Twenty years after its final run, we take a look at what made the comic strip so special.
Watterson had always enjoyed drawing, and drawing comics had been a hobby of his throughout school. As an adult, he found himself working in advertising and hating it, so he decided to try cartooning as a career. He hadn’t actually considered it a vocation before then, seeing it as more of a hobby.
Still, he gave it a go, and was summarily rejected by one syndicator after another. Finally, United Feature Syndicate expressed some interest in one of his comics, called Critturs. They said that the main character wasn’t as interesting to them as his little brother and his stuffed tiger, and suggested developing them a little. So Watterson started a new strip. . .and they turned that down too. Universal Press Syndicate liked it, though, and bought it, and a new career was born.
Here are five fascinating facts about the little comic that could:
YOU WON’T BE SEEING ‘CALVIN AND HOBBES: THE MOVIE’ ANYTIME SOON
Or ever, really. The question has obviously come up over the years, and it was something Watterson definitely considered–briefly. He says that while he admires the work of classic animators like Tex Avery and Chuck Jones, he doesn’t want to change his work as much as he’d have to by changing the medium. And Calvin and Hobbes has always been a solo effort, granting him the freedom to make every word, every drawing, and every choice his own; animation, he says, is a team effort. Lastly, his protectiveness of his characters reaches a peak when he thinks about someone providing his beloved Calvin with a voice.
We’re not sure what their intentions were, but both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg tried to contact Watterson at least once over the years, presumably to discuss movie possibilities, but he didn’t take their calls.
YOU WON’T BE SHOPPING FOR ‘CALVIN AND HOBBES’ PRODUCTS, EITHER
Having a hard time finding a stuffed Hobbes or a Calvin coffee mug? It’s not going to get any easier. Other than some anthology collections and a few calendars in 1998 and 1990, the only other “product” to bear Calvin and Hobbes’ images was an officially licensed postage stamp in 2010.
In a nutshell, Watterson doesn’t want to condense all the thought, feeling, subtlety and character that goes into a comic strip—which he sees as an art form—into a notepad or a coffee mug. Calvin and Hobbes isn’t about jokes or one-liners, like, say, The Far Side, and Watterson says that once he loses the quality of his work by diluting it like that, he can’t get it back. He adds that once you create a plush Hobbes and stick him on a shelf with dozens of others, he stops being a character and he starts being a knickknack. “If I wanted to sell plush garbage, I’d have gone to work as a carny,” he told The Comics Journal in 1989.
Basically, he doesn’t want to take the magic out of his characters by making them into commodities, so he’s not granting anyone the rights to use his characters for something else. He makes a rule of it.
But there’s been one glaring exception to this rule. . .
THERE’S A ‘CALVIN AND HOBBES’ TEXTBOOK
In 1993, a small press in Fargo, North Dakota published a textbook called Teaching With Calvin and Hobbes, with Watterson’s permission. The authors reached out to him directly and told him how they’d been working with children with learning disabilities, and used Calvin and Hobbes comics to illustrate the lessons. When they asked to turn it into a textbook, he said yes, and 2500 copies were printed. Of course this made them extremely valuable: in 2009, just one copy sold for $10,000.
CALVIN AND HOBBES AREN’T THE ONLY TWO CHARACTERS INSPIRED BY REAL PEOPLE
Most, if not all, Calvin and Hobbes fans know that the comic’s stars were given their names for a reason. John Calvin was a 16th-century French Reformation theologian, and Thomas Hobbes was a 17th-century English political philosopher. But they’re not the only ones with real-life inspiration behind them. Watterson didn’t just reach back into the distant past for his influences; like all artists, he used his personal life as well. Calvin’s dad was a patent attorney, just like Watterson’s father. He also shares quite a few of his philosophies, particularly the idea that doing unpleasant tasks builds character. Watterson also admits that he identifies with the dad, which is probably why he’s drawn to look a lot like Watterson himself.
Susie Derkins, the only recurring character to have a first and last name, was named after a beagle who belonged to his in-laws, and Susie herself is drawn to look like his wife, Melissa, as a child. And Calvin’s teacher, Miss Wormwood, was named after the Junior Tempter in C.S. Lewis’ famous work The Screwtape Letters. The same name was used by Roald Dahl in 1988 in his book Matilda.
BILL WATTERSON SECRETLY CAME OUT OF RETIREMENT IN 2014. . .BRIEFLY
It’s true! While he didn’t resurrect Calvin or Hobbes, he secretly contributed to Stephan Pastis’ syndicated strip, Pearls Before Swine, in June of 2014. He swore Pastis to secrecy though, and wouldn’t let him reveal the name of his temporary collaborator until all the panels had run.
In the comic, a second grader named Libby (a nod to the name Bill) takes over the strip and starts drawing her own cartoons, insisting she can do a better job. All the panels done by Libby were Watterson’s.
Eventually, the original strips went on display and then were auctioned off for charity.
Despite his fame and popularity, Watterson has always been humble about his talents. He values his characters dearly, but thinks that some of the rhetoric about his talents is simply because of the medium in which he works. “If you draw anything more subtle than a pie in the face [in comics], you’re considered a philosopher,” he told The Washington Post in 2009. He believes comics are simple, which is why he finds the idea of making them an academic subject puzzling; to him, cartooning was a way to avoid doing his schoolwork. If you have to deconstruct it, he thinks, then something has gone wrong.
These days, despite the continued appetite for Calvin and Hobbes from its fans and unending interest in Watterson himself, he remains reclusive. It seems the best way to ensure his legacy remains solid. As he told The Washington Post, “It seems the less I do and say, the better everyone likes my work!”