What Ever Happened to the Creator of Calvin and Hobbes?

It was on November 18, 1985, when Calvin met Hobbes. As the first appearance of this legendary comic strip shows, Calvin sets a trap for a tiger using a tuna sandwich because “tigers will do ANYTHING for a tuna fish sandwich.” Sure enough, hanging by one foot and munching on the sandwich, Calvin’s freshly caught tiger confirms this, “We’re kind of stupid that way.”

Almost exactly ten years later, the comic’s elusive creator, Bill Watterson, abruptly called it quits, despite the comic’s extreme popularity. So how did it come together? Why did it last only a decade? And what has Watterson been up to in the over two decades since he retired at the young age of just 38?

Watterson was born in Washington D.C. in 1958 and lived in Alexandria, Virginia with his mother and father, who was a patent attorney. But when Watterson was six, they moved to Chagrin Falls, Ohio (about 24 miles east of Cleveland). In later interviews, Watterson talked a lot about how growing up in a small town encouraged him to use his imagination more, just like his creation, Calvin. As a child, he was a big Peanuts fan, despite saying that “at the time, most of (Peanuts) went over my head.”

In fact, in the fourth grade he wrote Charles Schultz (the comic strip’s creator) a letter. To his amazement, he got a response encouraging him to keep drawing (a letter that he claims he still has). By the time he was in the seventh grade, Watterson knew he wanted to be a cartoonist…or an astronaut. “The latter was never much of a possibility,” Watterson once said, “I don’t even like to ride in elevators.”

For much of high school and college, Watterson thought he was going to be an editorial cartoonist and went to Kenyon College in Ohio to pursue that.

As so often happens when anyone is first starting out at anything, the first few cartoons he produced were failures. There was Spaceman Spiff, a brash, stogie-smoking astronaut with incredible interstellar adventures and always foiled by his dense assistant Fargle.

There was another one about a newspaper reporter and his crazy editor. Another one that featured a frog and a groundhog and one called Critters about small bug-like creatures. Then, in 1983, he created In The Dog House, a strip featuring a 20-something Sam and his slacker friend Fester, plus Sam’s little brother Marvin, who happened to have a stuffed tiger whom he called Hobbes. In The Dog House didn’t get any love, but Melvin and Hobbes did and he decided to give them a comic of their own.

Unfortunately for Watterson, there was another strip (Marvin and Family) going by that name, so he decided to switch the name to “Calvin.” Watterson explains,

Calvin is named for a sixteenth-century theologian who believed in predestination. Most people assume that Calvin is based on a son of mine, or based on detailed memories of my own childhood. In fact, I don’t have children, and I was a fairly quiet, obedient kid — almost Calvin’s opposite. One of the reasons that Calvin’s character is fun to write is that I often don’t agree with him.

Ultimately Universal Press Syndicate picked up the comic and, on November 18, 1985,  Calvin and Hobbes made its debut.

It was a hit, within a year being published in nearly 300 newspapers. Something about a six-year-old boy who goes on adventures with his best friend who’s also a tiger – that may or may not be real – really resonated with readers. As to why, even Watterson himself wasn’t exactly sure, stating he simply “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. That was the full extent of my concern. You mix a bunch of ingredients, and once in a great while, chemistry happens. I can’t explain why the strip caught on the way it did, and I don’t think I could ever duplicate it. A lot of things have to go right all at once.”

He does note though that Calvin is an outlet for everyone’s inner child, both the good and bad. He’s a kid with an imagination, excitement about life, and a belief in the magical but also immature and somewhat of a terror. Watterson further explained in 1995 in The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book,

Calvin is autobiographical in the sense that he thinks about the same issues that I do, but in this, Calvin reflects my adulthood more than my childhood. Many of Calvin’s struggles are metaphors for my own. I suspect that most of us get old without growing up, and that inside every adult (sometimes not very far inside) is a bratty kid who wants everything his own way. I use Calvin as an outlet for my immaturity, as a way to keep myself curious about the natural world, as a way to ridicule my own obsessions, and as a way to comment on human nature. I wouldn’t want Calvin in my house, but on paper, he helps me sort through my life and understand it.

