classroom.

 Panel 2

The student/girl recognizes the teacher's authority by raising her hand and addressing the teacher as "MISS WORMWOOD". The student is a mirror image of the teacher both in her appearance and in her shared philosophy. The student also has a paper on her desk and is sitting down behind her desk and the author utilizes these similarities to give the impression that the girl is a teacher in training. Furthermore she helps the teacher maintain order by informing on Calvin, "I'LL BET HE'S AT HIS LOCKER" and "HE BROUGHT SOMETHING SECRET IN A PAPER BAG TODAY THAT HE SAID WOULD HELP HIM ON THE TEST." Her betrayal of Calvin's secret emphasizes her alliance with the teacher against Calvin. The "SECRET" introduces the fantasy world of Calvin into the material world of the teacher and the student. It also indicates how Calvin's fantasy world is connected to the material world via how it would help him on the test.

 Panel 3

For the first time we are able to listen in on what's happening inside a character. The author shifts the focus from miss Wormwood's identity as a teacher to her identity as an individual. Her repetition of "FIVE YEARS UNTIL RETIREMENT FIVE YEARS UNTIL RETIREMENT" with her eyes closed invokes the image of someone repeating an aphorism to allow her to overcome the obstacle which is Calvin. Furthermore, the obstacle is not limited to Calvin since he will only be in her class for one year not five; therefore, the reader can conclude she has had problem children like Calvin before and expects to have them in the future. In essence she feels trapped in her job and is waiting to be released in five years from having to make children like Calvin conform to the norms of the classroom and more broadly the norms of society.

The teacher's characterization as dead wood waiting to retire is also reflected in her name and clothing. The name, "Miss Wormwood" reflects the her past and present, "Miss" indicates youth and Wormwood reflect old age, and decay. The teacher's stoutness and polka dot dress make her look like "Wormwood."

 Panel 4

Calvin is inside the locker and his size is distorted (i.e. he looks like he is about 8 inches tall). He looks like he is in a prison with the slots in the locker forming the bars over the window of his prison cell. It is also significant that he has locked himself in the locker, but his blurb indicates that he has been trapped by the teacher. His language is that of a comic book super hero-- "stupendous, zounds, fiendish nemesis".

In contrast to his physical size, his super hero identity is a "man" with "stupendous powers". He is also fighting a fiendish nemesis rather than just being a boy who locked himself in his locker. Calvin makes reality conform to his fantasy.

He is dressed in a super hero costume. He has a mask over his head which covers everything but his nose and mouth. The mask symbolizes the need to hide the identity of his alter ego from others. He is also wearing a cape which symbolizes flight and freedom. His alter ego is represented by his striped shirt, pants and shoes that he wears in all the "Calvin and Hobbes" strips. In particular, his striped shirts represents his stuffed tiger Hobbes which comes to life when Calvin is alone and is yet another alter ego of Calvin. With respect to the Calvin and Hobbes identities, Calvin seems to be more concerned with fantasy and larger than life interests while Hobbes is more concerned with the here and now aspects of life. Thus Calvin's costume represents both the Calvin and Hobbes identities.

Like the words of his stuffed tiger Hobbes who can not really speak except for inside Calvin's head, Stupendous man's words are written inside a blurb that indicates they're being spoken aloud. We know Calvin/Stupendous man is not speaking since the bold lettering indicates he is shouting some of the words none of which are heard by his teacher who is standing right next to his locker.

In contrast to "Calvin/Stupendous Man", the teacher does not appear in this panel although her words do and she is speaking out loud. She is trying to find Calvin by calling his name almost as if she were trying to bring him back from his fantasy world.

Calvin is in both his fantasy world and the world of the teacher which is indicated by, "IT'S STUPENDOUS MAN'S FIENDISH NEMESIS, THE CRAB TEACHER, COMING TO FINISH HIM OFF!". Calvin is rebelling against the teacher's authority, but is fighting the battle from the perspective of his super hero fantasy world. Calvin equates doing what the teacher wants to death, "THE CRAB TEACHER, COMING TO FINISH HIM OFF!" Therefore there is a clear link between what goes on in Calvin's fantasy world and what goes on in the real world/teacher's world.

The positioning of the teacher and Calvin in panel 3 and panel 4 serves to highlight the contrasts between the teacher and Calvin:

Miss Wormwood Panel 3Calvin Panel 4
thought blurb/no bold lettersvocal blurb/bold letters
repetitious phrasesuper hero narrative
Children like Calvin make her job difficult.The teacher is trying to kill him.
trapped in her jobtrapped inside locker
eyes closed with glasseseyes wide open with no glasses
material worldfantasy world
in the lightin the dark
old womanyoung boy
normal clothing/polka dotssuper hero costume/stripes
facing leftfacing right
standingholding on
doesn't know where Calvin isknows where the teacher is

 Panel 5

The teacher is talking to herself out loud which contrasts with Calvin talking/thinking/non-vocal in the previous panel. Calvin is represented by the bold, "KA-CHUNK" which is the kind of noise that appears in super hero comic books during fight scenes.

The teachers size is not distorted and emphasizes how much larger/powerful she is than Calvin.

