‘Calvin and Hobbes’ and Bill Watterson: A Phenomenon and a Recluse

Calvin and Hobbes

‘Calvin and Hobbes’ first appeared on November 18, 1985. The strip has remained relevant for more than 30 years, and its creator has stuck to his principles through it all.

It was one of those things moms say to their kids to impress them about their jobs, as if being an outstanding AP teacher weren’t enough. But of course, I was just a young boy. Name-dropping has its effects. “Bill Watterson graduated from Chagrin Falls,” she told me. Chagrin Falls High School in Northeast Ohio, that is. The school where my mom’s now taught for 22 years. Calvin and Hobbes, the revolutionary comic strip, made Chagrin Falls’ own Bill Watterson a household name.

Calvin and Hobbes

December 20, 1985 / Bill Watterson / Andrews McMeel Publishing

Calvin and Hobbes had always reminded me of home. The precocious Calvin and his stuffed tiger live in an idyllic Midwestern town with many Chagrin Falls characteristics. In one of the first Calvin and Hobbes strips, for example, Calvin ponders where we go after death. Hobbes offers, “Pittsburgh?” Given the cynical nature of Hobbes, I read this as a hellish remark. Northeast Ohioans, by virtue of the rivalry between the Browns and Steelers, loathe Pittsburgh. And then there were the snowy winters, the fact that Calvin finds buckeyes in his neighborhood (buckeyes are the official tree of Ohio), and the parallel between Hobbes and Chagrin Falls’ mascot, a tiger.

But until I studied the back cover of The Essential Calvin and Hobbes, I didn’t realize the comic strip was so specifically inspired by Chagrin Falls. To an outsider, a giant-sized Calvin stomping through old-style downtown streets wouldn’t turn on any light bulbs. To someone from Northeast Ohio, though, the scenery is taken straight from Chagrin Falls Triangle Park. And what does Calvin have in his hand as he’s making his way up North Main Street? Well, the Chagrin Falls Popcorn Shop. Of course, I thought. All the resemblances, the connections to the Midwest within the comic strips pointed to Watterson’s surroundings when he was a child. And suddenly I felt as if I had a connection to the author, a link to his fictitious world.

Calvin and Hobbes

Bill Watterson / Andrews McMeel Publishing

Watterson’s family moved to Chagrin Falls when he was just six years old — the age Calvin is in the strips. Watterson is a reclusive man, essentially the J.D. Salinger of comics, but one thing we know is that his love for drawing started in his youth. While in high school, he contributed comics to the Tiger Times, Chagrin Falls’ school newspaper. For the school yearbook Watterson’s senior year (1976), he provided the front and back cover illustrations along with a bevy of drawings, including some with dialogue. Watterson’s unique sketching style and wistful humor in the yearbook are almost as impressive as the work seen in Calvin and Hobbes. An episode of Antiques Roadshow featured the treasured find, which includes many images of Watterson himself, and estimated the yearbook’s worth between $3,000 and $5,000.

Calvin and Hobbes

1976 Chagrin Falls High School yearbook cover, illustrated by Bill Watterson

After high school Watterson earned a degree in political science from Kenyon College, continuing to produce cartoons on the side. After graduating he took a job in advertising but devoted his free time to his craft. United Feature Syndicate took interest in a Watterson strip called Critturs, which starred a boy. Not interested in that boy, however, Universal Press Syndicate saw promise in the character’s young brother and his stuffed tiger. Watterson turned his attention to them, and after his numerous attempts, the syndication service nabbed the strip that had transformed into Calvin and Hobbes.

Calvin and Hobbes debuted on November 18, 1985. The adventures of the mischievous boy and his anthropomorphic tiger immediately captivated readers — so much so that less than a year after it launched, approximately 250 papers were running the daily strip.

Watterson’s drawings piqued the interest of children but were nuanced enough to appeal to parents. The exchanges between Calvin and his tiger (whom only Calvin can see), between Calvin and his family, or between Calvin and his peers, were simplistic enough to reach young kids, but they also featured layers of subtext and poignant observations for older readers. In many respects Calvin and his quick-witted tiger held up a lens to contemporary society each day, but they did so with subtle grace. The strip never directly explored politics or real-life public figures, but it acknowledged it was aware. Commenting on public education, environmentalism, the paradox of polling and philosophical quandaries (Hobbes was named after the philosopher Thomas Hobbes), the daily strip covered immense ground.

Mainly, however, through 10 years of adventures with a young boy and his stuffed animal, readers watched the power of love, family and friendship. Each strip added another wrinkle to the tale, a picaresque-style glance at a timeless bond. Watterson said and depicted so much in the span of a few panels with minimal words.

I still agree with younger me: Calvin and Hobbes is the greatest comic strip of all time.

Sadly, though, by the time I was old enough to read Calvin and Hobbes, the series had already been discontinued. On the last day of 1995, the final Calvin and Hobbes strip appeared. “It’s a magical world, Hobbes, ol’ buddy,” Calvin says, looking back at Hobbes on the sled. They push off down the hill and Calvin exclaims, “Let’s go exploring!”

Calvin and Hobbes

December 31, 1995 / Bill Watterson / Andrews McMeel Publishing

When Watterson announced the decision to end the iconic strip, more than 2,400 newspaper editors worldwide received the news that Calvin and Hobbes would soon head out on their last adventure.

