Bill Watterson, one of the most acclaimed cartoonists of the 20th century, continues to have an influence throughout American pop culture. His legendary Sunday strip, Calvin & Hobbes, ran for a full decade (1985-95) and established him among the great syndicated columnists like Stephan Pastis, Jim Borgman and Charles Schultz.
And yet, despite the waning influence of physically-printed newspapers, Calvin & Hobbes has, quite simply, refused to die. The hilarious comics are still relevant, even as Watterson himself has shied away from the limelight. The man chose to walk away at the height of his strip’s fame, and has adamantly refused to sell merchandising rights or attempt to capitalize further on his beloved creation. Now, a full 23 years after Calvin & Hobbes concluded, Watterson himself remains an enigma.
Born in Washington, D.C. and raised in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, Watterson showed his artistic talents at a young age; however, unlike the character of Calvin, he was rarely a troublemaker. Watterson attended nearby Kenyon College, graduating with a political science degree in 1980. Originally aspiring to be an editorial cartoonist, he contributed several of his works to the Kenyon student paper, including the “Spaceman Spiff” strips that would later become part of Calvin & Hobbes. Watterson named his eponymous characters after John Calvin (the famous Reformed Protestant theologian) and Thomas Hobbes (a political philosopher), allegedly as a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the political science department at Kenyon.
Watterson came up with the idea for the strip when working an advertising job that he hated. He incorporated several of his own influences into the Calvin & Hobbes universe. Calvin’s dad is a lawyer (like Watterson’s own father) who adheres to many stereotypical “dad” philosophies and frequently gives advice to Calvin that goes unheeded. The midwestern setting of the show is clearly an homage to Watterson’s home state of Ohio, while the character of Hobbes actually resembled Sprite, Watterson’s cat. (In the strip, Hobbes is seen by Calvin as an anthropomorphic tiger, but appears as an inanimate object to other characters.)
Similarly, Watterson incorporated his love of cycling into the strip (Calvin’s dad frequently goes for rides) while also poking fun at the modern art world via Calvin’s horrifying snowmen sculptures.
What made Calvin & Hobbes so good? Simply put — everything. It was witty, intelligent, and very ahead of its time. It was never on-the-nose or overtly political, but still made subtle social commentaries about suburban life, the monotonous nature of education, and the folly of opinion polls. Calvin & Hobbes was both sharply satirical for adults and easily digestible for children readers. And it also had poignant moments where Calvin discovers more about himself and his family and learns life lessons that will (hopefully) help him when he matures into adolescence and adulthood.
At the time, it was rare for cartoon characters to have such complex personalities: Calvin is brash, undisciplined and bratty, but also clearly precocious and motivated in the right context. Hobbes is more prone to sarcastic humor and is frequently the foil to Calvin’s more mischievous schemes. The duo deal with Calvin’s parents, avoid the bully Moe at school and try to pull increasingly sinister pranks on neighborhood girl/classmate Susie Derkins.
Calvin’s outrageous fantasies were also a key element of the strip’s universe. In addition to Spaceman Spiff, Calvin would frequently imagine himself as “Stupendous Man” or “Tracer Bullet, Private Eye.” Another recurring gag featured Calvin developing a so-called “Transmogrifier” from an upside-down cardboard box, or by converting a similar box into a flying time machine. There was always plenty of hilarity when he and Hobbes escaped to their imaginary worlds. Scientific progress goes “boink,” anyone?
Watterson’s desire to create truthful characters and magical cartoon worlds led him to be fiercely protective of the merchandising rights to his comics. Fearing that it would devalue the characters and their personalities, Watterson never allowed his publishers nor anyone else to profit from making Calvin & Hobbes merchandise, retaining all artistic control over his creation.
Nevertheless, Calvin & Hobbes was beloved by readers the world over. Watterson, who always claimed that he worked for personal fulfillment alone, appreciated the fandom, but felt that he was frequently held back by the powers that be. Believing that comic strips were being artistically undermined, Watterson never felt like newspaper executives gave comics enough due diligence or appreciated them as an art form.
During a rare 2013 interview with Mental Floss, Watterson spoke about his uphill battle to maintain his vision against his publisher’s more commercial plans for the strip:
I had signed most of my rights away in order to get syndicated, so I had no control over what happened to my own work, and I had no legal position to argue anything. I could not take the strip with me if I quit, or even prevent the syndicate from replacing me, so I was truly scared I was going to lose everything I cared about either way. I made a lot of impassioned arguments for why a work of art should reflect the ideas and beliefs of its creator, but the simple fact was that my contract made that issue irrelevant.