The authority of the teacher is also represented by the act of her opening Calvin's locker without seeking his permission first. Thus the students do not have the same privacy rights as adults, but are more like prisoners and mentally ill patients in hospitals who are also denied privacy rights.

 Panel 6

In this panel Calvin's super hero fantasy and miss Wormwood's material world co-exist. Calvin also declares his freedom is due to his own physical power, "WITH STUPENDOUS MUSCLES OF MAGNITUDE, STUPENDOUS MAN BREAKS FREE!!" rather than due to the teacher opening the locker.

CalvinMiss Wormword
super hero narrative with
spiked blurb
brief question with
regular dialogue blurb
hands in fistshands open

 Panel 7

The symbolism/spelling of "STUPENDOUS" man has references to his alter ego of Hobbes ("TIGER, FEROCITY"), power ("POWER, INCREDIBLE", "EXCELLENT PHYSIQUE", "DETERMINATION") and sexuality ("UNDERWEAR, RED"). These themes appear throughout the comic strip.

There are two pictures of Calvin in this panel, Stupendous Man and "baby" Calvin. Calvin starts out as the powerful confident Stupendous Man declaring how his name represents physical power. When Calvin doesn't know what the letters represent nor how to spell, "STUPENDOUS" he reverts back to "baby" Calvin who is powerless and indecisive. Ironically this indicates that Calvin needs to go to school so miss Wormwood can teach him spelling. Thus the author is implying Calvin needs to submit to the teacher's authority to have a successful fantasy. It also indicates that knowing how to spell is important to both Stupendous Man and baby Calvin.

The last question "IS IT 'I'??" has several meanings: spelling, self referential, who is Calvin (Stupendous Man or baby Calvin or someone else).

Stupendous Manbaby Calvin
Mouth open with right hand raised in a fist.Mouth closed with his right thumb in his mouth.
Eyes glaringEyes cross eyed and wide open
sentences end with
no vocal or non-vocal pauses
sentences end with
vocal pauses "um", llhm" and non-vocal pauses

 Panel 8

The teacher exercises her power over Calvin by dragging him away by the hand that was raised in a first in the previous panel. Her words also serve as her justification for using her powers, "WE HAVE TO BE DISCIPLINARIANS" and "WE NEED TO BE PSYCHOLOGISTS". She also indicates how she feels forced into taking on these two additional roles-- "IT'S NOT ENOUGH THAT WE HAVE TO BE", "WE NEED TO BE". The use of "WE" indicates that the need to conform to social norms is what is forcing her to take on the roles.

In contrast, Calvin attributes the actions of Miss Wormwood to herself rather than to society, "YOUR NEFARIOUS SCHEME WILL NEVER SUCCEED!". Furthermore Calvin is looking at the reader as he makes his statement.

Calvin's resistance and desire for freedom are represented by the right side of his body: his right arm is stretched out to the side and his right leg is up in the air.

 Panel 9

Calvin escapes from Miss Wormwood. His dialog once again begins with a reference to self/Stupendous Man. He equates freedom with flight, "STUPENDOUS MAN ESCAPES! A CRIMSON BOLT BURSTS THROUGH THE AIR!".

The teacher's words, "CALVIN COME BACK HERE!" has multiple meanings:
1. literal meaning
2. Calvin needs to come back from his fantasy world.
3. A threat (this is the first time the teacher uses a "!")

 Panel 10

Calvin flies above the clouds which represents his triumphant escape over the repression of the teacher. Unlike Panel 6 where he appears to be flying, in this panel he is flying with his cape pressed-against his back and speed lines flowing from the cape.

In contrast to his actions, his dialog indicates his intentions to comply with the teacher's goal of returning to class to take the test. More broadly, this symbolizes his willingness to comply with the norms of the school and society. He also implies that complying will result in a loss of power when he transforms from "STUPENDOUS MAN"/Powerful adult to "MILD-MANNERED CALVIN"/powerless child & student. However by maintaining his fantasy, Calvin still maintains his power, "IT'S OFF TO APPLY MY STUPENDOUS POWERS OF CONCENTRATION TO THE HISTORY TEST OF MY ALTER EGO EGO, MILD-MANNERED CALVIN!" Calvin's compliance with the teacher's goals is done on his terms (Powerful Self Determination/Super hero flies into class) rather than on the teacher's terms (No nonsense Teacher in charge/Miss Wormwood drags him into class).

 Panel 11

Calvin demonstrates his power in the classroom by entering with both arms upraised in fists and skidding on his heels to a stop. His dialog continues to be super hero. He uses "TA-DAAA!" to further attract the classes attention thereby displacing the teacher in her role of authority. Furthermore, he claims to be the, "CHAMPION OF LIBERTY AND JUSTICE!" another role which the teacher is supposed to play.

In contrast, the three other students that we can see in the class are sitting at their desks. The girl in the middle is writing on her test. These students represent conformity to classroom and social norms. Nevertheless, Calvin does succeed in getting their attention with his entrance since they are all looking up at him rather than their test.

