An Illustrative Lesson on the Importance of Stories

I didn’t plan on making this post today, but then I saw the news and some social media from friends and family, hit a quick Google search because I was reminded of something … and well … Here we are. It’s definitely political in its own way, so far warning, but there’s a moral of its own by the end.

One of the Calvin and Hobbes story arcs that I remember very vividly from my youth is the story of Calvin and the Traffic Safety Slogan Contest (which starts at this link, and ran for several weeks in newspapers at the time). The story itself is amusing as any of Calvin’s adventures, the school opening up a contest with a $10 prize ($20 in today’s money) for coming up with the best traffic safety slogan on a poster, and Calvin sabotaging himself while being utterly convinced, as his six year-old mind often is, that everything about the contest is a forgone conclusion, especially his victory. The moral explored by the end—which utterly baffles and bounces off of Calvin, something Watterson himself noted in the anniversary collection—is that you may try your best, but victory is never assured, so gain confidence and satisfaction from having tried and put your best foot forward, not from winning and being declared better than everyone else.

Naturally, Calvin doesn’t win, his slogan of “Be Careful or Be Roadkill,” on a poster splattered with chunky spaghetti sauce for a “patent-pending 3D Gore-o-rama,” isn’t exactly a hit with classmates or the judges. However, when his poster doesn’t win, Calvin refuses to accept that he has lost, instead declaring the contest a “miscarriage of justice” and stating that the judges were “biased against us from the start.” He then goes to his father and tells him it was rigged and that “I want you to call the school board, have them declare fraud, and make them take the prize away from [the winner] and give it to me!”

Calvin, of course, refuses to accept or understand his father’s attempts to talk sense into him, mocking his father’s answer that winning and losing is part of life, to which his father dryly observes that Calvin’s been learning too many morals from ads for athletic shoes.

It’s a fun story, but it was also interesting to me decades later how absolutely directly—and here come the politics, which many of you probably already saw—it paralleled the 2020 election results, Calvin’s mocking words and dismissive attitude perfectly reflected by nearly an entire party who refused to believe that it was possible THEY could lose. Ever. “Take the prize away from [the winner] and give it to me! indeed.

There’s another part to this story, however. Years after the story ran, Watterson brought it back in the Calvin and Hobbes anniversary collection book. This book was a special tribute to the series, collecting a bunch of Watterson’s favorite or (as he felt it) most important strips from the comic’s history. Calvin’s adventures with the Traffic Safety Slogan once again appeared, this time with Watterson’s own commentary, in which he noted that the story was inspired by his own experiences with a similar situation in which he had to learn the lesson that Calvin, he noted, refused.

But there was a bit more to Watterson’s commentary, as Watterson’s notes occasionally expressed or implied a worry that many of the generation he was a member of weren’t learning these lessons, and in fact were following the same path Calvin was, alongside a apprehensive expression of how that might end up.

Well, I think he may have been right to worry about that. It’s a current that lies beneath much of Calvin and Hobbes, a social commentary expressing, investigating, and questioning what might happen if one person, or even a large percentage of the population, “bought into” some of the slogans, mindsets, and ideals portrayed by much of corporate America. If my memory serves correctly, one generation he often expressed misgivings over was his own.

However, I won’t go any deeper into that, instead leaving it to you to decide if you wish to pursue it further and perhaps track down a copy of The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book for the commentary or just a jump through the archives linked above to see some of Watterson’s social commentary and musings explored through the characters. I do recommend it, but I want to take a different direction at the conclusion to this post.

See, I remember that story arc quite well, because I read Calvin and Hobbes as a child. I read the commentary in the anniversary book when it came out years later as well, and Watterson’s commentary on the story caused me to reflect on my own experiences with learning to “lose gracefully.” And I can, in fact, think of a moment from my own childhood where my experience not only paralleled Calvin’s in a way, but I leaned on the lesson Calvin didn’t learn because I’d read the traffic safety contest story. I entered a contest (not a traffic safety contest), was not among the winners, and immediately when having that crushing realization, remembered the story from the comic and the lesson that Calvin’s dad imparted.

I’m not trying to toot my own horn with some sort of statement that “I’m wiser than Calvin.” No, the point this whole story brings me around to is how important stories in any medium can be.

Calvin and Hobbes is, at its core, a newspaper comic, printed on cheap paper, and consigned a section of the newspaper that incessantly grew smaller and smaller over the years. But despite that, and being written, as many would dismissively say, “for children,” Calvin and Hobbes not only tackled important topics, but readers—myself being one of them—did learn from the experience of the characters.

Sure, there’s an added element of “good stories can come from anywhere.” But I think Calvin and Hobbes also stands as a good reminder that good concepts can come from anywhere as well, and often do. The stories we read, the experiences the characters go through, and the lessons they do or don’t learn … Those stick with us. They allow us to see the world through another’s lens, experience things we might not otherwise experience, and explore choices we may not have ever had the luxury—or misfortune—to consider and make.

Stories matter. And yes, I’m aware this is an author’s website, dedicated to writing and the pursuit of stories, so that’s probably not much of a revelation to any of you that stuck around this long, but nevertheless I’ll say it again, because Watterson wasn’t wrong either.

Stories matter. That book you read when you were five, or that webcomic you finished just an hour ago, they all have the capacity to say something. And we shouldn’t forget that.

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