Every Childlike Author needs a Playground.

Captain Underpants and Calvin and Hobbes: A Love Story

So… Ahem… Captain Underpants.


Before you quit reading, let me just say this for Dav Pilkey, the Captain’s creator: He’s got guts. And brains.

I mean, who else would be brave enough to write and illustrate either of these two titles below, and seven or so others like them?

1) Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants
2) Captain Underpants and the Big, Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy, Part 1: The Night of the Nasty Nostril Nuggets

In fact, most people would probably pee their pants rather than publicly slap their booty–Ahem!–their name onto something so childish and, well, something that relies so heavily on potty humor. No one admits to farting aloud during church even though everybody finds it funny except perhaps the preacher (and I’ve got my doubts about that one too). But that’s the genius of Captain Underpants. It’s so childish that real children love it, and then these real children’s real parents buy the books because their real children love them. And also, who wouldn’t like a protagonist named George Beard?

I like George Beard. I like Harold Hutchins too, and I think both of them are brilliant characters similar to Bill Watterson’s Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes. Granted, Calvin was not really involved in potty humor much, but he had enough other grotesque activity to make up for it (think snow sculptures). What I find especially alike between the three characters is their obvious immersion into the realm of imagination. I think that Calvin, notoriously friendless aside from Hobbes, who may or may not be imaginary, would find a pair of like-minded individuals in George Beard and Harold Hutchins. In fact, I think they would get on beautifully together, with perhaps a few spats among friends here and there. Regardless of their differences, both the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip and the Captain Underpants series each remind me of the other.

Image Courtesy of Bill Watterson

(You see? Calvin’s only a minor step away from an old bald guy who fights crime.)

For instance, Calvin imagines and creates inventions such as the Transmogrifier, Transmogrifier Gun, Duplicator, Cerebral-Enhance-O-Tron, and Time Machine, all of which are used to have fantastic adventures. Likewise, in the Captain Underpants world, George and Harold use such things as the 3D Hypno-Ring, the PATSY 2000 (turns 2D drawings into 3D life), Combine-O-Tron 2000, FORGETCHAMACALLIT 2000, Goosey-Grow 4000, Shrinky-Pig 2000, and a Time Machine. The difference is that Calvin’s adventures are imaginary and George’s and Harold’s, supposedly, are not.

Another likeness is that of the teachers and adults in general being portrayed as evil, or with some sort of vendetta against the protagonists (slightly unrelated note: you might find it interesting that this is a familiar trope in Roald Dahl’s children’s stories, as well as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series). For Calvin there is Miss Wormwood and Mr. Spittle, the baby-sitter Rosalyn, and occasionally Calvin’s parents. For George Beard and Harold Hutchins, pretty much every teacher in their school has it out for them, as well as other characters such as Professor Poopypants or the Lunch Ladies. Very few adults represented, aside from Captain Underpants himself and a reformed Ms. Ribble, are actually viewed as good characters.

Yet another resemblance exists in the nature of the evil faced by the three characters. Calvin, as the Intrepid Spaceman Spiff, generally faces monsters from outer space (alien forms superimposed over the adult characters), has difficulty with Moe the bully, or has adventures with dinosaurs. In the Underpants series, Harold and George face aliens (often transformed adults), another student named Melvin Sneedly, and even go back in time to bring back a pterodactyl.

There are many more similarities I could mention. One is that all three have a propensity to create and live their stories. Calvin imagines scenarios which he essentially lives, and George and Harold do the same by means of the 3D Hypno-Ring and the PATSY 2000. Another is that all three characters like to play pranks. All three characters have a tree house. All three… but the list could keep going.

Now I ask you, what’s the major difference between these two comics?

There’s really only one.

Okay, maybe there’s two. The second is the philosophical nature of Calvin and Hobbes, which is mostly absent from Captain Underpants.

And the first is Poopypants.

Well, you know what I mean. Captain Underpants has way more potty humor, but it’s got to because it’s Captain Underpants for heaven’s sake. Is it really that bad? There are books and movies and short stories on worse subjects… like every murder mystery ever written, which are entire books about murder. Now please don’t misunderstand me—murder mysteries are quite often fantastic, but perhaps the worst of the two when it comes to subject material. E.g.: Potty Humor? or Murder? One is nasty and crude, and the other is nasty and downright evil. And what if we were to take another example, like the book Fifty Shades of Grey? Which would you rather find your middle school child reading: Captain Underpants, which is full of crude humor, or Fifty Shades of Grey, which is full of explicit scenes involving BDSM?

I have a friend who wrote a story titled The Farting Princess and the Brave Prince, which reads about like it sounds (not that kind of sound, silly). He wrote it for an adult friend of his who would only laugh for fart jokes, but it’s more of a children’s story than anything else and feels that way, too. In some ways I lament its existence, but it’s not pretentious and that’s refreshing. The point is that potty humor is gross, but innocent, and sometimes incredibly funny. Dav Pilkey recognized it, saw that no one wanted that little corner of children’s literature, and pounced on it, proudly displaying his name across the front of everyone’s Underpants… books. It was a brave and brilliant move, and I lose no respect for him like one might do with the author of Fifty Shades of Grey.

So, sure, Calvin and Hobbes is classier than Captain Underpants, but they’re so terribly alike there’s probably a cruddy, sappy love story somewhere in between. I’d still let my kid read either one of them, and probably read them myself for good measure.

Oh, hey! Did I mention DreamWorks is making an animated Captain Underpants movie? And they’ve got some pretty good voice talent lined up, too. Dav Pilkey’s crude and clever creation is finally moving to the big-screen. Can you shout, Tra-la-la!?

(Note: I originally set out to state only that a Captain Underpants movie is in the works, but then something just ripped out of me with a sudden, vindictive and airy sound. I guess a four sentence post—see above paragraph—wouldn’t be all that great anyway. Toots for now!)


4 responses

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    January 29, 2014 at 8:41 pm

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      February 13, 2014 at 4:37 pm

  2. Pingback: A Review of Artemis Fowl, Book 8: The Last Guardian | The Playground

  3. Pingback: The Author of “The Farting Princess and the Brave Prince” Needs Help! | The Playground

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