Named after John Calvin and Thomas Hobbes, our delightful duo tackled issues of philosophy, life, death, love, science, war, politics, money, education, art, and friendship, all while remaining fun and entertaining.
This past Monday marked the anniversary of the debut of Calvin and Hobbes in the funny pages. In 1985, Bill Watterson’s classic pint-sized philosopher, and his trusty tiger, made their first appearance, and that was all she wrote. The standard that comics would be held to has never been the same. With mixed emotions, this modern exemplar was voluntarily retired a decade later. But here we are, 18 years after the fact, with the comic still capturing the hearts and minds of all ages. Inspired by this journey, there is an incredible amount of fan art, fan-made strips, spin-offs, academic courses, and, just released this past Friday, a documentary entitled Dear Mr. Watterson.
My older brother and I used to have many an argument over who technically owned the anthologies our parents bought us. He has them at his place right now, but little does he know that I will be coming to steal them over Thanksgiving. And he’ll never know because he doesn’t read my blog. Mwuhahahaha! Ahem, where was I? Oh yes, this comic was a defining element in my formative years. I wanted to be like this six-year-old pipsqueak who rebelled against authority and was wise beyond his years. It broached so many subjects a preteen would not even consider otherwise. Philosophy, death, relationships, money, politics, theology, responsiblity: With Calvin as our proxy, Watterson was preparing us for life. And who didn’t want a friend as loyal as Hobbes or an imagination as wild as Calvin’s? Personally, my favorites were always the wagon and sled ruminations. The dichotomy between…well, how about I just let a couple of the best speak for themselves.
But I don’t want this post to become a completely masturbatory exercise. What I hope to do is give a glimpse of Bill Watterson, the man behind the curtain, by examining the few interviews he’s given, his own tongue-in-cheek autobiography, and the greatest trove of evidence, his works. This will hopefully give a clearer understanding of the context and goals of his quintessential work.
Bill Watterson was born in Washington D.C. before moving to Ohio at a young age. But this can easily be found on Wikipedia and has nothing to do with the point I’m trying to make, so I’m going to let Watterson himself tell you about his childhood. In his ten-sentence autobiography, he writes,
Bill Watterson squandered a rather unremarkable childhood reading the comics in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. By the time he graduated from high school, his own primitive cartoons had appeared in the school newspaper and yearbook, and not a few stall doors of various boys’ rooms.
This is where he fomented and practiced his interest in this field and, once he graduated, he attended Kenyon College (future alma mater of nerdfighter-king John Green). Here he majored in political science, intent on becoming a political cartoonist. He was inspired by Jim Borgman, a recent graduate, who worked at the Cincinnati Enquirer. Even if you’re not familiar with him, you’re probably familiar with his syndicated strip, Zits. Borgman mentored Watterson on how to structure an editorial cartoon and he got a lot of practice. He wrote a comic every week over his four years on topics ranging from political, to caricaturing the administrators, to lampooning college life.
After he graduated, the Cincinnati Post hired him on a six-month trial run. However, he was unable to adapt quickly enough or compete with the veteran Borgman, who was on the rival Enquirer. So Watterson was let go even before his tenure was up. This forced him, like many our age, to reevaluate his chosen career. He realized he, “was never one of those people who read the headlines and foams at the mouth with rabid opinion that I’ve just got to get down on paper.” So he started to take chances on comic strips. In Watterson’s commencement speech at his alma mater in 1990, entitled “Some Thoughts On The Real World By One Who Glimpsed And Fled It”, he states:
To endure five years of rejection to get a job requires either a faith in oneself that borders on delusion, or a love of the work. I loved the work.
And lo and behold, five years after Watterson started trying to break into the industry, Calvin and Hobbes finally came together.
It was an instant classic. However, this did not bode well for Watterson. He wanted his strips to speak for him. He was not in the business for the notoriety; ars gratia artis. He wanted to stay out of the eyes of the media and experiment in the medium he enjoyed. However, that clashed with the goal of the papers and syndicates, which is, of course, to make money. At the commencement speech Watterson gave, he also spoke on his fight with the commercial side of his endeavor:
The so-called “opportunity” I faced would have meant giving up my individual voice for that of a money-grubbing corporation. It would have meant my purpose in writing was to sell things, not say things. My pride in craft would be sacrificed to the efficiency of mass production and the work of assistants. Authorship would become committee decision. Creativity would become work for pay. Art would turn into commerce. In short, money was supposed to supply all the meaning I’d need.
Watterson never released the merchandising rights for the duo. Some profiles suggest that he never even considered it. It was not that he never thought about it, just that he couldn’t find a way to do it without compromising the spirit of the characters and detracting from his message. Watterson was very vocal near the beginning of the strip concerning the lack of artistic autonomy that the industry allowed. He eventually earned an exception for the format of his Sunday strips.
In the later years of Calvin and Hobbes, after Watterson had gained some independence from his superiors, he withdrew more and more from the public. After retiring the strip, he retired from the professional world and the public eye altogether. He has only given two interviews since 1995, one being last month in an email exchange with mental_floss magazine. He now spends his days painting landscapes. Though Watterson does not have a lot to say, his characters still speak volumes about his ideals, thoughts, and values.
Near the end of his sophomore year, Watterson drew a replica of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel on the ceiling of his dorm room. After completing it with only a few weeks left in school, he decided he should probably ask permission to do this project. The administrator he talked to said he could do it, as long as he painted back over it once the semester ended. There is something emblematic here that I’m missing. Something about everything we do just being a shout in to the void. Or, wait, never mind, that was John Green.
I’m going to leave you with a comic that has all at once haunted, inspired, and made me a more thoughtful individual. For many of us, this was probably our first glimpse of death, the toll that it takes, and our necessary acceptance of the limited time we have here.