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.
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.
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 . 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.