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Internet Meme Demolition Derby: Medicating Calvin & Hobbes Edition

The funny pages, like the newspapers that carry them have been waning in their cultural impact for decades now. Not to say that the art form is passing away, on the contrary the rise of the Webcomic  has given artists a new platform to present works that would never have made it into the local Sunday paper. In fact the rise of social media has helped relaunch the career of Berkley Breathed and his iconic Bloom County much to the delight of us Gen X kids who cut our cynical teeth on the adventures of Milo, Opus, and Bill the Cat. But the kind of shared experience that had an entire nation chuckling together over the same four panel jokes with their Bran Flakes or Cap’n Crunch is a thing that passed away around the same time that Charles Schulz hung up his pen and inks for good.

I think it’s safe to say that the last comic strip to truly capture the mass imagination in that way was Bill Watterson’s  Calvin and Hobbes. Running for a decade from 1985 to 1995, the strip followed the adventures of the rambunctious tyke Calvin and his best friend Hobbes, who was either a ferocious, tuna craving jungle beast as he appeared to Calvin, or a well loved stuffed tiger as he appeared to everyone else. The pair would go on adventures across an idealized late 20th century suburban landscape, equipped with hills for sledding, trees for climbing and all the universe for a young imagination to soar through. Named for philosopher Thomas Hobbes and theologian John Calvin, the boy and his tiger were always exploring much deeper and more interesting material than your average Dennis the Menace knockoff, taking on the battle of the sexes, environmentalism, education and other deep philosophical questions. It is fair to say that Calvin and Hobbes may be the last great, beloved American comic strip.  I certainly love them. I have at one time or another owned every collection. I plan to buy that gigantic collected volume some day. The deepest question, the actual nature of Hobbes animation was always avoided by their creator. Which is just one of the many reasons why today’s entry into the arena of meme destruction makes my blood boil.calvin-pills

Often billed as the “secret last Calvin and Hobbes”, versions of “the pills strip” to the right have been popping up from time to time for years. In fact Comic Book Resources reported on January 16 of 2016 that a version of this strip was recently pulled from Ebay after 28 bidders jacked the price up to over $14,000 when the seller (who had no selling history with Ebay) could not provide more details about its origins.

I’ll transcript it here for those who can’t see the image.

(Hobbes sits next to Calvin, who is writing at a table)

Hobbes: You’re working on your report already?

Calvin: Yeah, I know…

Hobbes: It’s not due til Thursday!

Calvin: Mom says the pills must be working.

Hobbes: Well, see… it’s snowing outside and I thought maybe… we could…

Calvin: Sorry what? I wasn’t listening. I really have to finish this.

(The last panel is in black and white and depicts Calvin continuing his work while Hobbes reverts to his lifeless stuffed tiger form)

When this showed up in my Facebook feed, ” I was too angry to respond. The “pills” that Calvin is referring to are obviously meant to be some form of treatment for hyperactivity or attention deficit disorder, a trait that Calvin often appears to display in the strip, sometimes fueled by a breakfast of Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs, which are actually kind of bland until you add a couple scoops of sugar to them. Calvin is also prone to daydreaming in school,  the source of his Spaceman Spiff adventures. The obvious message is that the Calvin’s long suffering parents have sacrificed Calvin’s youthful imagination on the altar of academic drudgery, thereby ending the magic that animated poor Hobbes.

We have tackled the cynical, misinformed, and sometimes downright hostile reactions that people have towards the psychiatric treatment of youngsters in the  Childhood is Not a Disease, and The “Original” ADHD Medication editions of the IMDD. You should go read those because we really like the extra clicks on old articles, but also because I poured a lot of myself into them. I wasn’t diagnosed with ADHD until I was in my 40’s. It’s no joke that perhaps some pharmaceutical intervention when I was Calvin’s age might have helped me avoid a lot of heartache over the years.

