Respect Your Audience:

The New 52 and Calvin and Hobbes

DC’s New 52 initiative has sparked a lot of recent controversy over the presentation of women and female characters Having debated and discussed until I was proverbially hoarse, a single question still remains unanswered in my mind…  Why did the DC editorial board decide to publish these blatantly offensive issues?

There are a number of possibilities.  Perhaps the folks at the DC staff are simply a band of fools. Thankfully, this proposition holds little water, as DC has been running well as a company for a long time. Maybe the editors are actually sexist and chauvinistic?  Again, this is an unlikely theory.  If these publications are a pervasive conspiracy designed to denigrate women, then they are a very poor one.

Perhaps, then, the DC staff is just unaware of the implications of these comics?  This, too, seems unlikely, for these sorts of insulting representations of women are nothing new.  They are simply the latest example of an ongoing problem in all media, DC or otherwise.  This problem of female portrayal has been railed against for a long time, from numerous sources.  There is no longer any possibility that DC Comics could be ignorant of these issues.

So why did they put such unabashedly offensive content into print?  With the above options removed, there is only one remaining explanation: they thought it would sell.  And so far, it has.  DC has been reporting multiple issues breaking the 200,000 sales mark – high marks for any monthly issue.

It’s just another example of the age old adage – sex and violence sells.  How many times have we heard such a maxim applied to poor Hollywood movies?  When we ask, “Why would anyone make such a pointless movie?” we are rebutted with, “Well, sex sells.”

And it does.  But does it sell well?

1. The Long Haul

Enter the comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes.  In its ten year run from 1985 to 1995, it was published in up to 2,400 newspapers, reaching millions of viewers.  It re-runs internationally in 50 different countries and has been translated into Chinese, Vietnamese, and Arabic, among others.

There are a total of 17 books collecting Calvin and Hobbes, and combined they have sold around 500,000 copies a year for 16 years straight since the end of the strip’s newspaper run.  Their total sales are nearing 45 million copies.  But what is most incredible by far is that Calvin and Hobbes has absolutely no merchandise.  Bill Watterson, the creator, repeatedly turns down any and all attempts to make money off of his creative property outside his comic strip.  He has refused t-shirts, dolls, mugs, bumper stickers, and even animated films.  For 16 years, Calvin and Hobbes has had no press, no advertising, and no circulation in anything besides book form.

And people still buy it like it’s going out of print.  Why?

2. The Simple Answer

Because Calvin and Hobbes is good.  Many dissertations have been penned on what makes Watterson’s strip work so well, and just as many answers have been put forth – the characters, their interactions, Calvin’s fantasy world vs. the real world, the alleged split personality of Calvin and Hobbes themselves, or the subject matter of the strip.

Frankly, all of that stuff doesn’t matter.  Though charming, the specifics of the strip are not really what made Calvin and Hobbes sell monstrously, even years after having left circulation.  The selling point was the quality of its execution.  And that execution is marked by one very important factor which all comics, mainstream or otherwise, could stand to take a look at.

That factor is respect.

Respect for the intelligence of the audience.  Watterson never went for the cheap gag.  He was never obviously crude, and never pushed a political or philosophical message down your throat.  He was always witty, always level-headed, and always kind enough to allow you to think about his humor.  People of all ages have enjoyed Calvin and Hobbes, from 7 years old to 70 years old.

This respect extends to the characters inside the strip as well.  Calvin, the young protagonist, is remarkably shrewd and thoughtful, a trait which most children possess when you stop and look long enough.  But he is also relentlessly devious and self-interested – another trait most children possess, often to the older generation’s chagrin.

Calvin and the rest of the cast were always written in a complex, yet unobtrusive manner.  They exhibited flaws, pondered strange thoughts, asked odd questions, concocted fantastic dreams, and offered a great deal of love.  All of these aspects were revealed in each of them and respected, never cheapened for a dollar or exploited for a sale.

For example, take the following strip:

Even in this, the most undeniably foolish of actions to attempt, Calvin is respected by the strip.  Not in a molly-coddling, restraining sort of way, but in a genuine manner.  Though this strip is clearly slapstick humor, and we are laughing at Calvin’s obvious expense, it doesn’t feel like a Three Stooges skit.  The protagonists are not merely insufferable dunces.  We’re not laughing at Calvin’s stupidity, we are laughing at his humanity, and that makes all the difference.

