True art transcends form. Whether composed of words, lines, strokes or chords, it opens a little window into the cosmos. Calvin and Hobbes is true art.
From 1985 to 1995, Bill Watterson’s creation was the best thing on the comics page. Along with heavyweight peers such as Bloom County, Dilbert, The Far Side and Peanuts, it was part of the golden age of newspaper comics, and at its height the strip graced the pages of 2,400 newspapers.
The story of a 6-year-old boy and his imaginary tiger was, to the lay reader, a simple one of childhood disenfranchisement and boyish fantasy. But to anyone that has spent time with these strips — something like 45 million people have bought the books, and if you’re reading this you’ve probably owned or flipped through one of them — they were so much more. They were about the value of true friendship, the trials of being a parent, the fragility of the male-female dynamic, our slapdash attitude toward our planet’s health, media saturation, life, death and not being afraid to kick against the pricks.
But of course they were also about homicidal psycho jungle cats, deranged killer monster snow goons, weirdos from other planets and things under the bed that just won’t quit drooling.
And therein lies the true beauty of this strip. Because even though it was about the deeper lagoons of human existence — the central characters were named after a theologian and a philosopher, after all — it was also about, for wont of a better phrase, fun silly shit. And it was this duality that meant kids and parents alike can buy into it. It’s why I — a 31-year-old man with a house, a dog and increasingly elaborate tastes in expensive candles — have had a copy of Calvin and Hobbes in every toilet I’ve frequented domestically since I was 10, and still get a surprise every time I read it.
There are other reasons why Calvin and Hobbes has managed keep its magic, not least the myth of Watterson himself, the “Bigfoot” of cartooning, to paraphrase cartoonist Stephan Pastis. Bill’s disdain for publicity was total and as ingrained as his refusal to merchandise the strip — an act that gave up, much to his syndicate’s distress, many millions of dollars in potential income. But when it comes to the crunch, it all reverts back to the characters on the page and the strange, mundane worlds they inhabit.
No one knows this reverence better than Watterson’s peers, so to mark the 20th anniversary of the final strip, I spoke to those who have been influenced by him and those who had the fortune to grace the comic pages at the same time.
Scott Adams, creator of ‘Dilbert’
Calvin and Hobbes will probably be remembered as the best comic strip of all time. It was a perfect combination of characters, art and writing. But I can’t say I was personally influenced by it, other than feeling sad that I couldn’t draw that well. I was a big fan, and the strip was great in its time. And while comics are generally not timeless, he owned his era, plus some.
I’ve not had any contact with Bill Watterson. But from what I can tell, we are on opposite sides of the art-commerce continuum, and it would make for awkward dinner conversation. I hear he likes art. I prefer being useful, which sometimes includes art.
The biggest impact that Calvin and Hobbes had on my life is that his retirement opened up a lot of newspaper slots for Dilbert at exactly the right time.
Zach Weinersmith, creator of 'Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal’
I have a number of comic bits I actively stole from Calvin and Hobbes, although I feel okay about it because I discovered he was actually stealing from Windsor McCay [creator of Little Nemo]. I guess I’m just carrying on the tradition of artists being influenced by better artists.
I think for everyone in this generation, especially among cartoonists, we all read it. I’d go as far to say as to say it’s the one mainstream cartoonist who everyone reveres. There’s no dispute about that fact it was great, on any level. That’s possibly because he stopped after 10 years and didn’t do any merchandising.
Technically, I’d say it’s just about as good as anything in the sense that it did a perfect job in what it set out to do. You might see someone that was doing photorealistic work, very impressively, but that wouldn’t work for Calvin and Hobbes. It would just look weird. I once read an interview which described it as almost calligraphic, which is a good way to say it, but it is hard to compare it directly to other stuff. Comic strips are generally a solitary operation. It’s like saying someone’s doing a better job of doing their own diary. Saying that, I write and draw my own comics, and wish I could do half as well as he did.
For me, Calvin and Hobbes was at the crossroads between wanting to make people laugh whilst also trying to make it more intelligent. They have a lot more depth. What’s nice is no one seems to mind that it’s coming out of the mind of a 6-year-old. It’s perfectly acceptable. I was probably 7 or 8 when I got into Calvin and Hobbes. It was so big then, it’s almost like I can’t state a time when I was into it. It was just a part of being a kid in the 80s and 90s. You read Calvin and Hobbes, simple as that.
Some people say they wanted to be Calvin, but I don’t remember feeling that way. I think I was just amused. I have a particular view about this. You tend to, as an adult, form a narrative of your childhood. I’d be curious to know: if you gave Calvin and Hobbes to an 8-year-old and had them write out about how they felt about it, then look at it 20 years later, would they feel the same way?