That’s ground we have covered already. Today I’d like to dive a bit deeper into the insidious implication that this cartoon makes about the effects of psychiatric medication on children, including a pernicious appeal to our well meant concern for children’s rights. As I explained above, Calvin and Hobbes were and still are beloved characters. And this cartoon explicitly accuses “the pills” of the crime of murdering Hobbes and therefore by extension destroying Calvin’s childhood imagination.  When this image first came across my Facebook feed it was immediately followed by a comment like “Oh, I’m Heartbroken”. And that’s the obvious intent, to tug on heartstrings and thus make it easier to demonize childhood psychiatric medication. How dare Mom and Dad destroy their child’s imaginary friend with Ritalin (the usual culprit). This plays into the well worn myth that treating children for mental illness with drugs turns them into zombies or robots.
David Rabiner, Ph.D. Research Professor at Duke University responds to that very question here…

* Stimulant medication works by turning children into “zombies”.

Some children do become sluggish and withdrawn when on medication, but these symptoms generally indicate that the dose is too high, or that a co-existing condition such as a mood problem has not been identified. Studies have shown an increase in prosocial behavior in ADHD children treated with stimulants, which would not be the case if it simply turned children into “zombies”.

I recommend anyone who believes in this myth to check out the online communities and forums for people and parents dealing with ADHD like ADDitude. Listen to the stories of parents and children whose lives have been changed by whatever treatment regimen they have attacked ADHD with. Even the minimal succor I receive from my Straterra prescription (I don’t react well to stimulants) has made a huge positive difference in my life. Hardly quashing my creativity, it has allowed me to focus and express that creativity in ways I never was able to before.

Another problem I have with this meme is that it throws Calvin’s long suffering parents completely under the bus. Let’s assume that Calvin’s adventures with Hobbes are in fact a side effect of an untreated mental condition, as the strip certainly implies. Then by definition they have taken the proper steps to help their child! In real life, if Calvin’s imaginary friend was interfering with his schoolwork, encouraging him to misbehave, and actually leading Calvin to undertake life threatening risks, then some sort of psychiatric intervention would be a completely reasonable reaction! I showed this strip to a friend of mine and he returned an excellent take that I just have to share in full.

As to the meme, my thoughts are this: It’s major flaw is that it is reductionist. It takes a complex issue and slams it with an unfair, simplistic and morally inappropriate argument. The issue of whether or not to medicate your child cannot be summoned up in 4 panels, nor is it a thing to be laughed at, nor should those faced with the difficult decision be made fun of.

In real life, dealing with children who suffer from mental illness is really and truly heartbreaking. It is no more a matter to be made light of than childhood cancer or any other disability or illness. The fight to properly diagnose and properly treat childhood mental illness is made all the more difficult by attitudes encouraged when well meaning or careless people share stuff like this. And there usually isn’t any magic moment where the pills start working like a panacea. In real life dealing with childhood ADHD is hard work that can continue for a lifetime.

And finally… Calvin and Hobbes may have explored many themes over the course of it’s decade on our funny pages. But one thing I can assure you is that Calvin and Hobbes is not a nightmare trek through a disturbed child’s subconscious. Which is what this strip turns every other strip into.

clv1231c

clv1231c

THIS is the actual last Calvin and Hobbes strip from the hand of Bill Watterson, from December 31st, 1995. Nothing changes. Nothing ENDS! The last words spoken are “It’s a magical world Hobbes Ol’ Buddy… Let’s go exploring.”  Messing with that perfect ending to make a trite moralist mistaken point is the closest thing to sacrilege this atheist has seen in a long time.

By the way, the internet is littered with many kind and thoughtful tributes and fan art of Calvin and Hobbes. By far some of my favorites have been Hobbes and Bacon, which imagines the adventures of Hobbes after he is introduced to Calvin’s daughter Bacon. And more recently the wonderful mashup of Calvin with Star Wars: The Force Awakens emo villain Kylo Ren in the adventures of Kylo and Darth .calvin-and-ren.0.0  Let their awesomeness clear the air  of the awfulness of today’s entry into the Internet Meme Demolition Derby.

