Bill Watterson is an American comics artist, famous for the newspaper comic 'Calvin and Hobbes' (1985-1995), about a hyperactive young boy who dwells into fantasies with his seemingly sentient tiger toy. Despite being Watterson's only series and running for less than a decade, 'Calvin & Hobbes' has remained popular. It has been praised for its superb artwork, nostalgic childhood atmosphere, thought-provoking life lessons and overall warmth and hilarity. Watterson revived the artistic merits of classic comics in an era when most newspapers tried to shrink or cut them to size. His rich illustrations and narratives show ambition and variety. His characters address funny and meaningful observations about life. Sometimes he moved beyond the punchline to just move his readers altogether. The series didn't shy away from addressing real life issues, such as children's misbehaviour, loneliness, fear, bullying, crime, the environment and death. It's for these reasons that many readers have a strong emotional connection to 'Calvin & Hobbes', which has often been called "the last great newspaper comic". Watterson himself remains a shining example of a cartoonist maintaining quality control over his work. He took the rare and unusual decision to refuse any merchandising spin-offs and retire at his creative peak. His principles have kept 'Calvin & Hobbes' undefiled and won him respect from fans, critics and colleagues alike.


Cartoon for The Kenyon Collegian (1979).

Early life and education
William Boy "Bill" Watterson was born in 1958 in Washington D.C. His father was a patent attorney. In 1965 the family moved to Chagrin Falls, Ohio, a rural neighbourhood which inspired much of the 'Calvin and Hobbes' environment. As a child he already drew comics for his high school newspaper. Among his graphic influences were Winsor McCay, George Herriman, Walt Kelly and Charles M. Schulz. These four men proved that newspaper comics could allow amazing artwork, imaginative stories and/or philosophical depth. Watterson also liked Paul Coker and Richard Thompson and expressed admiration for animated cartoons, particularly the work of Tex Avery and Chuck Jones, which excelled in distortion and exaggeration, something he tried to mimick in his own dynamic artwork. Between 1976 and 1980 Watterson studied political science at Kenyon College, though didn't neglect his ambitions to become a cartoonist. He created cartoons on student life for his college newspaper, and a predecessor to Calvin's 'Spaceman Spiff' for his German class. On the ceiling of his dorm chamber Watterson recreated Michelangelo's ceiling painting 'The Creation of Adam'. During his college years he was influenced by Jim Borgman, who was still largely unknown at the time but already making a living as a professional cartoonist in the Cincinnati Enquirer. After graduation Watterson joined another local newspaper, The Cincinnati Post, to become a political cartoonist.


Political cartoon from the Brunswick Sun Times, 2 February 1984.

Political cartoonist?
Watterson quickly discovered that he knew too little about the subject matter. He was out of touch with Cincinnati's local politics. He also found out that his editors had no ears for his artistic ambitions and demands. As a result Watterson was predictably fired... even before his contract term had expired! He joined an advertising agency where he designed ads for grocery products. Soon after he became a cartoonist for Target: The Political Cartoon Quarterly, a magazine where political cartoonists found a home spot. On the side Watterson worked on a more traditional newspaper comic about a-political topics. It took a while before it found a publisher but eventually Universal Press Syndicated greenlighted his series. On 18 November 1985 the first episode of 'Calvin and Hobbes' appeared in print. Interestingly enough it wasn't the only gag comic about a boy and his sentient toy to debut that year. Two months earlier, on 15 September 1985, Dutch cartoonist Gleever first published the long-running series 'Oktoknopie', about a boy who owns an magical and helpful octopus toy.


First Calvin & Hobbes strip of 15 November 1985.

