By Frank Ahrens, Washington Post Staff Writer


Printed in the Washington Post - March 15, 1997; Page D9

A classic, wonderful kid moment happened at Falls Church Presbyterian Church on Sunday evening. Author Robert Short was delivering a packed-house lecture -- "Short Meditations on Calvin and Hobbes and Christ" -- and illustrating it with slides of the comic strip. As Short flipped through the slides, he read the dialogue aloud, portraying both characters. In one exchange, Hobbes -- the stuffed tiger brought to life by Calvin's imagination -- is attempting to deflate Calvin's cynicism about the world, going on and on about how beautiful the sky is and so forth. Hobbes's homily is well-meaning but heavy on the saccharin.

A slide appeared with no dialogue. In it, Calvin stares at Hobbes, unable to grasp his rosy worldview. There's no telling what he will do next. In the audience, two teenagers in a back pew tittered in the dark. They knew a pregnant pause when they saw one.

"Wouldn't it be awesome if Calvin just, like, started beating on Hobbes?" one whispered to the other. Much giggling. If Calvin, uncharacteristically snowed by Hobbes, had heard the teenagers, he probably would have been annoyed that he hadn't thought of physical violence himself.

The teenagers' response was decidedly un-Christian -- and authentic. Bill Watterson -- who drew "Calvin and Hobbes" from 1986 to December 1995, when he stopped it abruptly -- "got the reporting right," said "Doonesbury" artist Gary Trudeau in an interview. He said Watterson drew childhood "as it actually is." That makes the defunct strip a ready vehicle for Short, pastor of a Presbyterian church in Monticello, Ark., to convey the Gospel to children who might never hear it.

In 1965, his "Gospel According to Peanuts" was a No. 1 bestseller. In it, the oft-Christian themes of the comic strip, written as moral instruction by artist Charles Schulz, were analyzed as scriptural literature. "It rains on the just and the unjust, Charlie Brown," Linus once told his disconsolate loser friend, paraphrasing St. Matthew.

Short has made a career out of dissecting the Christianity of pop culture; he sees it everywhere he looks. Now he is delivering his "Calvin and Hobbes" lectures in churches and on college campuses across the country. There's likely a huge, pent-up demand for Things Calvin and Hobbes, as evidenced by his audience of 150 children and adults Sunday. Moreover, the mega-popular strip shows no signs of reappearing.

But there will be no "Gospel According to Calvin and Hobbes," Short said. Watterson, who refused to license his characters for use as stuffed dolls, coffee mugs and other amazingly lucrative paraphernalia, won't allow it. Short has mailed Watterson a copy of his lecture but has received no comment.

For Short, Calvin is a representation of imperfect man, laden with original sin. He is not unlovable by any means, as he endears himself to us at nearly every turn. Yet he is unsatisfied and selfish. Jesus instructed that faith should be "childlike," not "childish," and Calvin epitomizes spiritual immaturity, Short told his audience.

The beatific Hobbes, on the other hand, is the Christ figure. He often speaks in enigmatic parables. Where Calvin is a question, Hobbes is a suggested answer. Tigers, moreover, are symbols of grace and power, which Short said is a perfect definition of Christ. He quotes T.S. Eliot's poem "Gerontion": "In the juvescence of the year/Came Christ the tiger."

Although he is notoriously tight-lipped, Watterson has said he named Calvin after Protestant reformer John Calvin, a 16th-century theologian who believed in predestination, which may account for Calvin's prickly nature. Hobbes, on the other hand, bears little resemblance to his namesake, 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who is perhaps most famous for writing, "And the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short."

If all of this seems like ridiculous overanalysis of comics -- thought by many to be low-brow, gag-driven entertainment for children -- consider the long history of the cartoon as a means of moral instruction.

Broken down to its basic elements, a cartoon is a unique mix of art and text, meant to carry a narrative or convey a thought -- most often, a joke. But scholars have traced the proto-cartoon art form to the 15th century and the Cemetery of the Innocents in Paris, where arcade walls, now gone, depicted the "Danse Macabre," or "Dance of Death."

There, on painted panels, the recently dead warned the living to mend their ways before it was too late. Each panel was accompanied by a story in written text; think of them as word balloons in modern cartoons. Pilgrimages were made to the holy site, where literate guides read the panels aloud.

