Calvinball Fatwas

For a decade, from 18 November 1985 to 31 December 1995, the creator of the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes – Bill Watterson – demonstrated how to beat the clerics at their con games, which are various versions of Calvinball.

In Calvin and Hobbes, Watterson depicted all clerics by the little boy Calvin, named after the French theologian John Calvin (1509–64), who (according to the dictionary that comes with this Mac OS–X) “attempted to reorder society on reformed [religious] principles” – of course, as with all theocrats, with him in control:

[Click to enlarge. All comics in this post © Bill Watterson.]

[Note: because Google's Translator doesn't translate the captions, I'll add them below each strip. Thus, for the above: 1) Calvin (C): "I'm at peace with the world. I'm completely serene." Hobbes (H): "Why is that?" 2) C: "I've discovered my purpose in life. I know why I was put here and why everything exists. 3) H: "Oh really?" C: "Yes, I am here so everybody can do what I want." 4) H: "It's nice to have that cleared up." C: "Once everyone accept it, they'll be serene too."]

The other principal character in Calvin and Hobbes was, of course, the tiger Hobbes, whom Watterson named after the British philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), who (from the same source) not only “believed that human action was motivated entirely by selfish concerns, notably fear of death” but also and importantly saw that a firm basis for any society is self-interested cooperation.

[1) C: "Some people are pragmatists, taking things as they come and making the best of the choices available." 2) C: "Some people are idealists, standing for principle and refusing to compromise." 3) C: "And some people just act on any whim that enters their heads." 4) H: "I wonder which you are." C: "I pragmatically turn my whims into principles."]

Watterson ascribed to his Calvin (similar to all clerics) an unconstrained imagination. For example, to Calvin his plush-toy tiger – his best friend, Hobbes – was not only alive but also had distilled the wisdom of the ages. Thus, consider Hobbes’ following distillation of the famous statement by the Greek philosopher Xenophanes (c.570 – c.475 BCE): “If cattle and horses, or lions, had hands, or were able to draw with their feet and produce the words which men do, then horses would draw the forms of gods like horses, and cattle like cattle, and they would make the gods’ bodies the same shape as their own.”

[C: "Made in God's own image, yes sir!" H: "God must have a goofy sense of humor."]

With such characters, Watterson had set the stage for Calvinball. Thus, just as all theologians invent games that people are to play according to arbitrary clerical rules, the rules in Calvinball are “anything we make up.” Like all clerics, Calvin would manipulate people’s greed and fear so that he could win the game – so that he could rule – just as did John Calvin, who notoriously and successfully urged the execution of Michael Servetus for the “crime” of blasphemy (i.e., challenging the arbitrary claims of the ruling clerics). No doubt Calvinists would be quick to point out that John Calvin urged (to no avail) that Servetus not be burned alive but “only” have his head chopped off – but I’m unimpressed. When someone writes, as did Calvin to Servetus, “I neither hate you nor despise you; nor do I wish to persecute you; but I would be as hard as iron when I behold you insulting sound doctrine with so great audacity”, my interpretation is that Calvin had personal reasons to kill with an axe rather than with fire (to promote his version of “The TRUTH”), rather than reasons derived from any empathy or sympathy.

[1) C: "I like people. I'm interested in people." 2) H: "You??"
3) C: "As an audience I mean." H: "Oh."]

In contrast, who wouldn’t be impressed by Watterson?! His genius was to show how Hobbes could beat Calvin at his own game (Calvinball), because Hobbes not only understood human nature but also understood that Calvin (i.e., all clerics) wanted to win – wanted to rule – no matter the cost. An example of Watterson’s genius is given in the “Sunday special”, shown below, which I hope readers will open in a separate window (or even in a second browser from the source website) and then refer to it while considering the text that follows.

