What ‘Calvin And Hobbes’ Creator Bill Watterson — And My Son — Taught Me About Imaginary Friends
"Imagination is more important than knowledge."
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“Shiny and I played crocodiles today,” my 2-year-old son, Zephyr, recently told me at dinner.
“We jumped up and down a lot,” he continued. “We raced at the park. And he has a castle.”
Shiny sounded like a cool little dude to me. Frankly, I was happy to hear that my son had a new playmate at his daycare, since a number of his longtime friends had recently moved on to pre-school. He had been a little lonely in the wake of their departure, so Shiny was clearly a welcome addition to the pint-sized posse. Hopefully his parents would be cool, so we could get the boys together for some play dates.
However, when I asked Zephyr’s daycare provider about his new friend the next day, she looked at me like I had shown up without any pants on. There were no new children, certainly not a little boy named Shiny. He didn’t exist – except in my son’s imagination.
Some parents might be concerned their child was spending his time with a fictional friend, but I didn’t mind. In fact, I considered myself struck-the-lottery lucky. It was as if Calvin and Hobbes suddenly decided to move into my house. I couldn’t think of anything cooler than that, unless the Millennium Falcon somehow became my primary form of transportation.
I have a deep-seated love for the cartoon duo. In 2009, I published Looking for Calvin and Hobbes: The Unconventional Story of Bill Watterson and His Revolutionary Comic Strip , which is part biography, part detective story and part nerdy love letter to its creator.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the strip is you oftentimes get to see the action unfold alternately both from Calvin’s perspective and from the viewpoint of the other people in his life. Part of the reason why Watterson never allowed Calvin and Hobbes to be merchandized was because it would upset these contrasted outlooks.
Ultimately, it didn’t matter whether Hobbes was real or not. All that mattered was Calvin believed he was real.
“The idea of a Hobbes doll is especially noxious, because the intrigue of Hobbes is that he may or may not be a real tiger,” Watterson once told The Comics Journal. “The strip deliberately sets up 2 versions of reality without committing itself to either one. If I’m not going to answer the question of who or what Hobbes is, I’m certainly not going to let [stuffed toy manufacturer] Dakin answer it. It makes no sense to allow someone to make Hobbes into a stuffed toy for real, and deprive the strip of an element of its magic.”
Ultimately, it didn’t matter whether Hobbes was real or not. All that mattered was Calvin believed he was real. Just like it didn’t matter whether he could actually travel through time, transmogrify himself or explore distant galaxies as Spaceman Spiff. He believed that he could, and so was able to experience everything he imagined.
I didn’t have a Hobbes growing up. When I first read Calvin and Hobbes, I was 11 years old and had just moved to a new town, where I didn’t have any friends. I often wished for a constant companion, like Hobbes, who would always be up for some adventuring and mischief making. So when I learned about Shiny, I felt grateful my son had discovered his Hobbes.
For anyone that’s worried that this might be the sign of psychological issues, you can stop being a paranoid parent. Pour yourself a glass of bourbon three fingers deep and calm down. According to the comfortingly titled article Imaginary Friends: A Fun, Helpful, and Normal Part of Childhood by Karen Stephens, director of the Illinois State University Child Care Center, between 25 to 45 percent of three to seven-year-olds around the world have imaginary friends. Not only is it commonplace, but these kids are described as emotionally well-adjusted, intellectually and verbally skilled, outgoing and sociable – all qualities any dad would hope their children would possess.
These fictional pals are created for any number of reasons. First and foremost, kids love fantasy. If they don’t have a playmate handy, they’ll simply make one up. Secondly, these invisible buddies make great fall guys. Your child didn’t break the lamp or spill milk all over the table – their friend did it. Finally, these imaginary friends help children cope with changes in their life or fears they’re experiencing. So even though Calvin’s parents and teachers thought he was a bit of an oddball, he was actually the sanest character in the strip.
For Zephyr, Shiny seemed to be both filling in the void left by the absence of his longtime friends at daycare and helping him with the transition to a new dynamic where he was suddenly one of the oldest kids there. When I asked Zephyr about Shiny again a few days after I learned of his existence, I heard about a new slew of adventures. Apparently, they had been swimming with sharks in the moat of Shiny’s castle. I didn’t need to worry, Zephyr reassured me. Even though the sharks had very sharp teeth, they were very friendly. After that, they all ate pancakes together.
Normally, it’s my job to read my son books or create epic tales about dinosaurs and mythical creatures at bedtime, but here I was getting treated to my own story time. I was fascinated and wanted to know more. What did they do after they ate all those pancakes? How did he and Shiny breathe underwater? Did he know how to speak shark? But just like a newspaper comic, I’d have to wait for the next day to find out more about their escapades.
Listening to him reminded me how I excited I was to introduce Zephyr to Calvin and Hobbes. I have an unopened copy of the complete boxed set just waiting for the right birthday, Christmas or rainy day. In the meantime, we can both content ourselves by appreciating the magical world that’s always all around us.
Nevin Martell is a full-time writer, who covers food, travel, parenting and pop culture for many publications, including The Washington Post, Travel + Leisure and Fortune. Find him on Twitter @nevinmartell and at nevinmartell.com.
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