3. There are no rules in Calvinball.

Is this to say that all mainstream comics should emulate Calvin and Hobbes?  Of course not! Mainstream comics should not suddenly be filled with stuffed animals, private eye fantasies, homework woes, and cardboard box transmogrifiers.  Our cape ‘n cowl punch-ups need not be always family friendly and set in domestic backdrops.  All those things are just surface qualities.

What mainstream comics should have a look at is the deep and abiding respect that Calvin and Hobbes exhibits, towards both its audience and its content.  If Calvin and Hobbes can sell 500,000 copies a year with no advertising, imagine how well comics as a whole would be doing if our stories were a little bit more respectful, a little bit more thought out, and a little bit more human.

Let’s take the time to make better comics.  It will pay off.

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David Balan is a current student and aspiring comics creator, studying sequential art at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia. He is working on becoming both a writer and an artist, and he plans to eventually script and draw his own complete graphic novels. You can see his most current portfolio at

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  1. Great article. It was a real joy to see an article about Calvin and Hobbes. I mean, it is such an iconic strip, how could we ever overlook it?

    • David Balan says:

      Thanks! Comic strips and comic books tend to get separated in terms of discussion, as if they’re two different mediums. And while it’s true that they use different idioms, they are much more alike than different. And they have a lot to learn from one another!

  2. And when I say overlook, I do not mean you or your article. I mean, not many comic sites ever talk about Calvin and Hobbes. I have never understood why. I guess it might be a form of elitism, but that is speculating.

    • Sorry, but Calvin and Hobbes is sadly lacking in characters in tights punching one another.

      • David Balan says:

        Oh man. This has changed my whole viewpoint. I’ll have to scrap this article and rewrite it…

      • Someone has clearly forgotten about Stupendous Man.
        “S for Stupendous!
        T for Tiger, ferocity of!
        U for Underwear, red!
        P for Power, incredible!
        E for Excellent physique!
        N for …um… something… hm, well, I’ll come back to that…
        D for Determination!
        U for… wait, how do you spell this? Is it ‘I’??”

    • Miguel Rosa says:

      It’s curious that Calvin & Hobbes is a favourite strip of popularisers of linguistics and science. Open any book by Steven Pinker on cognitive science or evolution or language, and you’ll see him using the strip to illustrate certain points he makes.

      Calvin & Hobbes has entered pop consciousness in a way that no comic book has in a long, long time.

      • David Balan says:

        Excellent point! Thanks for the comment!

      • As a fan of Pinker’s I love that you name checked him here!
        And so true. I think Calvin and Hobbes succeeds in the same way the show Arrested Development did. The jokes rely more on the ambiguities of language, but done in such a way that it includes the audience and does not distance them as some Brit comedies do.

  3. Ben Marton says:

    If you will excuse the presumptuous familiarity, amen brother.

    Sadly, when reviewing your four possibilities, it seems to me that the fourth (the most likely, I agree) is highly dependent upon a degree of the second, thus confirming a greater probability of the first being true.

    Having just come off a three day reading bender during which, in an effort to upgrade my status from curmudgeon to informed curmudgeon, I read every single #1 of the Fiddy-Two, I can report that the shrunken, calcified remains of what was once a glorious heterotopia is now just…not a very nice place.

    • David Balan says:

      See, I haven’t yet had the heart to upgrade to fully informed curmudgeon, heh.

      As for the possibilities, I don’t think the fourth necessarily implies in the second – at least not in a conscious manner. Yes, the fact that they put what will sell above respect for their audience means they made what I would deem as the wrong decision, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re consciously out to get women – they may just not understand them terribly well. (See: Julian’s article about Scott Lobdell’s intent)

      I don’t feel right calling someone a fool who doesn’t understand something that most of the world’s population, including to a meaningful degree, myself, don’t get either. That’s a process.

      I WILL fault them if they refuse to learn, however. That remains to be seen.