[1) C: "I got a goal!" 2) H: "OK, the score is oogy to bogy." C: "I already had oogy!" 3) H: "You just ran into the Invisible Sector! You have to cover your eyes now, because everything is invisible to you!" C: "Invisible Sector?? I didn't know we had an Invisible Sector! Where is it?" 4) H: "You can't see it; it's invisible." C: "How do I know I went in it then?" 5) H: "You can't see anything, right?" C: "OK, so how do I get out?" 6) H: "Somebody bongs you with the Calvinball! I get another point!" C: "Hey! Ow! Why you…!" 7) C: "That was a rotten rule! I decree no more Invisible Sectors! …In fact, I'll show you! You just ran into a Vortex Spot! You have to spin around until you fall down!" 8) H: "Sorry. This Vortex Spot is in the Boomerang Zone, so the vortex returns to whoever calls it! You spin!" C: "That's not fair!" 9) H: "You know the Calvinball rules." C: "Yeah, yeah: anything we make up. Well, you'll pay for this." 10) C (spinning): "This game lends itself to certain abuses." H: "Guess how you get out of the Boomerang Zone!"]

Similarly, we need to keep “bonking” the clerics on their heads until they learn, as did Calvin: “This game lends itself to certain abuses.” A case in point occurred this week. As reported by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), another brave Muslim challenged the ruling clerics. The challenger [Hobbes] was Dr. Abd Al-Hamid Al-Ansari, “former dean of Islamic Law at Qatar University.” He challenged a fatwa (ruling) “issued earlier this month by prominent Saudi cleric Abdul Rahman Al-Barak” [Calvin] “denouncing and calling for the killing of two Saudi writers for articles they had published in the Saudi newspaper Al-Riyadh.” Obviously the rules in the Saudi clerics’ version of Calvinball are not for the timid.

It’s a fairly complicated story, but if you’ll make the time to investigate the details, I expect that you’ll be amazed to find how backward the crazy Saudi clerics (the Wahhabis) are: they’d fit in perfectly in John Calvin’s time, ~500 years ago. They know “The TRUTH”.

In brief, the story has the following main elements. 1) According to Muslim clerics, if you disagree with them (about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin – or whatever), then you’re an apostate and deserve to die. 2) An apostate deserves to die because an apostate in Islam is the same as what we in the West call a traitor; in their rule, they ignore the difference that a Western traitor is one who takes up arms against those who think differently, whereas in Islam, it’s “traitorous” to think differently; thus, by Western standards, Muslim clerics who issue fatwas calling for the death of apostates are traitors – to humanity. 3) The brave response by Al-Ansari was, in essence and in my words: “Who in hell do you clerics think you are, claiming power to call for someone’s death for being an apostate, without the accused having his day in court?” The rest of the story has yet to unfold, but we can hope that Hobbesian Muslims will be successful in bonking enough sense into the Calvinistic Islamic clerics, so they’ll see (as Watterson saw) that their game “leads to certain abuses” – that they won’t like!

Actually, though, Watterson saw more. He saw that the clerics could be indisputably beaten at their game of Calvinball by liberated women, such as Calvin’s babysitter, Rosalyn. Watterson’s daily strips speak for themselves:

[1) C: "So what's the game I get to play if I'm good?" R: "You can decide. Pick your favorite game." 2) C: "Is this a trick? Can we really play my favorite game??" R: "Sure, why not? What is it?" 3) C: "Calvinball!!" R: "Calvinball??" 4) C: "Get out the time-fracture wickets, Hobbes! We're gonna play Calvinball!" R: "What the heck is Calvinball?"]

[1) C: "Other kid's games are all such a bore! They've gotta have rules and they gotta keep score! Calvinball is better by far! It's never the same! It's always bizarre! You don't need a team or a referee! You know that it's great, 'cause it's named after me! If you wanna…" 2) C: "Uh, feel fee to harmonize with Hobbes on the Rumma Tum Tums." R: "This was a mistake."]

