What do you remember from childhood? Innocence and personal discovery, wide-eyed imagination and idealism – all those things, of course, along with video games, TV shows and comic strips. You don’t sit around with your friends discussing the magic of childhood. No, you talk about the best Nintendo games, where to get a piece of the Aggro Crag, etc. That’s the magic.
We grew up with this, the dreck and the gold. It’s what defines our generation. We don’t have phonographs, Bob Barker and “The Price is Right,” we have SNES, Olmec and “Legends of the Hidden Temple.”
This week’s B-side flips through our back pages, reminiscing over the shows, games and songs that filled our childhood days with joy.
Scene: A mother yells from off screen “Who made this mess in here?!” Your average blond-haired, white-bread kid jumps in surprise. “It wasn’t me, Mom! It was . uh . it was . ” Here you could fill in a superfluous and boring joke. Kids are cute, right? They say the darndest things to get out of trouble.
“It was a horrible little Venusian who materialized in the kitchen! He took out some diabolical high-frequency device, pointed it at various objects and .”
Where did that come from? What the hell is a Venusian? Thank God for Wikipedia – a Venusian is an inhabitant of Venus. The mother didn’t buy it, and so our clever protagonist is sent off to his room where he laments, “Mothers are the necessity of invention.”
Doesn’t sound like an episode of “Leave it to Beaver” or “Pete and Pete,” does it? Our protagonist is Calvin from Bill Watterson’s iconic comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes,” and this scene is but one of countless others that demonstrate the ingenuity, sarcasm and wit that makes “Calvin and Hobbes” so important to our generation. He’s our Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, our Dennis the Menace. And he has an unbelievable vocabulary.
Watterson’s “Calvin and Hobbes” took the American comic strip and transformed it into a vehicle for humor and intelligence. We know the very medium of a comic strip is meant for kids – think “The Family Circus” and “Zits.” Strips such as “Non Sequitur,” “Doonesbury,” “Get Fuzzy” and “Pearls Before Swine” are other examples of hyper-literate comic humor (sometimes with an absurd edge), but no strip has been able to bridge the generational gap as well as “Calvin and Hobbes.”
Look at it this way: Movies like “Shrek” and “The Incredibles” are solid examples of films that, while intended to pull in the youngest of movie crowds, nonetheless incorporate “mature” humor obviously meant for Mom and Dad, who would otherwise be trying their patience sitting through yet another inane animated kids’ flick. This “mature” humor is meant specifically for the adults. It flies right over the unassuming heads of unassuming children.
When did we stop giving our youngest generations credit for being intelligent? “Calvin and Hobbes” is based on the unfailing assumption that children have a limitless imagination. Monsters under the bed, alternate personalities, transmogrifier machines – the list stretches on. Calvin’s world is based solely in the imagination, be it the surreal, practical or just absurd. Where else will you see green oatmeal recite the infamous opening lines of Hamlet’s “to be, or not to be” speech?
The prologue of “The Essential Calvin and Hobbes” collection is a short poem concerning the basic fear of monsters, titled “A Nauseous Nocturne.” (What’s a nocturne?) Written in a simple lymric variation, amid watercolors of fantastic monsters, the reader comes across words such as “sul’frous” and “ventricles.” “Outright scarinous” is rhymed with “multifarious.” One stanza reads: “The monster, in his consternation, / Demonstrates defenestration, / And runs and runs and runs and runs away.”
Poll as many English majors as you like – you’ll find few who actually know what “defenestration” means (noun: the act of throwing a thing or esp. a person out of a window). This is the opening to a book of comic strips, and right off the bat the reader is either totally nonplussed, searching for a dictionary or both.
For Calvin, the world around him is wondrous, to be wondered at, mocked and dissected. He describes Moe, his bully, as having a “monosyllabic vocabulary.” He claims “gravity is arbitrary.” When Susie Derkins, his feminine foil, quietly asks him what the capital of Poland is during a test, Calvin quickly answers “Krakow” – not because he knows the historic capital of Poland, but rather because that’s the sound he makes to represent the sound of spaceship missiles firing.
While making a poster for his lost friend Hobbes, a stuffed tiger named after the philosopher with a less-than-positive outlook on mankind, Calvin’s mother suggests he describe him: “On the quiet side. Somewhat peculiar. A good companion in a weird sort of way.” She meant something more along the lines of “Orange with stripes.”
The spiritual and philosophical themes found in the strip have no precedent and no successor. When asked what he believes will happen when we die, Hobbes responds, “I think we play saxophone for an all-girl cabaret in New Orleans.” When Hobbes asks Calvin why they play war and not peace, Calvin responds, “Too few role models.”
As the two careen through the forest on either a red wagon (think “Radio Flyer”) or a sled, our two heroes meader through conversations concerning predetermination and destiny. In the strip’s literal context, Calvin is a spoiled brat. But take him out of the comic world and apply him to the world around you and you’ll see just how deep his insights can be. Granted, we’re talking about Watterson here, who, like many authors of all genres before him, was able to use a simple child character as a mirror, foil and spoiler for the real world.
The last “Calvin and Hobbes” strip, which printed on Dec. 31, 1995, ends with Calvin declaring to Hobbes (on a sled, of course) that the world they are about to explore is magical. It certainly is, and Watterson’s comic strip, all 10 years of it, is a simple reminder of that fact.