      • David Balan says:

        Ah, I think my ‘most’ was in error here – haven’t women got the edge in the world’s population now?

      • Indeed, women have outnumbered men consistently since the rise of modern medicine. Male babies are actually slightly more common (even without female infanticide, it’s not 50/50!), but by adulthood, it’s pretty even, and men keep dying faster. Which has to do with (1) male risk taking and (2) the fact that modern medicine, while certainly sexist in some of its studies and concerns, has disproportionately benefited women by lowering female deaths while giving birth, which used to be the #1 cause of adult female death.

  4. Miguel Rosa says:

    David, although I agree respect for the reader’s intelligence is key, I’ll have to play the pessimist here. There are lots of intelligent comics that just don’t sell. When was the last time Alan Moore shattered the sales charts? You can’t get a more intelligent comic than, say, Promethea, but I bet it hasn’t yet sold a million copies since its inception.

    I think you overlooked this important detail:

    “In its ten year run from 1985 to 1995, it was published in up to 2,400 newspapers, reaching millions of viewers.”

    That’s a lot of people weekly exposed to the strip. Comics can no longer compete with that mass exposure, sadly. I wonder if Calvin & Hobbes would have sold so much without the help of newspapers. I presume most people didn’t buy the newspaper for the strip. If it had been originally published in comic book form, it’d be either self-published or published through Fanta or Drawn & Quarterly, and it’d only be bought by a niche audience of alt comics.

    • David Balan says:

      You bring up a good point about Newspapers. However, I would submit that Alan Moore, while he has beautifully intelligent comics, tends to be, shall we say, a bit inaccessible. That doesn’t de-value his work in any form, but due to its content, I don’t think anyone, including the author, is expecting it to be a best seller. He’s not after reaching the broadest number of people – and that’s totally fine.

      Calvin and Hobbes has a mass appeal in terms of its content and execution that no Alan Moore book, or really most any comic book, does. What I’m saying in this article is that mass appeal decidedly does not mean lowest common denominator, it means respect and humanity.

      If you look at the most widely sold books of fiction around the globe (sources do vary on this, but I’ve listed the two widely constant entries.), Harry Potter is standing way up top, and Lord of the Rings is beneath it – both books which display the same amount of respect and humanity towards their audience and characters.

      Now, about newspapers. You’re very right. The comic book market is not nearly as well-exposed as the newspaper market used to be. But that doesn’t explain how years after leaving circulation, people still know about Calvin and Hobbes – it has been ‘absorbed’ as Ben said. People who knew about it told other people, who told their kids, who told their friends. They wouldn’t say anything if they didn’t like the strip.

      But once again, you are very right about comic books, because if a comic book that was made with the same level of care and respect as Calvin and Hobbes, it wouldn’t sell nearly as much in today’s market. At least not right away. The comic book market is very much a niche market, but it will always remain such unless we start doing something about it. It doesn’t have to be a niche market. It could break in – it just needs to try.

  5. Thanks for the article — and the shout-out!

    I do think the success of Calvin and Hobbes is amazing (though it’s not to my taste, personally). And I do think that, as you point out so correctly, David, the issue is quality. But what you’re terming respect for the audience, I also see as good long-term business. In other words, sure, you can parlay your well-known characters into short-term bank with events, but if those events aren’t good, you’re cannibalizing long-term success for short-term bank. That’s too common in business (especially American business), but it’s actually a really bad strategy. And the success of Calvin and Hobbes proves that. As does the success of Watchmen or Sin City. What a business ought to want are hits like that, which will be purchased for decades, rather than high sales and synergy in the moment.

    Yes, that’s respecting your readers. But it’s also good business. Because overall, in a rough and imperfect way, one has to believe that quality, if it remains available, will find an audience.

    And yes, it is nice to discuss comics strips — and sad that the two cultures are so divided. We need to do more serious discussion of comics strips here. :) Kudos.

    • David Balan says:

      You’re absolutely right on the long-term sales aspect – good stuff keeps selling. Like I mentioned in my reply to Miguel, Lord of the Rings is still up there in terms of top selling books, and it was written almost 60 years ago.

      Quality does find an audience, it just has to be out there.

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