[1) C: "I've got the Calvinball! Everybody else has go in slow motion now!" 2) R: "Wait a minute, Calvin, I don't…" C: "You have to talk in slow motion too. Liiike thisss." 3) R: "Thisss gaaame maaakes noooo sennnse! It'ssss aasss iffff you'rrrre maaakinnngg iiiiit uuuup aaas youu gooo." 4) C: "Hobbes! She stumbled into the Perimeter of Wisdom Run!!" R: "Oh…"]

[1) R: "If I'm in the Perimeter of Wisdom Run, then I get to make a decree." C: "A decree? Um… OK." 2) R: "I decree you have to catch a water balloon that I throw high in the air." C: "Oh, no!" 3) C: "Man she picked up the nuances of this game fast!" R: "Ha! This is fun!"]

[1) R: "OK Calvin, you have to catch the water balloon!" C: "Aaa!" 2) C: "Ha! I'm in the Corollary Zone! If I catch the balloon, the thrower has to bend over and hold still!" R: "What?!" 3) C: "I caught it!! Ha ha ha ha!" 4) C: "Oh this going to be sweet!" R: "I'm taking Hobbes prisoner!"]

[1) C: "Hobbes! Don't guard Rosalyn! I'm going to get her with this balloon!" R: "The tiger is my prisoner!" 2) C: "I guess I'll just have to soak you both then! Ha ha ha!" R: "Sorry, Calvin, I touched you with the Baby Sitter Flag." 3) C: "The Baby Sitter Flag?? What's that?" R: "It means you must obey the baby sitter…" 4) R: "…who says it's a half-hour past your bedtime now. Let's go in." C: "Awwwwww! Darn Baby Sitter Flag."]

[1) C's Dad: "Our house is still standing. That's a good sign." 2) C's Mom: "We're home! Is everything OK?" R: "Fine." 3) R: "Calvin did his homework, then we played a game, and Calvin went to bed." C's Dad: "It's awfully late for jokes, Rosalyn." 4) C: "I've noticed that when we play games with girls, you get captured a lot." H: "Some of us are just irresistible."]

Shucks, Watterson saw that even a little girl, Calvin’s next-door neighbor Susie, was able to knock him off his tyrannical pedestal:

[1) C (to fallen snowman): "As I have created you, so can I destroy you!" 2) C: "Therefore, in recognition of my supreme power, you must worship me!" 3) C: "Yes, bow before mighty Calvin and tremble, for I am the eternal, all knowing…" 4) "PAFF" (as Susie hits Calvin with a snowball).]

While wishing all Hobbesian Muslims success in their struggle against their clerical Calvins and wishing especially all Muslim women well in their struggle for liberation from patriarchal and clerical tyranny, I’ll close this post with comments Watterson made in his 1990 Commencement Address at his Alma Mater, Kenyon College:
Your preparation for the real world is not in the answers you’ve learned, but in the questions you’ve learned how to ask yourself… Reading those turgid philosophers here in these remote stone buildings may not get you a job, but if those books have forced you to ask yourself questions about what makes life truthful, purposeful, meaningful, and redeeming, you have the Swiss Army Knife of mental tools, and it’s going to come in handy all the time… Selling out is usually more a matter of buying in. Sell out, and you’re really buying into someone else’s system of values, rules, and rewards… To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble…


  1. Brilliant article, thank you very much. God is great, my friend... Ha!
    As Diogenes once allegedly said, "How can I not believe in the gods, seeing a god-forsaken wretch like you!"

    1. Thank you. By the way, if you, too, are a fan of Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes, you might also enjoy the last four posts in this series (starting in October, 2010): they have a lot more Calvin and Hobbes -- and besides, by that time, I finally learned how to post them so they would be more legible :(

      Re. Diogenes, he was a quite a fellow. It's surprising to me to see some quotations attributed to him are elsewhere attributed to Socrates. But one that I like, which I've seen attributed only to Diogenes, is:

      "When I look upon seamen, men of science, and philosophers, I think man is the wisest of all beings; when I look upon priests and prophets, nothing seems so contemptible as man."