Born July 5, 1958, in Washington, DC; son of James (a patent attorney) and Kathryn Watterson; married; wife's name, Melissa (an artist). Education: Kenyon College, B.A., 1980.
Home—Chagrin Falls, OH. Office—c/o Universal Press Syndicate, 4900 Main St., Kansas City, MO 64112.
Cartoonist. Cincinnati Post, Cincinnati, OH, editorial cartoonist, 1980; creator of comic strip "Calvin and Hobbes," syndicated with Universal Press Syndicate, 1985-95.
National Cartoonists Society's Reuben Awards, for outstanding cartoonist of the year, 1986 and 1988, and for outstanding humor strip, 1988.
comic-strip collections; self-illustrated
Calvin and Hobbes, Andrews, McMeel & Parker (Kansas City, MO), 1987.
The Essential Calvin and Hobbes: A Calvin and Hobbes Treasury, Andrews & McMeel (Kansas City, MO), 1988.
Something under the Bed Is Drooling: A Calvin and Hobbes Collection, Andrews & McMeel (Kansas City, MO), 1988.
Yukon Ho!, Andrews & McMeel (Kansas City, MO), 1989.
The Calvin & Hobbes Lazy Sunday Book, Andrews & McMeel (Kansas City, MO), 1989.
The Authoritative Calvin and Hobbes, Andrews & McMeel (Kansas City, MO), 1990.
Weirdos from Another Planet!, Andrews & McMeel (Kansas City, MO), 1990.
The Revenge of the Baby-Sat, Andrews & McMeel (Kansas City, MO), 1991.
Scientific Progress Goes "Boink," Andrews & McMeel (Kansas City, MO), 1991.
Attack of the Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Snow Goons, Andrews & McMeel (Kansas City, MO), 1992.
The Indispensable Calvin and Hobbes, Andrews & McMeel (Kansas City, MO), 1992.
The Days Are Just Packed, Andrews & McMeel (Kansas City, MO), 1993.
Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cat, Andrews & McMeel (Kansas City, MO), 1994.
The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book, Andrews & McMeel (Kansas City, MO), 1995.
There's Treasure Everywhere: A Calvin and Hobbes Collection, Andrews & McMeel (Kansas City, MO), 1996.
It's a Magical World, Andrews & McMeel (Kansas City, MO), 1996.
Calvin and Hobbes Sunday Pages: 1985-1995, Andrews & McMeel (Kansas City, MO), 2001.
The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, Andrews & McMeel (Kansas City, MO), 2005.
Bill Watterson's comic strip "Calvin and Hobbes" became one of the most popular series in syndication shortly after it made its debut in 1985. For ten years, readers avidly followed the adventures of Calvin, a precocious and outrageously brash six year old, and Hobbes, the tiger that appears as a stuffed animal to everyone but Calvin. Calvin's active imagination and unique outlook on life led the pair into conflicts with parents, school officials, babysitters, other children, and sometimes with reality itself. Watterson's entertaining storylines, fully developed characters, and distinctive illustrations have led some critics to rate him as one of the most imaginative cartoonists of modern America. Yet at the height of his fame and popularity, Watterson ended the strip and did his best to disappear from the public eye altogether.
Origin of "Calvin and Hobbes"
Some of Watterson's earliest cartoons were drawn for his high school newspaper and the weekly newspaper in his home town of Chagrin Falls, Ohio. In college, he contributed to the Kenyon Collegian, the campus paper at Kenyon College. Most of his work for the Collegian lampooned college life. Following graduation, he found a job as a political cartoonist at the Cincinnati Post, but he was fired after a six-month trial period. Watterson began submitting several strip ideas to syndicates, including one called "Spaceman Spiff," an animal comic, and a cartoon about a young man of his own age in his first job and apartment. One of the ideas Watterson submitted included the minor characters of Calvin and Hobbes, a little boy and his stuffed tiger playmate. The characters of Calvin and Hobbes caught the attention of a staffer at United Features Syndicate, who proposed that Watterson build a series focusing on the duo. Watterson agreed.
Oddly enough, United Features turned down the new strip once the author developed it. Instead, they offered syndication to Watterson only if he agreed to include a character called "Robotman," which had been created to merchandise a range of products. "Not knowing if 'Calvin and Hobbes' would ever go anywhere, it was difficult to turn down another chance at syndication," Watterson related to Andrew Christie in a Honk! interview. "But I really recoiled at the idea of drawing somebody else's character. It's cartooning by committee, and I have a moral problem with that. It's not art then." Once again unemployed as a cartoonist, Watterson returned to sending around "Calvin and Hobbes." Universal Press Syndicate eventually accepted it, and the strip was formally introduced on November 18, 1985. Less than three years later, "Calvin and Hobbes" was appearing in more than six hundred newspapers, and Something under the Bed Is Drooling: A Calvin and Hobbes Collection stayed on best-seller lists for almost a year.
