If you need a good cry this afternoon, I have the perfect Calvin and Hobbes storyline for you: the one where Calvin finds a baby raccoon. Read it, have a good cathartic sob, and keep it in your heart forever.
But that’s not the storyline that Kevin Wong discusses in this excellent article for Kotaku. Instead, he choses to talk about Moe. Moe isn’t a nuanced character. He’s the closest the strip has to a recurring villain: a black-and-white caricature of, as creator Bill Watterson put it, “every jerk I’ve ever known.” Moe’s a bully, plain and simple, and Wong does an excellent job of explaining why that simplistic characterization works so well:
There’s evidence in these strips that Calvin believes in a moral universe, one where things won’t happen because they shouldn’t happen. The cold truth, however, is that Moe can take things because he’s bigger, and other than going to an authority figure who’s bigger than Moe—which comes with its own set of unique problems—what exactly is Calvin to do?
The most infuriating panel, to me, is the one where Moe says, “OK, thanks! Heh heh.” He has no guilt and no shame for what he has done. Calvin has won a moral victory. He never stooped to Moe’s level, and he realized that his principles were worth more than the truck. But Moe doesn’t care a whit about any of that, nor does he even understand. Calvin’s victory is known only to him. The person he beat doesn’t even know that he lost. There’s no closure, no sense of comeuppance or justice. No one has learned anything. And at the end of the day, Calvin still doesn’t have his favorite truck. For a little kid, ethical high ground is a hollow consolation prize.
If you have a stomach for violence, the comments on Wong’s article are also worth a read. They highlight a problem with most narratives about bullying: there aren’t usually any wonderful lessons to learn from being bullied. Many readers talk about how they had to change schools or resort to violence themselves. They relate the ways they were ignored by authorities who might have helped. We like to believe that being bullied makes victims better people, but it often just pushes us to become bullies ourselves.
Watterson’s Moe strips sometimes fell into the feel-good trap of having Calvin win by outsmarting Moe, but the storyline Wong highlights rings truer. There isn’t always a way to win, not on our own. Bullying is a societal problem that we prefer to treat as a rite of passage. Until that changes, kids are always going to find themselves up against their own personal Moes, and they’re going to keep learning that the solutions open to them just aren’t fair.