Calvin and Hobbes
'Calvin and Hobbes' centers around a six-year-old boy, Calvin, and his stuffed tiger toy, Hobbes. The names of the characters were inspired by John Calvin, founder of Calvinism, and Thomas Hobbes, author of the classic philosophy book 'Leviathan'. There was no real significance attached to these names. Watterson merely remembered them from his years as a political science student. His own striped cat, Sprite, inspired Hobbes. Calvin is a very energetic child who often gets carried away by his big mouth and overactive imagination. He is a typical kid in the sense that he can be both adorable as well as incredibly obnoxious. Watterson deliberately made him not too cute. The boy often nags to his parents and teachers. He enjoys misbehaving but acts appalled when others do the same to him. His childhood fantasies also drive his environment insane. To Calvin they feel so real that he often hurts himself, others and leaves an incredible mess behind. Hobbes is the most notorious product of his fantasy. He often imagines him to be a real bi-pedal tiger with whom he engages in all kinds of games and humoristic conversations. Yet Hobbes is not always his playmate. They romp about and play tricks on one another. As a running gag Hobbes often jumps on Calvin whenever he arrives home.

Whether Hobbes is real or not has always remained an open question? Many gags suggest that he is merely the product of Calvin's imagination. The kid is usually alone when he talks to Hobbes. Nobody but him ever acknowledges that the tiger is alive. Even other children just see him as a toy. However, other gags hint at the fact that Hobbes could be real. Adults sometimes find him in places where Calvin couldn't possibly have brought him on his own. Also, Hobbes often acts as the voice of reason. He is far more mature, clever, articulate and down to earth than Calvin, almost acting as a surrogate parent. It seems strange that Calvin would be able to imagine all this, given his age. It might be that Hobbes merely turns into an inanimate object whenever other people enter his vicinity. Watterson deliberately left everything vague. He once stated that this was the reason why he never wanted to make an movie or TV adaptation of the series, because he would have to make a permanent decision about it.

Sad undertones
Whatever the case, Hobbes is Calvin's only true friend. Sometimes he plays together with Susie Derkins, a girl from his class. But even she can barely stand him for more than a few moments. A smart model child, Susie is frustrated over Calvin's stupid and annoying behaviour. He and Hobbes have their own private club G.R.O.S.S. ("Get Rid of Slimy Girls"), of which they are the sole members. They gather in Calvin's treehouse and often throw down water balloons at Susie. A few observers have noted that the comic strip has quite a sad undertone. The boy always plays alone. Even when Susie is around he seems intent on getting rid of her in order to play with his stuffed toy instead. In school Calvin is often beaten up by Moe the bully. In class Mrs. Wormwood punishes him for frequent disruptiveness. Calvin's parents are so tired of his constant attention-seeking and misbehaviour that they use questionable parenting to teach him a lesson or explode in anger when he gets too much on their nerves. They often downright lie to him to mess with his mind. In one gag Calvin asks his mother for a baby brother but only "to have someone smaller to bully". In the next panel Calvin's dad is seen answering a call from his wife to work: "Look honey, could we talk about that operation some other time?", strongly implying that she wants him to take a vasectomy. The only person who actually manages to force the kid into obedience is Rosalyn, his babysitter. But even she has no respect for him. In the end nobody really likes Calvin, making him a complete outsider. He is so bad in sports that he invents his own game with ever-changing rules: Calvinball. In class he is unable to focus and doesn't understand much of what is taught to him. It might explain why he actually seeks escapism in his fantasies. Though, on a positive note, he at least has fun which helps him to carry on. Interestingly enough, Watterson himself also prefers to stay out of the spotlight, rarely making media appearances.

Imagination
Calvin's wild imagination offered Watterson the chance to draw beautiful fantasy sequences set in other countries, planets, time periods or dimensions. One of the boy's favorite toys is a simple cardboard box. Just like any normal kid he imagines it to be all kinds of things: an airplane, a car, a store counter, a time machine, a duplicator, etc. Calvin often envisions himself as various heroic characters, among them a space pilot ('Spaceman Spiff'), a superhero ('Stupendous Man') and a private detective ('Tracer Bullet'). In other daydreams he dwells into more disturbing fantasies where he is a tiger, a T-Rex, a monster or a vengeful god. Sometimes his fantasy runs away with him. Calvin frequently daydreams in class about battling huge monsters until Mrs. Wormwood tells him to calm down. When playing in the winter the boy has the impression his snowmen are alive and out to get him. At night he is scared of the monsters underneath his bed, which he and Hobbes need to defeat.


