This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on March 17, 2016.
Every two weeks in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Mark Stack will ask Comics Bulletin’s very own Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
Comics will break your heart. What are some of the ones that will make you cry?
My initial instinct when you asked this was to take it easy and come up with a pseudo list of favorite comics that make me cry. It wouldn’t be hard; I love a lot of comics and am a bit of a crier. Touch upon one page of All-Star Superman here, drop into favorite manga like Solanin and Pluto there, sprinkle with obvious pick I Kill Giants: Add some broth and you’d have a weepy stew.
Then I started thinking about one specific comic and realized that I didn’t have enough space to fit in the rest, it was time to focus. Your question does pluralize comics, but I’ll lawyer this one because the comic I’m going to talk about is actually a newspaper strip and it’s one that makes me cry in almost each individual strip of the series.
That comic is Calvin & Hobbes, specifically the three-panel strips published between March 9th and March 18th in 1987, sometimes known as the “Baby Raccoon Story”.
The simplicity of this comic’s form, told in a total of 9 strips and 27 panels with only a few hundred words, belies its incredible complexity. In less than two weeks, Bill Watterson touched on a broad range of themes from the innocence of children to the existential terror of a godless universe. All of this was focused through the narrative of a little boy, Calvin, and his imaginary best friend and tiger, Hobbes, discovering a sick, baby raccoon in the forest and trying to help save its life.
The strips can be effectively broken down into three acts, each composed of three strips and focused on changing, but interconnected ideas. They are all woven together by Calvin discovering the grieving process as he first discovers death, then contemplates it as a concept, and finally must accept it as a reality.
In the first three Watterson reminds us that Calvin is really a young child, even if his acerbic wit and immense imagination make him seem older at times. Although his relationship with his parents is often strained by various antics, when he’s confronted by something he can’t explain or fix running to them is his first response.
Just look at the final panel of the first strip. When Calvin shouts “You don’t get to be mom if you can’t fix everything just right”, it lands as both a punchline and piece of uneasy foreshadowing. The incredible faith and trust that he places in his mother is endearing, as it reveals a healthy relationship with supportive parents. But as adults we also recognize that this connection cannot last. It’s only cute and enjoyable because it comes from a place of innocence that will inevitably pass.
I can tell you that growing up in the Midwest with two great parents, these first few strips hit me pretty hard. Having an idyllic early childhood makes the breaking of that innocence all the harder. We had a variety of animals pass through our property growing up and my parents did the best they could to teach us to respect nature and care for the things we encountered. We had rabbit burrows that my dad would mark with flags to avoid while mowing and birds nests built all around the house. And sometimes those birds fell out of the nest.
Those experiences led me to believe that caring for others is as much instinctual behavior as it is learned. When you see something in need of help, especially as something as innocent as a baby raccoon, your gut reaction is to offer that help. That so many people learn to turn away or even act with cruelty is an effect of age, not a natural reaction. Calvin doesn’t understand what is happening yet, but his first instinct is to offer up whatever help he can. Sure, he insults his mother’s cooking along the way, but it’s still an attempt to sacrifice what little he has to offer. There’s a purity to that moment, even as his mother is forced to roll her eyes.
Growing up I was diagnosed with diabetes at a very young age and was briefly comatose and not expected to live. Later I learned that on the day I was read Last Rites, my best friend just up the street from me, after having it explained to him why I was dying, asked his mom if I could have his pancreas instead. That’s what I mean when I talk about childhood innocence and the instinct to help. Failing to understand the gravity or a situation or what you can offer (or whether you can offer anything at all) is unimportant. What matters is the purity of the response, and that’s something that can be both uplifting and heartbreaking, as it is here.
The lack of specificity applied to the baby raccoon in this case is part of what makes Calvin’s experience more universal. You never experience more than a single curved line inside of the shoebox, only providing the sense of a presence, but not the actual thing. While the baby animal is nominally a raccoon, it’s really a stand-in for innocence and a death outside of oneself. In this comic, the baby raccoon could be a pet fish, a small bird, a childhood pet, or even a relative. By not putting a face to the animal, Watterson ensures that readers are able to connect more easily to what is happening on the page.