I enjoyed all the strips set in the snow. He must have done them a 100 times, but it was always surprising. Strips like Peanuts repeated bits and maybe got a little repetitive, but with Calvin and Hobbes, there always felt like a new twist. Maybe that’s just because you weren’t tired of it after 10 years rather than 50 [like Peanuts].
I’ve never met Bill, but I think I am maybe one or two degrees away from him. I understand he’s very private, so even if I had the chance [to meet him] I’d probably forgo it. I suppose if it was just a natural thing I would, but I wouldn’t want it to be like JD Sailnger where people stalk him to get a tiny bit of info. That’s kind of repulsive. I’d have to know I wasn’t doing anything like that.
Gavin Aung Than, creator of 'Zen Pencils’
I was a little too young to get Calvin and Hobbes when it first came out in the newspapers. My first exposure came with the collections. My brother had one of them, and I would just read that over and over. I think I had three treasury collections on my bookshelf, and they would get read once or a couple of times a year.
When I got older, as you always do, you mimic your favorite artists, and I would always draw Calvin and Hobbes.
After Bill’s sabbatical [in 1991] he introduced the Sunday format and gave the ultimatum to editors that they couldn’t screw with his Sunday strips. He had the freedom to explore, and that’s when he really experimented with panel layout.
He was pretty much the big cheese in the cartooning world, so he had the clout and the power to pull it off. Before that, with the Sunday strips: it was three tiers of panels and the first tier could be thrown away because they could shrink it to print two tiers. So the first tier would a throwaway gag, and the story would start on the second tier, and he was sick of that, sick of the chopping and the changing. He wanted to draw and not be limited.
It was just for Calvin and Hobbes, and that’s also why he’s quite inspiring. He’s the ultimate artist of integrity where his creation was the most important thing, and if you screwed with it, he would be not okay with it. That’s why he never licensed his stuff and he was so protective of it as an art form rather than a mass media product.
It’s a part of the enduring popularity of the strip. For kids it lives on in imagination, as opposed to movies, TV shows or merchandise. It’s a very personal relationship everyone has because often they read it alone, as a kid in bed with the curtains closed, or with their parent, as opposed to sharing with a bunch of other people in a cinema. So for anyone our age, whenever Bill Watterson is mentioned we have these kind of emotional, nostalgic feelings.
I definitely wished I was like Calvin, but I wasn’t. I was kind of a goody-two-shoes kid growing up but I lived, I guess, vicariously through him. He’s someone who was cool, who told people what he thought, who pushed people’s buttons. He was this great friend that we wished we had ourselves. I was a very shy kid growing up so I also wished i had a Hobbes that I could play with every day, and go out into the woods. It was kind of a wish fulfillment in the strip i guess.
The Calvin and Hobbes-influenced strip I drew took on a life of its own: I was not expecting it to get so much attention. It was just the next one in one for me. I’d obviously always been an admirer, so found a quote [from Bill Watterson] and thought I would illustrate that. It turned out to be a very personal project, because it was like the story of my life: what I was going through because I quit my job as a corporate designer in 2012.
I’d been going through this whole process the year leading up to that comic. So I thought I’d just turn it into a personal, autobiographical story about a guy that leaves his job but goes to work from home for a personal project, and perhaps he takes a pay cut. But he’s doing a job that he’s more satisfied in, and gets to spend more time with his child (though I don’t have a child). And I tried — and failed — to create Bill’s style in my strips. The books were laid out on my table, and I was pouring all over them again: I found myself reading them again, feeling those feelings as a kid again. So I just tried to draw like Bill and evoke Calvin and Hobbes in the comic, and it was also a personal story and it hit all these right buttons. It kind of worked out, and a lot of people felt the same way: Maybe they were at the same stage of their life, feeling the same thing? I got all this awesome feedback and everyone said that they loved it; that it really spoke to them I guess. It’s my most popular strip. So that also speaks to how popular Calvin and Hobbes still is.
Stephan Pastis, creator of 'Pearls Before Swine’
I didn’t know Bill when I sent him my Calvin and Hobbes strip from Pearls Before Swine. [Stephan drew a strip portraying himself, pretending to write Calvin and Hobbes to get a woman into bed.]
So it was, as they say, a risky open.
But in a weird way, his mythic status made it possible, because it was hard to believe there was really a person on the other end of that email. He was that reclusive, that unknown. So it was a risk, but a risk into what felt like a great void.
