Monday, January 20, 2014

Calvin and Hobbes and Onfim

You know what was cool?

Actually, let me back up: you know what was cool, if you read the comics pages of American newspapers in the eighties and early nineties?

Calvin and Hobbes.

And if you didn't, the short story is this: Calvin is a six-year-old boy with a stuffed tiger/best friend named Hobbes, and an imagination the size of a small galaxy.  They went on all kinds of adventures, and the strip would regularly switch back and forth from the lush, well-illustrated world of Calvin's imagination, to his rather less impressive reality.  Thusly:

© Universal Press Syndicate
It was a fantastic comic strip for so many reasons, but part of its enduring appeal is how it hilariously, astutely, lovingly renders a child's world.  It was a huge part of my own childhood, and I have no doubt that it's going to keep its place in our cultural memory for a long time yet.

Anyway, fast forward to today, when my Twitter feed (and my buddy Daniel Bensen, of Groom of the Tyrannosaur Queen fame!) turned me on to this little gem here:

Image by Onfim of Novgorod, licensed by under CC BY-SA

This is a replica of a birch-bark drawing done by a boy who lived in 13th-century Russia.  It's part of an article called The Art of Onfim: Medieval Novgorod Through the Eyes of a Child.  I'll let the author, Paul Wickenden, explicate this drawing here:

Onfim was being taught to write, but he was obviously restless with his lessons and when he could get away with it, he intermixed his assignments with doodlings. In this first example, he started to write out the first eleven letters of the alphabet in the upper right corner, but got bored and drew a picture of himself as a grown-up warrior impaling an enemy with his spear. To remove any doubt about the identity of the warrior, he even labeled the person on the horse as "Onfim."
This is without a doubt the sweetest, funniest, most touching thing I've seen in weeks.  I just can't tell you how it delights my soul.

Well, maybe I can.  Look at this one here:

Image by Onfim of Novgorod, licensed by under CC BY-SA

This one has a spelling lesson at the left, with a picture of Onfim's mother and father at the center.  And to me it's just, like, massively enchanting to drink in all the little details.  Compare this drawing to the one above, and notice how they differ from our modern preschool/Crayola iconography.  Do you see how the nose is always a straight line, making a perpendicular cat-like connection to the mouth?  And how the hands don't look like little three-fingered brooms, but like rakes?  I'm no art-ographer, but I wonder if those outward bulges above the arms are shoulders - and I ADORE that horse.

So I guess if there's a point lurking anywhere in here, it's this: it's easy to understand intellectually that all societies have some things in common - that as long as there are people, there will be six-year-old boys who get bored and fantasize about having great adventures.  But it's not until you really see a little scrap of the past up-close and personal that the tiny, telling differences become apparent, and you can see that boy as his own separate, entire person - a human being in sharp focus, and a startlingly intimate connection to a world that no longer exists.

I want this.  I covet this.  I can't think of any greater success in storytelling than being able to bank-shot a character off of that backboard of differences - race or time or culture or gender or whatever - to land right back in the reader's lap.  And I'm starting to think that fantasy - be it ever so dinosaurs-in-fighter-jets humble - is a genre custom-made for doing just that.

These are the voices of the dead - an extinct culture - to which everybody is a little bit deaf.


  1. Three cheers for little Onfim. It's only rarely we can resonate with a historical person like that. Also my book is basically that Calvin and Hobbes strip.

    1. Dude, I want your book so hard I can taste it.

      And it tastes AMAZING.

  2. I freaking love Calvin and Hobbes. I've made sure my 13 year old son has read all my old C & H books... (although they were a bit late getting to him. I should have given them to him as soon as he learned to read)
    And I'm going to make sure Simon reads them, too.
    I love that evidence of children bored at school from centuries past. I actually kept a butt load of my doodlings from middle and high school... I just don't know exactly what to do with them...

    1. Save them! They are an essential part of your historical record - and in 40 years, the Smithsonian's going to be BEGGING for them.

      And y'know, what still blows me away about things like Calvin and Hobbes, the Muppets, Pixar, etc. is the amount of genius needed to create stories and characters that are truly fun for EVERYone. I can't think of any greater creative achievement than that, and I am so glad you are cultivating excellent taste in the next generation!