Watterson isn’t entirely focused on Calvin’s experience here either. He spends the second strip focused on his mother, who recognizes what is happening. She does her best to offer aid, providing shelter and food to the baby raccoon, even though she knows it will most likely die. This doesn’t just display a love for her own child, subtly revealed when she begins talking to Hobbes herself out of anxiety. It also reinforces Calvin’s own instincts to render aid when confronted with a problem. Her response is more realistic and cautious, altered by decades of experience, but it coming from the same basic place. In this way Watterson creates a connection between mother and son, and makes a statement about the basic decency of humanity, even if it’s a decency often lost beyond the confines of childhood.
When the comic shifts into its second act, Calvin and his family have done all that they can to provide for the baby raccoon. The work of caring is done leaving Calvin to reflect on the events of the day and his own emotions with Hobbes. It’s this very special and widely examined relationship between a boy and his imaginary best friend that Watterson utilizes to transform internal dialogue into actual dialogue. Here he distills the random zigging and zagging of thoughts and emotions into a clearly expressed back and forth.
That dialogue is intentionally direct and raw. Just look at the final panels of both strips 4 and 5, and they very blunt statements being made by Calvin and Hobbes, respectively. At the end of 4, Calvin says, “Don’t die, little raccoon. It wouldn’t be very grateful to break my heart.” It’s a fine gag on its own, juxtaposing a tone of selfishness with the kindness and concern on display. What it does even better is reveal Calvin’s state of mind. He is bargaining even though the action itself is irrational. The raccoon has no say over its own survival and Calvin is old enough to know this. His statement is not really appealing to the raccoon though, who unlike Hobbes cannot animate or respond, but to a universal sense of fairness. This is a concept that will be examined more thoroughly in the final third of the series, but here it is a gut reaction to something terrible.
The experience of finding out a loved one is dying doesn’t change those initial reactions even as you grow older. Reading this comic as a child, you might think Calvin is experiencing similar emotions to you because of that temporal similarity. But when you become an adult, these strips hit just as hard. The urge to bargain and beg, with no one in particular remains, even when you know in that moment how fruitless the urge is.
I don’t want to list the times that I have been there as a supposedly rational adult, but one specific instance comes to mind. The night my aunt was killed in a car accident, we were told her dog (a constant companion that never, and I mean never, left her side) had survived. In a state of shock at losing a woman who had meant so much to me and my immediate family, this became a small ray of hope on one of the shittiest nights of my life. Even as an atheist, I found myself praying that it would be okay.
Those brief sentences that Calvin and Hobbes share approach that fundamental level of grieving. “I can’t sleep.” “I hope he lives” “Little animals are always so cute.” These are the basic units of speech that compose dialogue in our worst moments. They are a shared language that given enough time we all come to recognize. They are the thoughts I spoke alongside my bargaining on the night my aunt, and later her dog, died.
As bad as those moments are what comes next is inevitably worst. The realization of death, when Calvin’s dad tells him the raccoon passed away, doesn’t leave room for words. Watterson effects Calvin’s response in a wide mouthed cry. And again the response is not actually childish in nature. Even as his dad offers him words of comfort, Calvin is not beyond reason. When he stops crying, he acknowledges the wisdom in his dad’s words and perfectly identifies the source of his own pain. He hurts not because he empathizes with the raccoon’s plight, which ended in relative comfort and has now ceased, but because his brief but intense relationship with the animal has left him with a void.
This act of the series may best represent why this specific comic still makes me cry well over two decades after I first encountered it (with parents wise enough to read me Calvin & Hobbes before I could do it myself). The faceless baby raccoon provides a blank slate for Calvin’s grieving and that grief reads as being shared in its fundamental approach. These few sequences are relatable because they tap into the shared experience of learning to grieve in the face of death. It’s something all children must eventually encounter. The terror and pain of that experience doesn’t become any less painful with time, even if we do adjust to its presence. Being able to share in Calvin’s emotional experience not only reminds us what it was like, but helps remind us of the hope and lessons present even in experiences like this.
The final act of this Calvin & Hobbes story takes a decided turn towards the lessons to be taken away from a loss and the act of grieving. It is entirely focused on the dialogue between Calvin and Hobbes, which borders upon being a monologue. Hobbes only says something in two panels as he provides the punchline to strip 8 and reassures his friend in strip 9. What we’re really reading is the thought process of a child being confronted by an uncaring universe for the first time.