I still don’t know why he decided he’d like to contribute to Pearls Before Swine, after so many years. That’s something you’d probably have to ask Bill. But I remember that he did say something about how I broke the fourth wall a lot by drawing myself as a character in the strip. And how that made it possible to have a series where someone could make fun of my drawing and take over the art duties on the strip.
All of which is not nearly as satisfying as what I like to tell myself – which is that he considered me a creative genius.
When the strips [Bill wrote for Pearls Before Swine] were running in newspapers during the first week of June, 2014, I met Bill in person in Washington, D.C.
And I would feel bad saying anything about the meeting, only because I know how much he values his privacy and I feel protective of that.
So I will say just two things: 1) He no longer wears that cheesy 1980s sweater [from the one published picture of Bill]; and 2) I made him laugh.
I get asked about it wherever I go on book tours, for both the Pearls Before Swine books and the kids book series (Timmy Failure). Bill is just that mythic, and everyone wants to know about him. Another effect is that everyone and their uncle sends me emails that they want me to forward to Bill. And I know he doesn’t want them, so I can’t.
But most importantly, it caused me to be part of a Jeopardy question. (“In 2014, this Calvin and Hobbes creator made a surprise return, contributing to the Pearls Before Swine strip.”) And if that isn’t the apex of a career, I don’t know what is.
I was a litigation attorney in San Francisco for almost ten years, stuck – like many lawyers – in a job I thought I would never escape. The only connection I thought that I would ever have to the comics page was buying the compilation books at the bookstore. And I bought tons of them, Peanuts, Dilbert, Bloom County, Doonesbury, The Far Side.
And then, in a burst of crazy improbability, I got syndicated, and was able to quit my lawyer job.
And over the next 15 years, I would somehow experience one improbable incident after another, including: 1) Having Dilbert creator Scott Adams tell everyone to go read my comic (thereby giving me a career as a cartoonist); 2) Meeting Charles Schulz near the very end of his life and somehow ending up in his biography (and co-writing a Peanuts animated special); 3) Drawing Opus into my strip and receiving an original Bloom County strip in the mail; 4) Sitting in a helicopter flying over Iraq with Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau; and 5) Having Bill Watterson ask if he can draw my comic strip.
I think Bill wanted to create something great and enduring. Something on par with the guys he admired – Herriman, Schulz, Kelly. And what he didn’t want was all the crap that went with it. The unending requests, the people trying to find his house, the demands to merchandise, etc.
Because in the comic strip, he had total control, from what went in the panels to (ultimately) how his strip was formatted in the Sunday section. And all this other stuff marked a loss of control – of his day, of his time, of his privacy, of his characters.
So, like the brilliant artistic hero that he is, he disappeared.
How can you not love that?
Nevin Martell, author of 'Looking For Calvin And Hobbes: The Unconventional Story Of Bill Watterson and his Revolutionary Comic Strip’
Bill Watterson is very unique in the sense that he never showed any interest in being a pubic figure. Not like someone like JD Salinger — a public figure who embraced fame then turned his back on it. Watterson never even put his foot through that door. I think people really respect that, because he really walks the walk and talks the talk. He didn’t merchandise the strip. Didn’t take the opportunities afforded him. He left the strip when he felt like he was at the top of the game and had nothing left to give. Lots of people talk a big game in terms of their philosophy, but when it comes down to it they’re easily swayed. But with Bill you can never say that. It’s not just highly difficult but highly admirable. I do think people appreciate that, and they’re happy to give him the space.
Obviously I wanted to interview him for my book, but as somebody that knew his stance about publicity, and lack of desire to be a public figure I approached him very respectfully: in a way that didn’t fell too intrusive. Though I knew where he lived, I wasn’t going to just show up and grab him while he was getting a bottle of milk from the grocery store. And not just because I had respect for him, but because I knew that wouldn’t be a book that a Calvin and Hobbes fan would want to read. If I was doing a book about a celebrity that was very comfortable with fame, with being a pubic figure, being intrusive would be something they were used to, and in some way they’d probably revel in it.
Watterson was the opposite of that. Fans respect that, and counting myself amongst them I did not want to be the guy that took a cheap shot just to get an interview. Also, I felt that if I did bum rush him I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t talk to me and that wouldn’t be a satisfactory moment for me, for him, or for the book I was writing, so I very carefully approached him through his long time editor, Lee Salem. And then every time I would talk to an cartoonist that knew him, or his mother, or one of the childhood friends I spoke to, I would say “Whatever pull you’ve got, I’d love if you would put in a kind word.” And all of them, without fail, would say “I’ve really enjoyed talking to you, and this is a great project, but Bill’s his own man. He’s very, very private and I really don’t think he’ll say anything.” But that was fine, given the amount of interviews I did with the people that knew him best. I did 110, 120 interviews for the book. I felt like I was really able to draw the man without having met the man.