As for Hobbes, Watterson said he partially based the tiger’s personality on his own cat, a grey tabby named Sprite. In particular, Hobbes’ habit of meeting Calvin at the door with a mid-air, high-velocity pounce was something Watterson’s states his cat used to do as well. He goes on that he made sure Hobbes, despite acting human-like, kept many of his feline qualities, like his demeanor and prideful attitude in being a cat. Watterson also notes, “Like Calvin, I often prefer the company of animals to people, and Hobbes is my idea of an ideal friend.”

In terms of the overriding question of the comic strip – if Hobbes is real or not – the author again attempts to clear it up, but not in the way that most would think.

The so-called “gimmick” of my strip — the two versions of Hobbes — is sometimes misunderstood. I don’t think of Hobbes as a doll that miraculously comes to life when Calvin’s around. Neither do I think of Hobbes as the product of Calvin’s imagination. Calvin sees Hobbes one way, and everyone else sees Hobbes another way. I show two versions of reality, and each makes complete sense to the participant who sees it. I think that’s how life works. None of us sees the world exactly the same way, and I just draw that literally in the strip. Hobbes is more about the subjective nature of reality than about dolls coming to life.

By 1995, Calvin and Hobbes was one of the most popular comics in the world, syndicated in over 2,400 newspapers worldwide with more than 24 million copies of the 14 book collections having been sold.

That’s when Watterson decided to call it quits.

In November of 1995 and at only 38 years old, Watterson announced his retirement from creating Calvin and Hobbes comics, stating publicly,

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…

The last strip appeared on December 31, 1995, with the last panel showing the little boy and his tiger best friend sledding down a snowy hill with Calvin exclaiming, “let’s go exploring.”

So what has Watterson been doing since then? Well, mostly very purposefully staying out of the public eye- earning the distinction of the “J.D. Salinger of Comics.”

What little is known about his life since then is that he took up painting, but with no real interest in showing the world the results of his efforts, stating, “My first problem is that I don’t paint ambitiously. It’s all catch and release—just tiny fish that aren’t really worth the trouble to clean and cook. But yes, my second problem is that Calvin and Hobbes created a level of attention and expectation that I don’t know how to process.”

Beyond painting, he also for a time would secretly autograph copies of his books at Fireside Bookshop in Ohio, but ceased the practice when he found that people were just buying said copies and then selling them online for high amounts. Beyond this little pastime, he has occasionally published or contributed to books examining Calvin and Hobbes, such as the excellent book, Exploring Calvin and Hobbes – An Exhibition Catalogue.

But other than that and a little charity work here and there, as far as public record goes, he’s seemingly just enjoying a quiet retirement and actively staying out of the public sphere.

That said, 15 years after retiring, in 2010, he did give a rare interview and was asked if he ever regretted calling it quits on Calvin and Hobbes at the peak of its fame. Watterson stated of this

It’s always better to leave the party early. If I had rolled along with the strip’s popularity and repeated myself for another five, 10 or 20 years, the people now “grieving” for “Calvin and Hobbes” would be wishing me dead and cursing newspapers for running tedious, ancient strips like mine instead of acquiring fresher, livelier talent. And I’d be agreeing with them. 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. I’ve never regretted stopping when I did.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:

Bonus Fact:

  • Watterson famously not only passed up but fought vehemently against merchandising of Calvin and Hobbes, costing himself many tens of millions of dollars in revenue.  He stated of this that it wasn’t so much that he was against the idea of merchandising in general, just that “each product I considered seemed to violate the spirit of the strip, contradict its message, and take me away from the work I loved.”  Despite this, it’s not terribly difficult to find merchandise of Calvin and Hobbes, but all are unauthorized copyright infringements, including the extremely common “Calvin Peeing” car stickers. Despite never having earned a dime from these, Watterson quipped in an interview with mental_floss, “I figure that, long after the strip is forgotten, those decals are my ticket to immortality.”
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  • You left out his legendary “guest artist” appearance in Pearls Before Swine the first week of June, 2014.

  • Well, heck, if Berkeley Breathed can make a comeback with Bloom County, why not Watterson? What a great time for nostalgia if he gave it a go.

  • This comic is one of the typical examples of procrastination: Calvin and Hobbes: Procrastination Why stopping procrastination is difficult Human beings have limited self-control.

  • To this day, I have seen neither fresher nor livelier talent than Watterson’s. I still regularly check out C&H from the library, and my son has adored them since he was three.

  • Yep, a talented man catching lightening in a bottle. His work on Second Hand Lions gave it just the right touch. 🙂

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