May 3rd, 2014

  • pgdf

Childhood's End

I've been re-reading the entire series of CALVIN AND HOBBES in the grand three-volume hardcover set, as seen here on Amazon:

(I note a cheaper paperback version as well:

It's been little noted online, so far as I can see, that 2015 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the strip's debut, and the twentieth anniversary of its demise. Hard to believe so much time has passed.

The strip holds up brilliantly, I am pleased to report. The passage of time has not diminished one iota of Watterson's genius.

But was has changed, of course, is the cultural context.

Calvin is a free-range child. He leads an independent, often adult-free, technologically unmediated existence which was the rule for children from, oh, the days of TOM SAWYER (1876) right up to the dominance of the internet and smart phones, whenever you date that. This type of childhood showed enormous resilience and continuity, from PENROD through THE LITTLE RASCALS to THE NEWSBOY LEGION to LEAVE IT TO BEAVER to CALVIN AND HOBBES. It was my childhood, and that of the Boomers in general, and of Generation X, but not that of the Millennials. Amazingly, it was mostly impervious to technology. Photography did not change it appreciably, nor did telephones, radio and the cinema. They were all absorbed into free-range childhood culture. Television might have had the biggest effect: Calvin is often mesmerized by the TV before being ejected from the house. But even the days of dominance by the three major networks had little impact on hanging out with friends, etc. Even the advent of VHS players and DVDs failed to demolish the rituals and practices that would have been familiar to Huck Finn. It took the internet and mobile communications to do that, aided and abetted by irrational parental and institutional and governmental fears of the harms that could come to precious snowflakes if left to their own devices.

Now, of course, such a childhood as depicted in CALVIN AND HOBBES is unthinkable, in the USA and other Western countries, at least.

And last night, reading the CALVIN AND HOBBES strip for September 22, 1993, I came across the outlier for such a sea-change.


Ironically, Calvin seems to welcome the approaching internet, little able to foresee that it will spell an end to his carefree existence, tethering him to electronic leashes and addicting him to thin and pale virtual experiences instead of a real-world sled ride down a dangerous cliff.

Watterson famously bailed on his strip at the height of its success, ostensibly because he had said everything he had to say in that medium and grown tired of the labor. But I wonder if, at least subconsciously, he did not see the writing on the wall that would have rendered his depiction of Calvin and his tiger more and more problematical and incongruent with reality.

About ten years ago, on the Rhode Island shore, I saw three children, two boys and a girl, possibly siblings, in their bathing suits wading in the tidal marshes, carrying nets, searching for crabs and clams and such. The oldest, the girl, was only eleven or twelve. There wasn't an adult in sight for a mile. The tableau was pristine and timeless and beautiful.

I haven't chanced on such a scene since then, and wonder if I ever will.