I’m gonna go exploring now.

Image Credits: Bill Watterson, Brian Kessinger (Kylo and Darth), and some douchebag.

 

 

 

 

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Lou Doench

Lou Doench

Lou Doench is a 48 year old father of three. Twelve years ago he married the coolest woman in the world and gave up the lucrative career of being a photography student to become a stay at home husband and Dad, or SAHD. An atheist geek, or a geeky atheist if you prefer, Lou likes reading, photography, video gaming, disc golf, baseball and Dr. Who. He has been playing Dungeons and Dragons since 1976. Born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is also an excellent home cook, not that his children would know because they only eat Mac & Cheese. Follow Lou on Twitter @blotzphoto or check out his photography at www.flickr.com/photos/blotz/

7 Comments

  1. February 19, 2016 at 4:31 pm —

    Great piece, Lou! The really funny thing about claiming that this is supposedly the suppressed last strip is that the barely legible copyright notice in the last panel reads 1986.

     

  2. February 20, 2016 at 4:10 pm —

    In real life, if Calvin’s imaginary friend was interfering with his schoolwork, encouraging him to misbehave, and actually leading Calvin to undertake life threatening risks, then some sort of psychiatric intervention would be a completely reasonable reaction!

    I have the nagging feeling that the people who believe that this is the death of Hobbes are the kind of people whose parents (or they themselves as parents) didn’t actually care that much whether they did their schoolwork or not, with the inevitable results. So in order to avoid a critical look towards their own childhood/parenting those other parents who think that their kids getting an education and dealing with issues must be demonised.

    I have one of these wonderful creative, imaginative neurodiverse children. For the last three years we’ve (we= us and her teacher) been trying to teach her that doodling in the margins of classtests is not appropriate. Last approach was to give her an extra sheet of paper.

    Baaaaaaad idea. Half way during the test she got bored and started drawing and never finished the other half. Because she’s just not able to check herself. Since then she’s getting an extra training lesson at home. “I hate consequences!!!!” I know, kid. I also know people whose parents thought that because their kid hated consequences they were to be avoided. You don’t want to grow up to be them…

     

  3. February 20, 2016 at 4:14 pm —

    There’s some words missing in the second sentence. Please fill in as appropriate

  4. February 21, 2016 at 8:27 pm —

    I have ADD. I’ve also read every Calvin and Hobbes multiple times. And definitely, this “last cartoon” is bullshit- treating my ADD makes my creativity bloom, not get deleted. Calvin struggles, and he doesn’t have to. His imagination won’t disappear!

    Pediatric psychiatry is a tough line to walk sometimes, but I think we need to be clear: letting kids go through life with severe problems is truly unloving. It’s incredibly difficult to come back from. And this romanticizing of neuroatypicality and mental illness, especially for children, is bullshit.

    • February 24, 2016 at 8:13 am —

      Thanks for commenting!  I like the phrase “romanticizing neuroatypicality”. It really fits with what I’m getting at here.

  5. February 22, 2016 at 2:11 am —

    Everyone who sees this meme should read this article:

    http://m.smh.com.au/lifestyle/edge-of-the-abyss-20120819-24h4r

    This is the story of Jani and her struggle with child onset schizophrenia. She is 2e to the nth degree. I cried reading it. Here’s the reason it’s related…. It didn’t start here (it started with a colicky, brilliant baby who would only sleep 5 hours a day)… But here’s where it becomes relevant:

    Janni’s first imaginary friend is a dog called “Low” and appears just before her third birthday. I don’t think anything of it. Kids have imaginary friends, but more come – an orange tabby cat, “400”, and seven rats named for each day of the week. There’s even a human girl with brown hair she calls “24 Hours”. As more keep coming, I eventually lose count.

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