'Calvin & Hobbes' (13 December 1992).

Artwork and themes
Watterson was always in awe of the classic early 20th-century newspaper comics which were printed in large formats. Publishers back then were still willing to give cartoonists an entire page to do their own thing. This led to breathtaking artwork, interesting experiments with lay-out and readers enjoying  the stories to the fullest. Watterson tried to bring this tradition back, particularly in the Sunday colour pages. Much like Winsor McCay's 'Little Nemo' the dream sequences in 'Calvin & Hobbes' not only look beautiful, but also gave the cartoonist the chance to do something different once in a while. As Watterson explained it: "There are plenty of exotic lands for a cartoonist to map, if he or she will leave the well-known paths and strike off for the wilds of the imagination." He often surprised readers with these veritable breaks in style, artwork and/or subject matter. Some episodes look as if they were lifted from a science fiction, horror, nature, superhero, film noir or a realistically drawn soap opera comic. To make everything believable Watterson often studied real-life comics to mimick the artwork. When Calvin fantasies about dinosaurs the cartoonist took the effort of actually reading paleontology books to make sure the details were correct. Even when the characters were merely talking Watterson tried to make the images more visually interesting. He often let Calvin and Hobbes ride a little red wagon or a sled while they were discussing something. The panels them show them and their inevitable fall from all kinds of different camera movements, giving the impression of slow-motion.

'Calvin and Hobbes' has its fair share of running gags, but Watterson still tried to avoid routine. He didn't settle on a standard model for his characters but used great distortions of faces and dynamic poses for action sequences. Sometimes there is no actual punchline, just the characters dealing with emotions or a certain life philosophy. In some episodes Calvin and Hobbes discuss and express their friendship. In one specific episode they discover a dead bird in the snow and wonder about life and death. Another time his parents deal with the horrible discovery that their house has been raided by burglars. Sometimes there is not even dialogue. One of the most classic episodes features Calvin asking his dad to come and play outside. He refuses since he has to do paperwork. But after a while he realizes what is actually important in his life and just goes out to have fun with his son, finishing the work later that evening. Calvin thanks him by giving him an evening kiss. Moments like these have a poeticness and humanity rarely experienced in newspaper comics.

Many readers enjoy the nostalgic atmosphere of 'Calvin and Hobbes' which harks back to Watterson's own childhood memories. Just like Calvin he lived in a small town close to nature. The young boy is often seen playing in the woods during sunny or snowy days. Watterson based Calvin's father on his own dad, who also liked to go out camping while the rest of the family didn't enjoy this experience. Many recognizable childhood activities such as climbing in a treehouse, throwing water balloons, having fun with boxes, reading comics, watching cartoons, sleigh riding and building snowmen are beautifully evoked. Even though 'Calvin and Hobbes' is set in modern times there is still a certain old-fashionedness about it. Calvin's parents still use a rotary phone, a television with dials and refuse to take an Internet connection, all already outdated things when the comic strip was first published. This combination of past and present gives the comic strip a timeless feel. But it never feels too romanticized. Calvin dislikes school and is sometimes bullied. His parents, unlike other parents in newspaper comics, can sometimes be disproportionally frustrated and mean. Topics like pollution, crime and death are not avoided. And while 'Calvin & Hobbes' has a gentle touch, Watterson occasionally took some strong satirical viewpoints regarding television, the academic world, superhero comics, game hunting and commercialism.