Since medieval times, stained-glass windows in churches have used images to portray Bible stories to the illiterate, who were unable to read and interpret the Bible for themselves. The windows, side by side in the cathedral walls, often told a story in sequence, like panels in a cartoon strip.

In modern times, the newspaper editorial cartoon has been a tool of righteousness, lancing evildoers with as much power as written editorials or exposes. Scathing Thomas Nast cartoons in late 19th-century New York newspapers did much to bring about the eventual downfall of the grotesquely corrupt Boss Tweed political machine.

It was Schulz who took the comic strip to a new level, intellectually and spiritually. Created in 1950, "Peanuts" showed children who, without the interference of narrow-eyed, jaded adults, figured out the world on their own. These tiny contemplatives were the embodiment of childlike faith; they were anti-Calvins. Schulz weaved Judeo-Christian concepts throughout the strip, perhaps hitting his creative height with the 1960s TV special "A Charlie Brown Christmas."

Cartoonists, nevertheless, sometimes find themselves ghettoized by limited definitions of what should appear on the funny pages. "Doonesbury," because it satirizes politicians, appears on the feature or editorial pages of many newspapers. Last year, the Los Angeles Times said it would not publish the Easter weekend "B.C." strips, which had overtly religious themes.

After pressure from readers, it decided to run the Good Friday strip, which showed four panels getting progressively darker, apparently to symbolize the Bible story of Jesus's crucifixion. The paper did not, however, run the Easter strip, in which B.C. asks God for proof of His existence, then complains about being interrupted by bolts of lightning, a volcanic eruption and other cataclysmic events around him. "B.C." cartoonist Johnny Hart, who identifies himself as a Christian, accused the Times of "anti-Christian bias."

If "Calvin and Hobbes" creator Watterson purposefully infused his strip with spiritual themes, he is not saying. With a single exception in 1986, he doesn't grant interviews. He doesn't appear on television. He lives a reclusive life in New Mexico with his wife and cats. From there, he drew the fantastical world of Calvin, who, like all children, wondered about everything but was able to express his thoughts in grown-up language. Because of Watterson's obviously catholic mind, the strip addressed the largest, most puzzling issues in life and almost begged to be analyzed as a higher art form. Unlike, say, "Ziggy."

In his lecture Sunday, Short focused on a series of strips in which Calvin finds a wounded baby raccoon and attempts to nurse it back to health. When it inevitably dies, he wrestles with his -- and our -- scariest fears and biggest questions: Why couldn't Mom save the raccoon? Why did something so little and seemingly innocent have to die? Was it born just to die? Are we all born just to die? What's the point?

Short said Watterson has, intentionally or not, essentially drawn the final scene of "King Lear," where the few characters left alive wander off stage, shrugging their shoulders at the mystery of it all. Just as Calvin does, as he slouches over a hill with Hobbes, discovering, "What a stupid world."

"When Calvin says, 'Now he's gone forever,' he's almost quoting word-for-word what Lear says when he's holding Cordelia's body in his arms," Short said.

Short used the raccoon strips as a jumping-off point to talk about salvation. Calvin, because he was mortal, couldn't save the animal's life. But Christ's all-powerful love for mankind never goes away, Short told his audience. If Calvin, like Lear, sees life as futile and pointless, it is because he has not awakened to God's message of grace.

This is Short's way of following Christ's instruction in Mark 2:22 that "new wine must be put into new wineskins." He interprets this to mean that the Gospel must be framed in relevant terms for new or younger listeners. Hence, the lectures on "Calvin and Hobbes."

"Jesus's parables were familiar, fascinating and sometimes fun to consider," Short said. "Watterson uses the strip like Jesus used parables."

The audience in the church "got a big dose of New Testament tonight, and I don't think they would have taken that much without Calvin and Hobbes' to make it relevant," Short said.

The Rev. Kent Winters-Hazelton, pastor of Falls Church Presbyterian, agreed. The previous Sunday, he had delivered a sermon titled "A Popular View of God," which he illustrated with comic strips.

"It's like when I was growing up in the '60s in Southern California and churches started playing contemporary Christian folk music," he said. "You have to use anything you can to get young people interested."

To wit, Winters-Hazelton is working on a sermon on popular music and faith. Tentative title: "On the Eighth Day, God Created Pearl Jam."