For all their seeming simplicity, the expressive possibilities of comics rival those of any other art form.Bill Watterson
When I was a kid, I had heard tell of a a comic called Calvin and Hobbes. Short comic strips about a young boy with his stuffed tiger (who in Calvin’s mind was as real as any other talking anthropomorphic tiger). I was amazed to find a collection of Calvin and Hobbes comic strips in my basement and spent a great deal of time each night slowly chipping my way through the books. At my elementary school library, the stars had to be aligned in order to get a Calvin and Hobbes book checked out since they were so popular. Even though Calvin and Hobbes had been running for more than twenty years at that point, kids were still reading it, and my mom had a great amount of fondness for the adventures that these two characters went on. Since that young period of my life, I have looked back at Bill Watterson’s creation with immense nostalgia and affection. All the other Sunday comic strips seemed dull, stale, or too grown-up for me as a kid when compared to Calvin and Hobbes. I can’t help but feel the same nowadays. There is something so special about Calvin and Hobbes that can teach us a lot about life.
We talk a lot about superhero comics here on The Nerdd. But before a lot of people even read a comic book chronicling the tales of Superman, Spider-Man, or Batman, they more than likely had perused the funnies in the newspaper (even if that paper was only being used for pumpkin carving or papier-mâché). Short little five panel stories made us laugh, think, cry, and possibly change our ways. Years ago they used to be a bigger deal, taking up the full page they were printed on. Now it’s become somewhat of a dying art with web-comics rising from the ashes. There is a great deal to be learned from these short witty stories and their core conceits, and no Sunday comic strip exemplifies that better than Calvin and Hobbes.
A History of The Sunday Strip
In the late 1800s, shortly after the invention of the colored press, Sunday Comics began being printed in newspapers. Sometimes known as the Sunday Funnies, the Funny Papers, or just the Funnies, they captivated audiences from the beginning. The first comic character created was The Yellow Kid; A child who was portrayed in picture with accompanying words and dialogue. Later, The Little Bears by Jim Swinnerton would be among the first comics to set the mold: recurring characters and sequential art broken into panels. The popularity for these comics rose during a newspaper war between William Hearst’s paper, The San Francisco Examiner, and Joseph Pulitzer’s newspapers. Early Sunday Comic Strips would take up an entire page of a newspaper, and could contain serialized adventures for characters like Dick Tracy and Flash Gordon. As popularity grew, humorous comics began to take the mainstage with classics such as Pogo and Charles Schulz’s Peanuts.
In 1985, Calvin and Hobbes, along with other greats such as Garfield, would popularize the half page comic (which takes up half the page as one would imagine), with 9 panels for a short humorous story. But over the years as comics evolved and more would rise to popularity, the boxes began to shrink, to the point where today the Sunday Strips always share a page with something else, and a handful of other comics. It’s kind of a sad story, but the memory is still alive in collected volumes of these beloved characters from the likes of The Far Side to Dilbert. It’s in these volumes where these characters gain a second life among a new generation of readers.
The Life of Bill Watterson
In order to better understand Calvin and Hobbes it’s important to take a look at the life of the man who created them. Bill Watterson was born in Washington D.C. and later moved to Ohio (where the setting for Calvin and Hobbes is based on). As a kid he would read Pogo, Peanuts, and Krazy Kat. This solidified his desire to become a cartoonist and he spent most of his days drawing. His parents fostered that artistic growth and he went to college studying editorial cartooning. He contributed many comics to his college newspaper (some of which containing early “Spaceman Spiff” stories, one of Calvin’s imaginary alter egos). He was described by his parents as “conservatively creative” and imaginative, but not in a fantasy sort of way, and was described as fairly introverted by his classmates.
After graduating, Watterson landed an advertising job which he despised. So he decided to create a comic strip in his spare time for syndication. Initially he wrote a comic called The Doghouse, which the United Feature Syndicate identified the standout characters in the story to be a small boy and his stuffed tiger, and told Watterson to take those characters and run with them. Calvin was named after the Protestant reformer John Calvin and his tiger Hobbes was named after the social philosopher Thomas Hobbes. In November of 1985, Calvin and Hobbes was published and began it’s rise to fame. Throughout this process Watterson continuously tried to change the newspaper comic industry. He was the one who pioneered the half page comic strip when that was unheard of at the time. Watterson truly believed that what he was doing was an important art form and believed that the industry was undermining that. Watterson never like the publishers and the syndication and, despite pressures from virtually everyone, he fought to make sure his characters were never merchandised as toys. He believed that the characters would be devalued if they were seen on t-shirts or mugs (though, who hasn’t seen a t-shirt with Calvin peeing on something, or a homemade Hobbes stuffed animal). Watterson was a man of little words, and avoided the limelight; he made his comics for his own pleasure and only wished to share it with the world.