Aversion to commercialism
Commercialism was always a personal concern for Watterson. He battled and resisted it throughout his entire career. He wanted his comics to be presented in the best possible way with regard for artistry. Unfortunately he lived in an era when economic interests were more important. Newspapers often treated the comics sections stepmotherly. If space was needed then some comics were muffled away in some tiny corner. Drawings were shrunk to such tiny sizes that it became nigh impossible to read or notice all the details. To Watterson's horror some editors downright cut out the top two panels of his Sunday comics, because they usually were just images without dialogue. To avoid this he put speech balloons in the very first images too or changed the lay-out in such a way that panels couldn't be removed. Still, many of his magnificent drawings lost all their effect because they were printed so minuscule. After complaining about it, the syndicate met him halfway by allowing their papers to choose for themselves whether they wanted a full half-page or a reduced-sized version of the same page? That way 'Calvin and Hobbes' at least had a half page in certain papers.

In the same line Watterson battled other commercial interests. He utterly rejected any merchandising around his comic strip. Most cartoonists, particularly in the USA, would not be able to resist such lucrative offers. But to Watterson a constant overexposure of his characters on unrelated products would make his work banal and mediocre. On 27 October 1989 he explained his viewpoint in a speech delivered at the Ohio State University named 'The Cheapening of the Comics'. He discussed commercialism which "put money before artistic aspirations" and "too much power in hands of the syndicate." Watterson specifically stated: "My strip is about private realities, the magic of imagination, and the specialness of certain friendships. Who would believe in the innocence of a little kid and his tiger if they cashed in on their popularity to sell overprized knick knacks that nobody needs?" The speech polarized audiences. Mort Walker, creator of 'Beetle Bailey' and 'Hi & Lois', was present and wrote a newspaper article afterwards, defending the current state of cartooning and merchandising. A very different reaction came from Jeff Smith who walked out during the speech, but with the conviction that Watterson spoke the truth. He instantly took his own series 'Bone' to a different publisher to keep his creative freedom. Watterson took action too. He held his foot firm until his editors allowed him to change his contract and handed him all rights to his own work. A rare position in the world of cartooning. The strict regulations for Sunday comics were loosened and it became easier for cartoonists to take a time-out from their work whenever they got tired. In 1991 Watterson was therefore able to take nine months off to get some rest after this stressy period.


Sunday page of 28 August 1988.

Fans are still divided over Watterson's principles regarding merchandising. Some feel disappointed about the lack of any official product, except for two calendars created between 1988 and 1990, one T-shirt made for the Museum of Modern Art and the educational book 'Teaching with Calvin and Hobbes' (1993). Because of their rarity they are highly sought out by collectors. Quite a number of fans argue that there should at least be a real-life stuffed toy of Hobbes. Yet Watterson has stated time and time again that this would destroy the mystery whether Hobbes is a sentient toy or just the product of Calvin's overactive imagination? At the same time many people respect Watterson for keeping his creations free from commercial corruption. All their good memories of the comic strip are kept pure. There will never be a mediocre animated adaptation, a needless Hollywood cash-in or other products that just leave a nasty taste behind. Watterson will never be accused of being a sell-out and there will never be a huge public backlash against his work either. Last but not least: whenever a bootleg product peeps up everyone knows it's no official merchandising. A good example is a sticker which depicts Calvin urinating on Hobbes. The "artist" who made this has remained anonymous, but the image has been copied by countless other people, usually to show Calvin peeing on other people or things, including U.S. Presidents, Osama Bin Laden and the Ford Motor Company. A sure sign of the image's infamy is that it was even referenced in the episode 'Fat Man and Little Boy' (2004) in Matt Groening's 'The Simpsons', where Moe the bartender asks Bart whether he "sells any shirts of Calvin peeing on Hobbes?" When Bart says "no" Moe wants to know: "Well, what do you got him peeing on?"

