Monday, October 17, 2016

Poem of the Week 10.17.16


              Calvin and Hobbes, the Poetics of my Childhood

All who know me, know that poetry is often a lost concept on me. I’ve dread writing for Poem of the Week because I didn’t think I could find a suitable poem to highlight, not only for a lack of exposure to poetry but also a lack of comprehension of what is and is not poetic. But then I looked at my bookshelf and found that there was a little gem of poetry tucked away in my compendium of every published Calvin and Hobbes comic strip from 1985-1995. As a side note, Calvin and Hobbes is the idyllic figure of my childhood that has kept me intellectually, spiritually, and creatively challenged since I discovered the comic in elementary school during a Scholastic Book fair.

For those who don’t know, Calvin and Hobbes is a comic-strip that chronicles snippets of philosophical thought, school life, family tribulations, etc. through the imagination of a young boy named Calvin who is often joined in his adventures by his friend Hobbes. To the rest of the world, Hobbes is just a stuffed-animal but for Calvin and the reader Hobbes is brought to life as an anthropomorphized, sarcastic tiger with a distinct love of tuna.

Published on August 20th 1995, this poem by Watterson is told from the perspective of Calvin. Calvin’s parents are often depicted as morose, tired, and unimaginative people who dissuade him from his typical “thinking-outside-the-box” approach in life, with Calvin clearly asserting that “They’re here to enslave me and spoil my youth” (Watterson). This poem centers on the anxieties a young child has over their own transition out of childhood, as the monotony of adulthood consumes every aspect of life.

The first panel is creatively split in two by the wall that Calvin is nervously looking past as his parents sit complacently in the living room. This establishes a separate space for Calvin, a blank white space that is not subject to the tyrannies of adulthood that fuel this six-year old boy’s existential crisis. Watterson is in support of giving children a free space to be imaginative, that they are otherwise robbed off in every other facet of life (on the grounds that they are young and need to be kept inside of a box in order to be molded properly for adulthood). In his imaginations, Calvin comes to the conclusion that his parents must be aliens wearing disguises and cites his proof in the third stanza/frame of the poem/comic when he says, “I knew right away their masks weren’t legit/Their faces are lined - They sag and don’t fit” (Watterson). As Calvin grows increasingly aware of his parent’s getting older, it sparks a newfound sense of self-awareness in his adolescent mind.

It should be taken into consideration that Calvin’s criticisms of his parents, that “They live by the clock. They’re slaves to routines/ They work the year ‘round. They’re almost machines” is why he is able to live comfortably and be well-provided for (Watterson). But the lines blur as the same acceptance of a monotonous and mechanical lifestyle fuel many of Calvin’s outbursts, anxieties, and insecurities, throughout the comic strip’s long history. Whenever Calvin approaches his father with a meaningful and insightful question on the nature of his own reality (whether it be scientific/religious/philosophical), his father responds with a dim comment or joke that leaves Calvin’s questions unanswered. Similarly, Calvin’s imagination is never indulged by his father either which also lends to his frustrations directed at adulthood.

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An example of how Calvin's father doesn't indulge in his imagination
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An example of how Calvin's father responds to his son's curiosities.
Calvin laments that “For sinister plots, this one is a gem/They’re bringing me up to turn me into them” which highlights the true essence of Calvin’s anxiety (Watterson). The split-panel technique is employed once again the last panel, except Calvin is depicted as running away at the sight of his parents in order to escape what he has come to believe as an inevitable future.

At first, the obsolescence of childhood and the imagination as a part of growing up is a bleak view of life. But I think Calvin and Hobbes as a whole is Watterson’s attempt to challenge the complexities of this concept. Calvin and Hobbes is a weekly comic strip that doesn’t move forward in time, with Calvin being kept in a perpetual state of adolescence. Calvin’s character is meant to be a looking-glass into the reader’s own childhood, as we are encouraged by society to engage in the spoiling of our youth. By being creative and embracing one’s imagination, Watterson reveals how to capture and replicate the innocence and enchantment of childhood in all of its abstract understanding of life. By combining the graphic art of a serialized comic with poetry, Watterson challenges modes of artistic expression as the antithesis of the rigid systems that Calvin associates with his parents.

- Christopher L. 

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