Calvin raises the concept of fairness once again, like when he told the raccoon it would be ungrateful to die. The rings on the sides of his eyes in strip 7 is all you need to see the tears he has been crying. He understands that the raccoon didn’t do anything to deserve to die. As a faceless symbol, the imagined brown eyes and small masked face of a baby raccoon screams with innocence. Even thinking about it now causes tears to well. Yet it still died and we know that this is but the smallest of injustices in the grand scheme of things. It’s all Calvin requires to grasp that bad things happen without any real accountability.
Watterson pulls absolutely no punches as Calvin interrogates these feelings either. He does not have an adult enter the scene to provide a pat answer or have Calvin look for an easy solution or logical loophole. In short, no one drops the word “heaven” and walks away. What we’re left with is a much scarier investigation of the meaning of death from a child’s perspective. Calvin may not say there is no god, but he isn’t willing to raise the concept as an unquestioning solution for the logical problem of evil.
The punchline to strip 8 focuses right on this classic philosophical challenge to the existence of god as Calvin and Hobbes hide under his bed. He boils it down to a simple dichotomy that “it’s either mean or it’s arbitrary.” He’s not wrong either. Hobbes might make a joke about his own discomfort and these thoughts keeping them up late at night, but that doesn’t diminish the point being made. In fact, Watterson has simply made that point understandable to a broader range of audience. It’s not often that you see a truly all-ages comic confront existential terror and yet here it is in only a few beautifully rendered panels.
Watterson’s final focus in this story isn’t on the cruelty of the universe or a philosophical problem with god’s existence. It’s based in Calvin’s learning process and how he learns to cope with death and the issues it raises. At the very beginning of the series, Calvin acknowledges the complexity of this experience. He identifies the conflict at play in himself saying, “In a sad, awful, terrible way, I’m happy I met him.” There is no banishing the pain, but he is already wise enough to understand that not having that pain would also mean never having encountered the baby raccoon or experienced any of the positive emotions that came with that meeting.
It’s the final strip that really nails down the value of experiencing death. While Watterson frames the innocence of children as a positive thing in the first few strips, it’s here that he shows it as something that must be necessarily removed to make way for something more complex, but ultimately better. Calvin’s mother reenters the scene through her son’s own words. He is re-explaining death to Hobbes, essentially working through what he was told. Her message treats Calvin like an adult and honors his intelligence. Rather than soften what has happened with a fairytale or provide him with well-meaning, but hollow answers, she admits that we don’t understand why death is necessary or what happens next. She focuses on what to do with that lack of knowledge instead encouraging her son to make the best of the situation and learn from it.
That’s something we already know Calvin has done. No matter how rowdy he may get in Calvin & Hobbes, there is no doubting the intelligence and occasionally complex wisdom this young boy displays. He has already come to understand why he grieves the loss of the baby raccoon in strip 6 and learned to find the joy in loss in strip 7; he is even wise enough to draw out pertinent philosophical questions, but not dwell on them too much in strip 8. Each of these moments, these lessons, are significant parts of learning to deal with loss that we share as we grow older. Calvin’s experience happens in rapid succession on the page, and we can recognize these essential moments.
Being able to sit down with a story and see yourself and your experience is a powerful thing. When it reflects life-changing, powerful experiences, you are given an opportunity to examine your own perspective and understanding of the world. There are few more significant experiences in life than that of losing and grieving for those we love. In these strips Bill Watterson summons that experience and brings to life some of its most important lessons in a deeply relatable manner.
So I cry as much, if not more, now than when I first saw these comics at only 3 or 4. They remind me of the worst days in my life. They also help me work through those days and remember why I’m better for having lived them. Looking back at how my near-death experience changed my family and how officiating my aunt’s funeral changed me, I’m glad those days happened. Calvin & Hobbes reminds me of those transformative moments and how important it is to embrace the unknown and learn from even the most harrowing challenges.
I can’t explain death and I don’t think that anything happens after you die. It’s as scary and overwhelming as it was when I first read these comics, but I’m better prepared to handle it for having read them and better prepared to help others every day of my life because of that. I don’t know when I’ll lose someone, but I know that when I do it’ll be okay in the end and that there is joy to be found for simply having lived.
I guess that makes sense. But don’t you go anywhere, Mark Stack.