"Calvin and Hobbes" deals with the well-covered ground of family and relationships, but focuses mainly on the deep friendship between the hyperactive Calvin and the much calmer Hobbes. Calvin "is the personification of kid-dom," as one writer described him in Comics Journal. "He's entirely self-centered, devoted wholly to his own self-gratification. In pursuit of this completely understandable childhood goal, Calvin acknowledges no obstacle, no restraint. His desire and its satisfaction are all that matter to him." The more relaxed and cautious Hobbes often warns Calvin against causing trouble, but even if the tiger seems to resist Calvin's schemes, he always remains the boy's best friend.
An extraordinary imagination isn't the only thing that distinguishes Calvin from other children. "I've never sat down to spell it out," noted Watterson in a Los Angeles Times interview, "but I guess [Calvin's] a little too intelligent for his age. The thing that I really enjoy about him is that he has no sense of restraint, he doesn't have the experience yet to know the things that you shouldn't do." Hobbes "is a little more restrained, a little more knowledgeable," the author continued, because he has "a little bit of that sense of consequence that Calvin lacks entirely." Together, Calvin and Hobbes "are more than the sum of their parts," the author told a contributor to Comics Journal. "Each ticks because the other is around
to share in the little conspiracies, or to argue and fight with…. Each is funnier in contrast to the other than they would be by themselves."
Bright youngsters are common in the comics and can lead to stale, overused storylines. "But rather than follow the easy formula of keeping Calvin an obnoxious but funny little kid, Watterson takes chances and explores other facets of his character," a Los Angeles Times writer declared. For instance, in one comic series Calvin tries to save a baby raccoon that has been injured and is left bewildered and hurt when it dies. Another sequence shows a scared Calvin turning to his parents for help in finding Hobbes, who has been lost. "I'll have a slapstick joke one day, a fantasy another day, a friendship, a sadness," Watterson stated in Comics Journal. He elaborated: "My main concern really is to keep the reader on his toes, or to keep the strip unpredictable. I try to achieve some sort of balance … that keeps the reader wondering what's going to happen next and be surprised."
Another unique feature of "Calvin and Hobbes" is the quality of Watterson's artwork. "Watterson draws comic strips the way they should be drawn," according to the Comics Journal writer. "Much of his humor lies in the pictures. And in many of the individual strips, the words alone make no sense at all without the pictures." In addition, said the essayist, "not only does the humor usually arise from the words and pictures in tandem, the pictures alone, without words, are funny. Their energy makes them funny. Watterson's action sequences, particularly,
are comically imaginative and inventive…. With increasing mastery of his supple brush, Watterson makes credible even the most fantastic of Calvin's daydreams." The Los Angeles Times writer concurred with this assessment, noting that the "Calvin and Hobbes" strip "continues the strongly pictorial tradition" of classic comics such as George Herriman's "Krazy Kat" and Watterson's childhood favorite, Walt Kelly's "Pogo." "Watterson's vivid drawings often don't require captions, as the characters' expressions and poses are all that's needed," the writer added.
Fighting against Commercialism
Throughout his career, Watterson maintained a somewhat tense relationship with the world of comic-strip syndication. In 1987, when the first book-length collection of his comics was published, he refused to tour in order to promote the book, believing that the strip should stand on its own. Upon twice winning the top award in cartooning, the Reuben, he refused to show up at the ceremony to accept it. He also took a steadfast stand against allowing licensing of the characters, so that Calvin and Hobbes tee shirts, toys, and greeting cards could not be manufactured. In a rare public appearance, Watterson made a speech at the Festival of Cartoon Art in 1989, a transcription of which was published on the Planet Cartoonist Web site. He explained the reasons for his opposition to merchandising: "Licensed products, of course, are incapable of capturing the subtleties of the original strip, and the merchandise can alter the public perception of the strip, especially when the merchandise is aimed at a younger audience than the strip is. The deeper concerns of some strips are ignored or condensed to fit the simple gag requirements of mugs and T-shirts. In addition, no one cartoonist has the time to write and draw a daily strip and do all the work of a licensing program. Inevitably, extra assistants and business people are required." Most major cartoonists do hire assistants to help with their strips, but Watterson always took pride in doing every bit of the work on "Calvin and Hobbes" by himself.
Watterson's speech continued: "Characters lose their believability as they start endorsing major companies and lend their faces to bedsheets and boxer shorts. The appealing innocence and sincerity of cartoon characters is corrupted when they use those qualities to peddle products. One starts to question whether characters say things because they mean it or because their sentiments sell T-shirts and greeting cards. Licensing has made some cartoonists extremely wealthy, but at a considerable loss to the precious little world they created." Despite a huge loss of income, Watterson never budged on his refusal to merchandise "Calvin and Hobbes." As a Los Angeles Times writer remarked: "This dedication and integrity seem sadly out of place in an era that exalts hype over substance, but his readers and the art of the newspaper comic strip are richer for it."
Another battle Watterson fought was against the shrinking space allotted to comic strips in the newspaper. Newspaper circulation dropped dramatically in the last decades of the twentieth century, while printing costs rose. As a result, newspaper editors often limited the amount of space given over to comic strips. Cartoonists were forced, in turn, to adopt a simpler style so that words and drawings could be reproduced in this greatly reduced framework. Using his clout as a top cartoonist, Watterson gave newspapers an ultimatum: Give "Calvin and Hobbes" enough page space, or he would not allow the strip to be run. For the most part, newspapers complied with his wishes.