“That so many newspapers would carry Calvin and Hobbes is an honor I’ll long be proud of,” Watterson wrote in a letter, “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.” He also mentioned the desire to work at his own pace on future projects.

Throughout the strip’s lifetime, Watterson had taken two hiatuses but otherwise produced a strip every day. The Complete Calvin and Hobbes comes in at a whopping 1,456 pages and weighs 16 pounds — in paperback.

Calvin and Hobbes

The Complete Calvin and Hobbes – September 21, 1986 strip (Bill Watterson/Andrews McMeel Publishing

Calvin and Hobbes remains one of the best-selling comic strips each year. More than 45 million books compiling the strips have been sold worldwide. Kids in the ’80s grew up reading Calvin and Hobbes. Kids in the ’90s read it, and now we’re reading it to our children.

Even with an abundance of adventures to relive, there’s a void in comic strips, and that is the absence of the endearing tales by Watterson. We’re 22 years removed from Calvin’s last hurrah, but many still wish we knew where Calvin and his best pal went after arriving at the bottom of that hill.

And what has Bill Watterson been up to since he sent off that last strip? That’s a question many would like to ask the legendary writer/illustrator. He still lives in the greater Cleveland area, but he remains out of the public eye.

Watterson dabbled with painting in college, even depicting Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam on his dorm room ceiling. After the strip ended, he re-explored that interest. In a 2013 interview with Mental Floss, Watterson claimed he doesn’t paint ambitiously, which is why he rarely shares new work. Watterson also revealed that his magnum opus contributed to his withdrawal from creating for public consumption. On Calvin and Hobbes, he said it “created a level of attention and expectation that I don’t know how to process.”

Calvin and Hobbes

Left: Bill Watterson in high school / Right: Bill Watterson at the height of ‘Calvin and Hobbes’

Like Salinger with Catcher in the Rye, Watterson was met with immense pressure to follow up Calvin and Hobbes. Many of Watterson’s fans may simply want to experience his genius again, but there’s no denying that the fervor around Calvin and Hobbes would lead some to make unfair comparisons to anything that holds Watterson’s name, especially a new comic strip. Besides, he doesn’t owe fans anything.

Aside from small guest gigs like the one he did for the comic strip Pearls Before Swine in 2014, Watterson has largely remained out of commercial publishing. Still, he has shown that he will put his name and work out there for causes he believes in.

In 2012 he donated an oil-on-board painting to Team Cul de Sac to be auctioned off for Parkinson’s research when the late Richard Thompson, creator of the comic strip Cul de Sac, was battling the disease. The work, a portrait of the character Peter Otterloop, raised $13,000 at auction.

In 2014 Watterson created the poster for the documentary Stripped, which chronicled the state of the comic strip industry in the digital age.

In 2016 Watterson contributed a five-by-five black-and-white drawing to University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center. Contributions from Watterson and 34 other cartoonists formed a collage that now hangs in Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital to cheer up kids. That may sound inconsequential to some, but the gesture matters to people like me. The doctors at Rainbow saved my life after I was born with a heart defect, and the art on the walls distracted me from my nervous thoughts at my follow-up appointments.

Calvin and Hobbes

Art at the beginning of ‘The Complete Calvin and Hobbes’ by Bill Watterson

Even during the height of Calvin and Hobbes, when Watterson vehemently opposed merchandizing his creation or licensing it for use in other media, he showed he cared about worthy causes. He allowed a speech pathologist and learning disabilities teacher to create a school book revolving around the strip. After hearing testimony that his comics were great educational tools, he agreed to the use of 57 of his comics. Thus, Teaching with Calvin and Hobbes was born, and it remains one of the only officially licensed Calvin and Hobbes products.

Watterson used to visit Fireside Book Shop in Chagrin Falls and sign copies of his books. After finding out they were being resold for large profits online, he stopped signing them. He wanted people to have them for their personal enjoyment, not for profit. That said, signed copies of Calvin and Hobbes are extremely scarce, and anything remotely rare relating to the strip typically goes for a small fortune. An old, original watercolor by Watterson was auctioned for $203,000 in 2012, a record for the work of a cartoonist, far surpassing an original Peanuts sketch by Charles Schulz (to whom a young Watterson had written a fan letter).

Bill Watterson could put anything out with his name attached to it and it would sell, but he doesn’t. There’s a nobility in this attitude. His art is now almost solely for his personal enjoyment.

Calvin and Hobbes

Calvin and Hobbes palling around / Bill Watterson / Andrews McMeel Publishing

In his 1990 commencement address to his alma mater Kenyon College, he said, “Selling out is usually more a matter of buying in. Sell out, and you’re really buying into someone else’s system of values, rules and rewards.” He never sold out with Calvin and Hobbes, and he has stuck to his own system ever since.

“Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement,” he said. By all identifiable accounts, Watterson has stuck to his values, and I’d like to think his life has satisfied his soul as well.

In a rare interview in 2010, Watterson told Cleveland’s Plain Dealer, “I just tried to write honestly, and I tried to make this little world fun to look at, so people would take the time to read it.” Watterson added that he doesn’t regret stopping the strip when he did. “I think some of the reason Calvin and Hobbes still finds an audience today is because I chose not to run the wheels off it.”

Maybe Watterson has a point there. He delivered what he set out to create, and what an honest and fun world it is to revisit again and again. Calvin and Hobbes will be adored for generations to come. end


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