 Panel 12

Calvin has his eye closed as he strides over to his desk. His appearance reinforces his words which talk about how the girls in the classroom should "RESTRAIN YOURSELVES", "I'M JUST HERE TO DO CALVIN'S TEST." This implies that the girls are sexually attracted to Stupendous Man and not to Calvin the student. It also implies the test is not important, Calvin can't do the test himself, and Stupendous Man is helping Calvin cheat on the test by taking it for him. Thus Calvin is once again rebelling against the norms even though he is willing to take the test.

The two girls/students represent conformity. Candace accuses (guilty by association) the other girl of something by telling her, "HE LIVES ON YOUR STREET DOESN'T HE?". The bold "your" puts the emphasis in the sentence which turns it into an accusation. The other girl (the same one as in the first panel) denies her association with him, "I HARDLY EVEN KNOW HIM, CANDACE!". This interaction indicates that knowing or associating with Calvin is a stigma. Since the girls only use the pronoun "him", it also has the additional meanings of don't associate with boys in general, and don't associate with rebels/insane like Calvin.

Panels 13-16

Calvin is being dragged out of the classroom by Miss Wormwood. He denies that he is Stupendous Man and tries to convince the teacher and students that he was only trying to do what the teacher told him he could do. For the first time Calvin takes on the identity of Calvin the student, but he still continues to maintain his fantasy world even as he's dragged screaming out of the room. His screams, "AAAUGHH!" and "ARRGGH!" are they same sorts of sounds you'd hear in a super hero battle scene. Calvin is still trying to turn the tables on the teacher by claiming to be, "FALSELY ACCUSED" in attempt to make the teacher out to be the one out of touch with reality rather than himself.

Throughout these panels Calvin is not shown nor is Miss Wormwood who doesn't say anything either. Thus Miss Wormwood appears as an irresistible force who can't be reasoned with. All we see are the effects of her judgment which are papers and chairs flying threw the air and the sounds they make in addition to the sounds Calvin's body makes as he's dragged ("BONK CRASH", "SCRAPE DRAG", and "CRUNCH CLUNK"). The lettering of the sounds are bold type and lettered like they would appear in a super hero fight scene.

The first girl/student remains sitting in her desk throughout the panels with a glum expression on her face. In panels 13 & 14 she is looking at Calvin being dragged away. In panel 15 she looks directly at the reader and not at Calvin and the teacher. In the last panel she looks at Calvin and the teacher while resuming the test. Our attention is immediately drawn to panel 15 since panels 13, 14, and 16 all have the girl looking at that panel and in panel 15 she is directly looking at us. Her quizzical expression (forehead furrowed) makes her seem as if she's asking us what we think of the situation. In the last panel we're able to see into her mind which makes it clear that she just wants to forget about the scene. Her phrase, "I ALWAYS JUST SAY, 'FINE," indicates her desire not to talking about her feelings about school. As a representative of conformity, her not talking about school indicates that the author thinks we never to discuss how we felt at school nor do we talk about the normalization process that goes on in schools.

Is the Author Persuasive?

In consistent contradictory style the author contradicts himself and acts as a rebel since the whole strip has been about the conflicts and power struggles that go on in school. At a more broader level, the strip talks about the justice system and our attitudes to people who have mental health problems because they don't conform to societal norms. Miss Wormwood and Calvin are the protagonists who are struggling to see whether or not Calvin will conform. At times both feel trapped by the system. Miss Wormwood never voices her feeling of being trapped in the system. Calvin on the other hand goes to great lengths and creates another more powerful identity to express his dissatisfaction with the system while at the same time complying with the system by claiming to be following the rules. Calvin seems to have an aggressive passive aggressive personality.

The author is able to create multiple meanings and contradictions by applying several stylistic devices:

The placement of the character relative to on another and their environment.
The genre of the super hero.
The use of blurbs to indicate different points of view.
The use of words which have literal and other meanings.
Contrasting reality drawings with drawings of a fantasy world.

The author also turns the strip into a power struggle between women and men. The women seem to be based in the material world and are conformists. They are also depicted as trying to force Calvin to comply with the norms by making him do what they want (the teacher) or shunning him (the girl students). Furthermore, the women gang up on Calvin so it is also the individual's rights versus their obligations to society.

Calvin seems to not need to learn about the rules of the norms since it is quite clear that he knows what they are but doesn't want to follow them. Furthermore he actively tries to subvert the norms by testing their boundaries and trying to bend them to accomplish his goals to empower himself.

The author also uses Calvin to satirize learning since Calvin uses a lot of big words which a child his age wouldn't normally use. Therefore Calvin should be an example of an intelligent child and thus qualify as a success story rather than as a problem child at school that must be forced to conform. Contrastingly, the teacher must ultimately resort to over powering physical force rather than reason to accomplish her educational task. Ultimately the author questions how useful our rigid social structures are and whether they really exist to benefit our children or are simply a way of making ourselves feel more comfortable by making our children behave like ourselves under the cover of trying to teach them about a subject rather than how to comply with our authority and the authority of society. The key to accomplishing this compliance seems to be punishing those who speak out and teaching everyone how to suppress their feelings of entrapment in the system.