In 1995, Watterson retired from cartooning. He said that his “interests have shifted” and that he would continue working on art in private. After Calvin and Hobbes had finished running it’s course, Watterson took up painting and has kept away from the public eye. Later in life he has allowed himself to be interviewed. He said something that could be applied to a plethora of comics, TV shows, and movies today, during an interview with The Plain Dealer in 2010:
This isn’t as hard to understand as people try to make it. By the end of ten years, I’d said pretty much everything I had come there to say. 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, ten, or twenty years, the people now “grieving” for Calvin and Hobbeswould 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.
Since that time Watterson has lived his life happily and privately.
The Impact Of Calvin and Hobbes
In doing research for this post, I read more than a handful of articles ranking and listing the best Sunday Comic Strips of all time. In every single one that I read, Calvin and Hobbes was at number one; usually with more than three paragraphs following in order to explain why it is the best. In my opinion, Calvin and Hobbes is the greatest and most impactful Sunday Comic Strip because of it’s ability to capture the feelings of childlike wonder, familial love, and a intellectual soul.
Calvin and Hobbes became more than just a comic strip, it was an impact in the lives of it’s readers, which is what truly great literature is. With Watterson’s beautifully simple design for his characters contrasted with the elegant watercolor backgrounds, it felt like a rich world even though it only lasted a couple of panels, often without words or finer detail. Calvin and Hobbes on the surface level, told the exploits of a six year old boy and his imaginary best friend. He went to school, had family foibles, dealt with bullies, and a back and forth with the neighbor girl Susie. All of these experiences were viewed from the childlike lens of Calvin with his imagination adding an incredible flavor to it all.
Sometimes Calvin was “Spaceman Spiff”, an interstellar explorer discovering evil aliens (his teacher or his parents). Sometimes he was the superhero “Stupendous Man,” capable of flying (jumping off the roof with his cape). Other times he would be a god, creating worlds and whole galaxies (playing with toys). Other times he was a time traveler, exploring the space-time continuum with Hobbes in his multipurpose Time Machine/Duplicator/Transmogrifier/Cerebral Enhance-O-Tron (a cardboard box which would have a different use depending on it’s orientation). Many times he was just simply the world’s greatest snowman maker (there’s no catch there. We’d all do well to use some imagination while making snowmen).
At other times Watterson would infuse potent poignancy and sentimentality into his stories. Most of the time Calvin was of great annoyance to his parents, and from Calvin’s point of view they were his evil captors who wanted to give him a bath. But much like a six year old, who can at times be rotten, funny, and rambunctious, they can be incredibly sweet and loving. So too was Calvin, even if he didn’t always succeed how he wanted. Bringing breakfast into his parents room wasn’t always executed flawlessly, but it’s the thought that counted. Some scenes depicted his parents love for Calvin in the pranks that they would pull on him, the wonder they would see in him, and the family moments that they shared.
Watterson would often load his comic strips with some subtle satire or critique about the educational system, public polls, or just life in general. The comic captivated children, but for the adults reading them, they would have their perspective changed. Upon re-reading them you’d learn something new every time making this series truly everlasting. Often times the true beauty of Calvin and Hobbes would be the conversations Calvin would have with his stuffed tiger. Ethically baffling questions were proposed, with the answers and meanings to others discerned through the dialogue they would have. Often times this would be had while they traversed the woods on their way to the Yukon, camping out in their backyard, simply trying to go to sleep at night while thinking about friendship (perhaps as a distraction to ward away the terrors of the night). It’s these things that go on in a young child’s mind that often goes unsaid because it never really needed to be brought up by a six year old. Watterson expertly crafted such short little stories that chronicled hundreds of memories in the life of one fictional boy and his tiger; which then impacted tens of thousands of readers across the entire world. All because Watterson was willing to ask meaningful questions through an art form.
Many people criticize comics as low art, and Sunday Strips are accused of this more than any other form of comic. But when I read Calvin and Hobbes I am instantly transported to when I was a young boy, up at night way past my bedtime, poring over these stories. I am reminded of my childhood, of home, of family, and of the bigger picture. Bill Watterson created something unlike any other story. Something that serialized comics, novels, movies, and TV cannot do. These little glimpses into the life of a six year old and his best friend affect readers in a way that cannot be easily explained. Even so, anyone who has read Calvin and Hobbes will agree that above all else, these stories are quintessentially good, profound, and genuinely thoughtful art. And that is all Bill Watterson wanted Calvin and Hobbes to be: Simple, full of wonder, tenderness, and intelligence.
- The Authoritative Calvin and Hobbes
- The Indispensable Calvin and Hobbes
- The Essential Calvin and Hobbes
- The Lazy Sunday Book
- Dear Mr. Watterson (documentary)