Retirement
Watterson took an even more unusual decision on 31 December 1995, when he decided to end 'Calvin and Hobbes' after just a decade. He wrote a letter to his editors in which he explained his motivation: "(...) My interests have shifted (...) 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." Fans were at first saddened by the news, but as time went by admiration has grown. In a culture where most newspaper comics keep churning out new episodes long after they stopped being entertaining, and merchandising far exceeds the merits of the original comic strips, he dared to make an artistic choice. Surprisingly enough 'Calvin and Hobbes' is far from forgotten. While other terminated comics series often fade away in obscurity Watterson's comics are still best-sellers. New generations rediscover them to this day. The fact that there's hardly any merchandising or constant publicity about them adds to their mystique. It's comparable to discovering a secret treasure. It also proves that 'Calvin and Hobbes' is strong enough to stand on its own, without frequent media exposure...


'Pearls Before Swine' strip of 6 June 2014, ghosted by Bill Watterson.

Reclusiveness
Since his early retirement Watterson has become a recluse, joining the ranks of other legendary media-shy cartoonists like Pom, Zarcone, Darby Conley, Jack Chick, Jason Shiga, Kazuma Kamachi, Masamune Shirow, Naoko Takeuchi, Marcel Remacle and Steve Ditko. He reportedly spends most of his time painting. The man has only granted a few interviews and never wants to be photographed or filmed. Only one confirmed photograph exists and was taken at the dawn of his career. The mystery only adds to his legend, though Watterson does from time to time communicate with the outside world. For a while he snuck in autographed copies of 'Calvin and Hobbes' books in his local bookstore in Cleveland, Ohio, so fans would be surprised upon their purchase. However, he quit doing this when he discovered that these books were later sold online for tremendous high prizes. In 1999 the legendary cartoonist wrote a small column which paid homage to Charles M. Schulz in the light of his forthcoming retirement in 2000. A few years earlier Schulz had written the foreword to the compilation book 'The Essential Calvin and Hobbes' (1995). Watterson also wrote the foreword to the first volume of George Herriman's 'The Komplete Kolor Krazy Kat' and Richard Thompson's first book collection of 'Cul de Sac'. In 2011 Watterson painted 'Cul de Sac' character Petey Otterloop to help fundraising for people who suffer from Parkinson's disease. In 2014 he furthermore ghost-drew three episodes of Stephan Pastis' comic strip 'Pearls Before Swine', again to raise money for victims of Parkinson's disease. Watterson designed the film poster for the documentary 'Stripped' (2014) by Dave Kellett and Frederick Schroeder about the transition from newspaper comics to web comics. He was also one of several cartoonists to be interviewed for this documentary, making this the first time that his voice was recorded. The same year Watterson created the official poster of the 2015 Angoulême Comics Festival. Under the pseudonym "Fang Wampir(e)" Watterson has also illustrated the album covers of his brother's band The Rels.

Global success
'Calvin and Hobbes' was a commercial and critical success from the start. It ran in more than 2.400 newspapers all over the world, translated in Dutch ('Casper & Hobbes'), French, German, Danish ('Steen & Stoffer'), Swedish ('Kalle och Hobbe'), Finnish ('Lassi ja Leevi'), Polish ('Kelvin & Celsjusz'), Hungarian ('Kázmér és Huba'), Hebrew, Turkish, Persian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Indonesian. It has always been particularly popular in the United Kingdom and Scandinavia. In Norway, where it is known as 'Tommy og Tigern' ('Tommy and the Tiger'), it even received it own monthly comics magazine from 1989 to 2007.

Recognition
'Calvin and Hobbes' remains one of the few comics to be appreciated by general audiences and intellectuals alike, much like Charles M. Schulz' 'Peanuts'. Many critics see Watterson as the last newspaper cartoonist to actually have some artistic ambition beyond the easy punchline. Together with Milton Caniff, Charles M. Schulz, Dik Browne, Chester Gould, Jeff MacNelly and Gary Larson he is one of the few cartoonists to win three Reuben Awards throughout his career, namely in 1986, 1988 and 1993. He furthermore received seven Harvey Awards, one Special Award for Humor (1989) and six for for Best Syndicated Comic Strip (1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996). In 1992 he won two Eisner Awards for Best Comic Strip Collection. Outside the United States he won a Sproing Award (1988), Max und Moritz Preis (1990) and Adamson Award (1991). In 2014 Watterson received the Grand Prix of Angoulême. After Will Eisner, Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman he was only the fourth American to win this prestigious prize. His artwork has been exhibited numerous times.