I would have, of course, loved to have got the interview — it would have been a great cap for my book — but I went into it guessing he wouldn’t give an interview because at that point he hadn’t talked to the press in over a decade. So I went into with it with the attitude that the subject was dead. So you write about the subject, but not with the subject. It definitely flavored the way I wrote the book, because the book had started out as a straightforward biography, but as it carried on it turned into this sort of detective story. And then laced throughout were my own thoughts on everything, and it became a bit of a love letter. So it definitely changed the tenor of the book, for the better, in its own way.
I interviewed his mother Kathryn Watterson for the book, and I sent her a copy. She sent me a very nice note afterwards saying that she had enjoyed it tremendously, and that everyone she had showed it to had enjoyed it too. I don’t know if it was an oblique reference to her son. I did also send it to him, but I have no idea if he has read it. I’d probably find it hard to read a book about myself so I wouldn’t blame him if he hadn’t, especially given the feelings that he has about being a public figure. If he has, I hope he enjoyed it, and maybe used it as a springboard to go back to the drawing board, even if it wasn’t to do more Calvin and Hobbes (which I severely doubt he would).
Berkeley Breathed, creator of 'Bloom Country’, 'Outland’ and 'Opus’
What does Bill think about me? My guess: I was as inspiration in every way but artistic. I pioneered the return of copyright to a comic creator and had to go to battle with corporate interests in securing mine. With few drama and tears in my case, as my franchise and brand wasn’t worth a potential $100 million in merchandise and movie rights. His was. I suspect blood was spilt before he fought to get rights back to his own work.
His art reminded all of us that we were amateurs. Peanuts didn’t do that. But I was heading out the door when he began to soar, so I was mostly saved from unconscious comparing. Keep in mind that I was never really part of the Club. I knew no cartoonists, went to no conventions or clan gatherings… and was ignored by the establishment. He sensed that we didn’t have the same industry/artistic/writing blood coursing through our veins.
Bill set the standard for comic strips as art form that will likely never be topped…But comic strips are largely gone, from a POP perspective. So the opportunity for topping is sadly gone. I can say there hadn’t been an artist of his caliber since the 30s. Maybe the 50s. But technology had erased the great artists from the pages. Actually, it’s erased the pages entirely.
Bill’s personality was never intended for the limelight, and he wisely stepped from it. Something to note, only lightly related: Calvin and Hobbes was largely destined for a limited run by its very nature, Bill’s personality aside. The strip, uniquely, consisted of two characters and one relationship. The theme was childhood. Nothing else. It was no metaphor for adult life (Peanuts) or an illustrated political/lifestyle op-ed column (me). It was a hat trick that he made it last a decade. But he knew… because comic strip ink flowed in those veins— that his two character strip had an end date before repetition set in. So he did the professional thing and went out on a high. I tried to do so myself. There are others that don’t seem to hold this value dear. Smart boy, Bill.
Mark Tatulli, creator of 'Lio’ and 'Heart of the City’
I was 22 when it came out in 1985, and the artwork grabbed my attention. I thought it was different, because of his line work. You just didn’t see that kind of work in the comics anymore. Then Calvin and Hobbes came along with this beautiful illustration and you just assumed that the writing wasn’t going to be good. But it was like a sing and dance man: and not only could he sing and dance, but he could act!
I started submitting to the syndics around 1985, when Calvin and Hobbes was released, but it took a while before I got going. I got syndicated by a smaller syndicate in the early 90s, but it wasn’t something I could make a living off.
So in 1995 Calvin and Hobbes dropped out of the comics, and it was a total surprise to everybody, so they took my comic strip at the time — Bent Halos — and put me into his space in The Philadelphia Inquirer, which really sucked because the average comic strip reader did not know that Calvin and Hobbes was going away. So they thought The Philadelphia Inquirer replaced Calvin and Hobbes with my strip, and all these negative letters came in. It was not good, and obviously nothing to do with me.
Of course, Calvin and Hobbes leaving the comics in 1995 was a mixed blessing. Here was this massive voice in the comics: a lot of newspapers were advertising the comics pages because Calvin and Hobbes was in there. It brought a lot of eyeballs to the papers and it was important it was in there because it was part of the social fabric of the time. But the good news was all this space were opening up in the comic page that we could get…
I think the amount of people reading the newspaper for the comics just declined with the rise of the Internet. People were still reading the comics, but maybe not as excitedly. When Calvin quit the Sunday pages were these huge comics that he was doing at the time, because he got extra space [due to his ultimatum to editors].