Watterson best summed up his complex views on fame, commercialization and the value of comic strips as art in a 1989 speech he gave at the Festival of Cartoon Art at the Ohio State University:
Comics were invented for commercial purposes. They were, and are, a graphic feature designed to help sell newspapers. Cartoonists work within severe space constraints on an inflexible deadline for a mass audience. That’s not the most conducive atmosphere for the production of great art, but more than occasionally, wonderful work has been produced.
Amazingly, much of the best cartoon work was done early on in the medium’s history. The early cartoonists, with no path before them, produced work of such sophistication, wit, and beauty that it increasingly seems to me that cartoon evolution is working backward.
Comic strips are moving toward a primordial goo rather than away from it. As a cartoonist, it’s a bit humiliating to read work that was done over 50 years ago and find it more imaginative than what any of us are doing now. We’ve lost many of the most precious qualities of comics.
The comics are a collaborative effort on the part of the cartoonists who draw them, the syndicates that distribute them, and the newspapers that buy and publish them. Each needs the other, and all haves common interest in providing comics features of a quality that attracts a devoted readership. But business and art almost always have a rocky marriage, and in comic strips today the interests of business are undermining the concerns of the art….True, comics are a popular art, and yes, I believe their primary obligation is to entertain, but comics can go beyond that, and when they do, they move from silliness to significance.
I consider it a great privilege to be a cartoonist. I love my work, and I am grateful for the incredible forum I have to express my thoughts. People give me their attention for a few seconds every day, and I take that as an honor and a responsibility. I try to give readers the best strip I’m capable of doing. I look at cartoons as an art, as a form of personal expression. That’s why I don’t hire assistants, why I write and draw every line myself, why I draw and paint special art for each of my books, and why I refuse to dilute or corrupt the strip’s message with merchandising. I want to draw cartoons, not supervise a factory. I had a lot of fun as a kid reading comics, and now I’m in the position where I can return some of that fun.
Nevertheless, Calvin & Hobbes continued as a beloved weekly strip well into the late 80s and early 90s. During this time, Watterson wrote a brief, tongue-in-cheek autobiography and gave the 1990 commencement speech at his alma mater.
On November 9, 1995, Watterson wrote a letter to the editor announcing his plans to bring Calvin & Hobbes to a conclusion at the end of the calendar year:
I will be stopping Calvin and Hobbes at the end of the year. This was not a recent or an easy decision, and I leave with some sadness. My interests have shifted, however, and I believe I’ve done what I can do within the constraints of daily deadlines and small panels. I am eager to work at a more thoughtful pace, with fewer artistic compromises. I have not yet decided on future projects, but my relationship with Universal Press Syndicate will continue.
That so many newspapers would carry Calvin and Hobbes is an honor I’ll long be proud of, and I’ve greatly appreciated your support and indulgence over the last decade. Drawing this comic strip has been a privilege and a pleasure, and I thank you for giving me the opportunity.
And that was that. Watterson faded into obscurity, while fans developed a newfound appreciation for their gone-too-soon comic strip. Numerous collections of Calvin & Hobbes have since been published, including the Calvin & Hobbes Lazy Sunday Book, The Essential Calvin & Hobbes and The Indispensible Calvin & Hobbes. Additionally, Ohio State University hosted an exclusive look at Watterson’s work in 2015 titled Exploring Calvin & Hobbes: An Exhibition Catalogue.
Watterson, meanwhile, returned to his typical everyday life in suburban Cleveland. Now working as a painter, he still rarely gives interviews and has steadfastly refused to give into demands to let Calvin & Hobbes be adapted in any way. In the same Mental Floss interview, he was asked about Pixar’s revolutionary animation and whether he had ever considered adapting Calvin & Hobbes for either the big or small screen:
The visual sophistication of Pixar blows me away, but I have zero interest in animating Calvin and Hobbes. If you’ve ever compared a film to a novel it’s based on, you know the novel gets bludgeoned. It’s inevitable, because different media have different strengths and needs, and when you make a movie, the movie’s needs get served. As a comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes works exactly the way I intended it to. There’s no upside for me in adapting it.
Lifelong Calvin & Hobbes fan Joel Allen Schroeder attempted to get closer to the enigmatic cartoonist with his 2013 documentary Dear Mr. Watterson, which explores the lasting impact of the comic strip on fans around the globe, while also probing into Watterson himself and why he walked away at the height of his fame.
In an interview with NPR, Schroeder explained how the final Calvin & Hobbes strip (pictured below) was the best finale Watterson could’ve written.
“It′s a fresh layer of snow and Calvin and Hobbes are out with the toboggan,” Schroeder explained. “Calvin looks to Hobbes and says, ‘It’s a magical world, old buddy … let′s go exploring.’ And those last words are just a challenge to all of us to make sure that we have that curiosity. And I think they’re words to live by.”