One of the striking aspects of Calvin and Hobbes is how directly the strip confronts the issue of death. It's an odd thing for a comic strip to do. Peanuts was a strip that dealt with death. But Peanuts tended to come at the issue indirectly. For example, I have discussed in The Theology of Peanuts how Charles Schulz used snowmen as a metaphor for death and mortality.
By contrast, Calvin and Hobbes deals with directly. Often asking very direct questions about death.
In his book The Secular Age Charles Taylor discusses the "malaise of modernity." That is, with the collapse of the transcendent, spiritual dimension secular persons face various challenges that our forbears did not face in bygone "enchanted" eras. Taylor notes that in the secular age, due to the flatness of the Immanent Frame, where no meaning is to be found outside of human strivings, we find meaning fragile. That is, if there is nothing deeper or above us, spiritually speaking, we struggle to find our projects of lasting value, meaning, and significance. We live and die and are forgotten. This realization continually threatens our psychological equilibrium in the secular age. Existential crises are common and ubiquitous. In the Immanent Frame we are constantly asking, "What's the point?" Work, work, work to get the gold watch? Is that the goal of human life? If there is nothing transcendent and lasting beyond me and beyond death then why not collect toys and distract myself with entertainments? These nagging questions are symptoms of the malaise of modernity. Meaning is hard to secure and protect in the secular age.
The most extended meditation on death in Calvin and Hobbes appeared in March of 1987. Calvin and Hobbes find a baby raccoon close to death. Calvin and his family try to save the baby raccoon but the raccoon dies. Across a two week period, nine strips in all, Watterson poignantly meditates on death, loss, and grief:
Taylor notes that the existential crises in the secular age are particularly acute when we confront death. In earlier enchanted eras we had psychological and spiritual structures that allowed us to understand and approach death. Death, in many of these formulations, was often seen as a welcome end, a friend. This aspect of death was powerfully captured in George MacDonald's fantasy tale At the Back of the North Wind. In that story a sickly boy named Diamond is befriended by the North Wind. Diamond and the North Wind have many adventures together. At the end of the tale Diamond dies and we discover that the North Wind is Death. This friendly companion was Death. And the safe haven is to be found at the back of the North Wind. In dying Diamond must pass through the North Wind to emerge safely on the other side.
Such a notion is unavailable in the secular age. Death can no longer be seen as friendly. Death is a hole. A cul-de-sac with no exit. An abyss.
In short, in the Immanent Frame death stumps us.
This confounding in the face of death is continually echoed in Calvin and Hobbes. In one of his riskier Sunday strips Watterson tackled this experience directly. The strip, at the start, shows us the picture of a dead bird. Which prompts the existential ruminations of Calvin, ultimately ending in that feeling of incomprehension:
Death confounds us in the Immanent Frame. In the secular age we are called upon to reconcile ourselves to our immanent projects. This life must be “good enough” for us. To want “more” is no longer possible.
But we wonder, with Calvin, if the Immanent Frame has prematurely foreclosed on the subject of death. Questions linger. True, we can’t figure out this death stuff.
But something inside keeps trying.