Legacy and influence
Ethan Nicolle's comic book 'Chumble Spuzz' (2008) was named after a nonsensical phrase by Calvin in an episode published on 9 January 1995. The brothers Dan and Tom Heyerman created an unofficial online spin-off of 'Calvin and Hobbes' named 'Hobbes and Bacon' (2011), which stars the characters as adult versions of themselves. It has developed into a series of its own. Another adult interpretation of Calvin inspired the novel 'Calvin' (2015) by Martin Leavitt. This satirical novel features seventeen-year old Calvin as a schizophrenic who believes his stuffed tiger toy to be real and seeks out Watterson in the hope that he can help him out. Watterson's signature series had even further impact on our present-day world. The experimental band Le Scrambled Debutante was named after a fictional rock band from a 18 February 1986 episode, when Calvin buys a record with controversial lyrics but not for the actual music. Calvin's favorite bed time book, 'Hamster Huey', also inspired a musical group in 2000, namely the long-running Flemish cover band Hamster Huey. The same fictional book was also turned into a real book by novelist Mabel Barr and illustrator Nick Goettling. In 1994 an asteroid was named after Bill Watterson. When the Mars Pathfinder robot landed on the planet Mars between 4 July and 27 September 1997 two of many rocks found there were named after Calvin and Hobbes. The series also had some impact on the English language. A 21 June 1992 Sunday comic mentioned the term "Horrendous Space Kablooie', as an alternative name for the Big Bang theory, which has found its way in various newspaper articles, book and university courses.

Watterson's work was an influence on John Kricfalusi, Jef Mallet, Alfonso Wong, Midam, Stephan Pastis, Lincoln Peirce, Jean-Paul Arends, Liz Climo, Wes Alexander, Lucas Turnbloom, Hilary Price, Martin Brown, Larie Cook, Wiley Miller, Chari Pere, Brian Anderson, Dave Kellett, Jan Eliot, Keith Knight, Lynn Johnston, Berkeley Breathed, Rick Tulka, Bill Amend, Tony Cochran, Margreet De Heer, Seth Green, Norm Feuti, Andy Singer, Wiley Miller, Jim Borgman and Jerry Scott. Among veteran cartoonists who expressed admiration for Watterson's work have been Charles M. Schulz, Jack Davis and S. Clay Wilson. In 2005 Chance Browne drew an episode of 'Hi & Lois' in which Ditto and his teddy bear slide off a cliff on a sled, specifically referencing 'Calvin & Hobbes'. In 2013 web comics artist Gavin Aung Than took a series of quotes from a speech Watterson gave in 1990 at Kenyon College and adapted them into a comic strip named 'Bill Watterson: A Cartoonist's Advice'. Drawn in a style which mimicks Watterson's, it tells the story of a cartoonist who gives up his job as a commercial illustrator to stay at home with his family and make more artistically interesting comics.

Books and documentaries about Bill Watterson
For people interested in Watterson's career and work Nevin Martell's book 'Looking for Calvin and Hobbes: The Unconventional Story of Bill Watterson and His Revolutionary Comic Strip' (2009), Jamey Heit's essay 'Imagination and Meaning in Calvin and Hobbes' (2012) and Joel Allen Schroeder's documentary 'Dear Mr. Watterson' (2013) are highly recommended.


'Calvin & Hobbes', 31 December 1995.

Calvin and Hobbes on gocomics.com

Series and books by Bill Watterson in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:

X

If you want to help us continue and improve our ever- expanding database, we would appreciate your donation through Paypal.