Vulnerability is an underappreciated element of Calvin & Hobbes. For all that we readers enjoy the fireworks of Calvin’s adventures as Spaceman Spiff, his cardboard-box flights of imagination, and in general his gleeful disregard for the mundane, these are all reactions to his state of vulnerability. He’s still just a kid: he doesn’t quite get other people, nor the institutions that they inhabit, nor a world beyond the parochial.
Watterson mentions in The Calvin & Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book that the world of Calvin & Hobbes works best on this small scale, hence the rarity of vacations, family members besides the unnamed parents, or indeed any named cast members beyond a dozen or so core figures. The world beyond this is opaque (which, as a side note, tends to translate into a fertile ground for fanfiction and remix culture, hence the “Calvin is Tyler Durden” spiel and the fanmade alternate endings for the strip) and unknowable. This also, though, emphasizes Calvin’s successes and failures because the world we readers see is, as a literary choice, happening at a scale that emphasizes them. The throwaway references to geopolitics skip off the strip’s surface and vanish: they’re not essential parts of the experience.
Calvin copes creatively with institutions and individuals that have coercive power over him, but they still range from well-meaning-but-ineffectual to frighteningly apathetic to outright hostile. I think that it’s important to treasure both the whimsy, exploration, and inventiveness of his world, as well as the fact that his creation of that world is driven by vulnerability to his parents, to his school, and to the Other in general. As an adult, I’ve started to empathize, sometimes painfully, with his experience of a world of inscrutable institutions that don’t do much good that I can see and with the sense that my imaginary life, for all that I acknowledge that it’s mostly accessible to just me, is something that a terrifyingly indifferent world-system can’t take from me.
You can’t stay a kid forever. That’s part of why Watterson ended the strip. But learning to cope with a sense of vulnerability, a sense that follows us through our lives, is something that you might as well cultivate early.