They were beautiful every week. Most newspapers ran it every week on their front page, and they ran it full size, and it was beautiful! Then it was gone, and it was back to the same old stuff. But did it affect readership? I’m not sure. I assumed that it did. I was personally sad to see it go, because it was this original thing, every week.
It confirmed what I’d already suspected, growing up a big fan of Disney. What I’d loved about Disney is it showed cartoons could reach people on a very emotional level. It’s not just got to be slapstick, like Looney Tunes. You could really get people to care about your cartoons and characters, like they were real living characters. Like the famous raccoon story [where Calvin finds an injured raccoon that eventually dies]: that showed me you can really be emotionally connected to the stories you are telling, and make them gripping, and get them coming back and caring about these characters.
I also really like the Spaceman Spiff strips, because they go into this fantasy world, but also the flash, garnish styles — the way the spaceships looked, and the aliens. I love that, and also when he would switch styles to a soap opera style.
I of course paid homage to Calvin and Hobbes with my Lio collection There’s Corpses Everywhere [a parody of the Calvin and Hobbes collection, There’s Treasure Everywhere] . When I sent the thumbnail in of the cover, the publishers said, “You can’t do that. It’s one of our biggest money makers, we can’t insult him.” I said, “It’s not an insult, it’s playing off it, it’s a parody, it’s not an insult.” So I showed it to someone else and they said, “Yeah Bill won’t care, let’s do it.” Obviously I was hoping to get a rise out of him, so he would contact me, but he didn’t!
I have to take my hat off to Bill; He kept it pure. I know for a fact he turned down a nine-figure offer to make a movie. If you look at Peanuts, it still has a heart and soul that is very much Charles Schulz, yet it’s the most merchandised strip ever. When the Peanuts movie came out, you couldn’t turn around without seeing it. By the time of the last year of Calvin and Hobbes, Bill started ranting in the strip a bit, but you can’t rant about commercialism when you’re selling cups or T-shirts or Hobbes dolls.
Abby Howard, creator of 'Junior Scientist Power Hour’ and 'The Last Halloween’
Calvin and Hobbes ended when I was three, so I never saw it in the papers. I got the collections I guess when I was eight or nine, which I loved reading because I could shut immerse myself in them, rather than being “well that’s my one Calvin and Hobbes for the day.” I could look at the overall way the plot developed.
I feel like he really wanted to fight back against the structure of a daily strip. I feel like he was never really satisfied with that. He really wanted to tell longer stories, but this was pretty lucrative, so you know he’s want to do it in daily strips, and it’s kinda nice to have a bite-size thing. It’s still a mode that some people use today, but I feel like with the Internet we’re actually starting to move towards something that’s better: that we can put the entire narrative on there. If we want to do a big narrative, give it to people in bigger cartoons, we can. I’m sure some people like getting it in small chunks, but I’m not like that. I like getting it like I did when I could read it all in a big collection.
I don’t know if he would feel necessarily suited to the Internet generation, but I feel like if he was one of us now — breaking into the comics as it is — he’d be kind of happier. Like his desire to not stick with the one format, to have one big page…on the Internet you can do that. You can put panels wherever you want, you can build the format to suit the story.
I loved the way it finished. I love it when things just end: things can drag on, can change in a way you maybe don’t like. You’re kind of left wanting more instead of left saying “Thank God it’s over, I don’t have to keep up with it anymore.” But obviously, if he did write more Calvin and Hobbes I would read it!
I really like his use of imagination. How real everything was for Calvin, because I was never like that as a kid. I knew everything was fake. I was just like, “I wish I had an imaginary friend.” I couldn’t pretend. I knew it wasn’t real, but for Calvin it was all so real which was great, so I’d just read Calvin and Hobbes rather than make up some friend to talk to.
I loved the strip where Calvin finds the dead bird, mainly because the drawing of the bird was so amazing. It made me think “Yeah, comics people can draw. It’s not like you just learn to draw one character. You can learn to be an artist.” It had a small commentary by Bill, where he said they found a dead bird in the garden and was very sad, so he drew this strip about it. I loved that. It was just so beautiful.
Of course the raccoon strip was very important. Especially for me, because I lived in the country and this happened all the time. I kept on finding all these little abandoned animals and I wanted to take care of them, but whenever I did it would just end really poorly. The first time was terrible and really hit hard but after that you kind of get numb to it. I guess you get used to the concept of death, like Calvin had to.
David Hillier is a freelance writer living in Brighton, UK. You can find him tweeting at @Gobshout.