Unseen Text: Calvin and Hobbes
Text Type: Comic Strip
Guiding Question: How do both text and image create humour in this comic strip?
Comic strips are a popular text type to read and study and may also appear on Paper 1. By this stage in your education, it may be hard for teachers to help you too much with your use of language (according to criteria D, 5 of your marks for this paper are available for the way you use language). After all, by the time you sit this paper you are almost an adult and the way you express yourself is largely in your control. However, one way to boost your mark in criteria D is to use the correct terminology in relation to the text type. In this response you can find the words ‘panel’, ’emanata’, ‘speech bubble’, ‘negative space’ and ‘punchline’. Of course, identifying these features correctly is only the start; commenting on the effect of features you see will help you score in criteria B as well. As usual, the following response is only one possible way of writing about this text; alternative ideas and explanations can be equally valid.
The given text is a typical four-panel comic strip by famous artist Bill Watterson. The strip features Calvin, a cheeky young boy normally accompanied by his imaginary tiger friend, Hobbes. Their adventures appeal to a wide audience of comic strip readers by entertaining them: children can enjoy his funny mis-adventures and relate to his imaginary friend; adults can enjoy both the overt humour and the more pointed reflections on life that many episodes contain. This 1992 strip is no exception. It features Calvin conflicting with his teacher by demanding assurances that his education will properly prepare him for the 21st century job market. Perhaps familiar with such rebellious behaviour, his teacher easily quashes his protests by pointing out the onus is on him to work harder. The humour mostly comes from the way Calvin conflicts with his teacher, even though he is much younger and smaller than her, and through the way his appearance contrasts with the way he speaks. However, the strip also makes a subtle criticism of an education system which forces young people to conform to rules. Therefore, it’s possible for readers to be amused by the way the teacher puts down Calvin’s rebellion while being a little saddened at the same time.
Firstly, Watterson creates humour in the strip through the contrast between the pictures of Calvin and his teacher. This contrast can be seen in the first panel, with the teacher filling the left side of the frame, standing over Calvin who is much smaller and positioned on the right. The juxtaposition between them is complimented by the patterns on their clothing; Calvin wears stripes while his teacher wears a dotted dress. The contrast brings to mind two sides of the educational divide – young and old or teacher versus student. The dynamic is confrontational, an idea that will be developed in later panels. They are facing each other, and the teacher is carrying some kind of ruler that she holds to attention in a strict way, almost like a shouldered weapon. The contrast between them creates humour when Calvin begins to rebel against her authority, as it’s incongruous that someone so small can convincingly rebel against someone so big.
Secondly, humour comes from the juxtaposition of image and text. There is a contrast between the youthful design of Calvin’s character and the way he speaks. The cartoonish and simplified style of art emphasises his youth, giving him wide eyes and spiky hair. However, the way he speaks is very precocious. He uses adult diction such as ‘assurance’ and ‘adequately’ and his tone of voice is strident and defiant. He asks questions such as, ‘am I getting the skills to effectively compete in a tough, global economy?’ where phrases such as ‘tough, global economy’ continue to make him sound older than he appears. His posture accentuates his rebelliousness; his raised fist makes him look like a protestor and his mouth is drawn wide open, so we can infer he is speaking loudly. All this is emphasised by exclamation marks and anaphora (‘I want… I want…’). Notably, the second panel is illustrated without borders, and his words are not captured inside a speech bubble but presented using emanata, as if they are spilling out of him unconstrained. These breaks from the conventions of comic book layout further suggest the rebelliousness of youth.
The humorous contrast is reversed in the third panel, where the teacher reasserts her authority over her rebellious student. She turns the tables on Calvin by asserting: ‘In that case, young man, I suggest you start working harder.’ The teacher uses an embedded subclause (‘young man’) to emphasise his age and reassert the normal power dynamic between teacher and student, adult and child. Adults especially might find this panel amusing, as there is some satisfaction to be had when Calvin, who has no actual life experience and was being quite cheeky, is put in his place. The images work in combination with the text; the teacher leans over Calvin in a commanding fashion and uses her ruler to point assertively at the table. The ‘camera’ angle changes from a front view of Calvin – which made him seem more powerful – to a side view where the teacher is clearly dominant. Finally, the way he simply folds under pressure and gives up is amusing; the single word ‘oh’ in the third speech bubble contrasts with the way the previous two panels were almost filled with Calvin’s words.
According to the conventions of four-panel comic strips, the final panel often presents the punchline, and this strip is no exception. Whereas he seemed overly enthusiastic in the previous panels, now he simply gives up, saying ‘Then forget it.’ He is pictured slumped on his desk and his facial expression is grumpy and sullen – the perfect picture of a stroppy kid who can’t get his own way. Waterson uses negative space effectively in the final panel, once again creating a contrast with the first panels which were so full of speech. Calvin has nothing to say if his future depends on hard work! Adult readers especially might appreciate the humour in this depiction of young people who just want to cruise through school and don’t find the idea of work very appealing. They might enjoy the professional ‘takedown’ of a student who was simply using avoidance tactics to get out of doing any work – but dressing it up in official-sounding language to make his protest sound reasonable.
As well as humour, though, readers of this strip might also be struck by the serious points Watterson is making about school and education; for example, the way Calvin’s small rebellion is so easily defeated suggests education can be spirit-crushing and confining for young people. In some ways, the comic book genre is the perfect format for this implication, as the panels act like little boxes imprisoning Calvin inside. In this interpretation, the second panel (that has no borders) becomes the moment where he tries to ‘break free’ before the teacher firmly puts him – figuratively and literally – back in his box.
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