If you enjoy the works of Bill Watterson
If you enjoy the works of Bill Watterson, you may also want to check out the following comic strips:
The Far Side by Gary Larson.
FoxTrot by Bill Amend.
Get Fuzzy by Darby Conley.
Although he was able to get the upper hand in most of his conflicts with the syndicates, Watterson still felt burdened by the constant pressures to be creative and to give up his resistance to the lucrative prospects of marketing. In 1991, he took a sabbatical from drawing his strip, and did so again in 1994. Each time, readers had to be satisfied with reruns of old strips. Then, on Christmas Day, 1995, the newspapers that published "Calvin and Hobbes" received a letter from Watterson, saying he felt he had contributed what he could within the constraints of daily deadlines and small panels. On December 31, 1995, the strip made its last appearance, with Calvin and Hobbes sledding down a hill in search of new adventure. Watterson and his wife returned to his home town in Ohio, where he now spends his time painting landscapes in oils and avoiding the limelight.
Biographical and Critical Sources
Holmen, Linda, Teaching with Calvin and Hobbes, Playground Publications (Fargo, ND), 1993.
Newsmakers 1990, Issue 3, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1990.
American Spectator, December, 1991, review of Scientific Progress Goes Boink, p. 14.
Booklist, June 15, 1988, review of Something under the Bed Is Drooling, p. 1701; December 15, 1988, review of The Essential Calvin and Hobbes, p. 675; December 1, 1989, review of The Calvin and Hobbes Lazy Sunday Book, p. 718; June 1, 1990, review of Weirdos from Another Planet!, p. 1865; November 15, 1992, review of The Indispensable Calvin and Hobbes, p. 570.
Bookwatch, December, 1989, review of The Calvin and Hobbes Lazy Sunday Book, p. 1; June, 1990, review of Weirdos from Another Planet!, p. 1; March, 1991, review of The Authoritative Calvin and Hobbes, p. 1; March, 1992, review of Scientific Progress Goes Boink, p. 1; July, 1992, review of Attack of the Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Snow Goons, p. 1; March, 1993, review of The Indispensable Calvin and Hobbes, p. 1; January, 1994, review of The Days Are Just Packed, p. 5; November, 1996, review of It's a Magical World, p. 11.
Boy's Life, September, 1993, p. 46.
Buffalo News (Buffalo, NY), December 22, 1998, "Where's Calvin Now?," p. C2.
Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, NC), July 29, 2003, Jeff Elder, "Where Have You Gone, Calvin, Opus and Cow?" Christian Science Monitor, June 11, 1998, "Calvin Creator Says: 'I'd Rather Be Painting,'" p. 10.
Comics Journal, March, 1989.
Editor & Publisher, February 8, 1986; December 3, 1988; May 27, 1989; November 4, 1989; March 19, 1994, David Astor, "Watterson to Take Second Break from 'Calvin and Hobbes' Strip," p. 59; March 26, 1994, David Astor, "Mixed Response to Second Sabbatical," p. 30; November 18, 1995, "Strong Reaction to End of Comic Strip," p. 38; November 5, 2001, Dave Astor, "'Calvin' Book Is the First One in Half-Decade," p. 24.
Entertainment Weekly, November 24, 1995, p. 16.
Gazette (Colorado Springs, CO), March 21, 2004, Dave Philipps, "Whiz Kid: Cartoon Image Coopted as a Symbol for All Sorts of Social Commentary," p. L1.
Honk!, January, 1987, Andrew Christie, interview with Watterson.
Investor's Business Daily, January 16, 2002, Jonah Keri, "Cartoonist Drew from the Well of Integrity," p. A3.
Kenyon College Alumni Bulletin, spring, 1988.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, November 14, 1995, John Barry, "Comic Strips' Demise Is No Laughing Matter for Fans."
Library Journal, May 1, 1989, review of The Calvin and Hobbes Lazy Sunday Book, p. 69.
Los Angeles Times, April 1, 1987; April 17, 1988, review of Something under the Bed Is Drooling, p. 15; December 18, 1988, review of The Essential Calvin and Hobbes, p. 6; November 26, 1989, review of The Calvin and Hobbes Lazy Sunday Book, p. 34; April 8, 1990, review of Weirdos from Another Planet!, p. 10; April 28, 1991, review of The Revenge of the Baby-Sat, p. 14; December 1, 1991, review of Scientific Progress Goes Boink, p. 31; April 5, 1992, review of Attack of the Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Snow Goons, p. 10; December 6, 1992, review of The Indispensable Calvin and Hobbes, p. 39; November 19, 1995, review of The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book, p. 6.
Mediaweek, December 4, 1995, Lewis Grossberger, "Hold That Tiger," p. 30.
Newsweek, December 7, 1992, review of The Indispensable Calvin and Hobbes, p. 71.
Philadelphia Inquirer, December 26, 1995, Joe Logan, "'Calvin and Hobbes' Is Latest Comic Strip to Be Killed by Creator."
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), August 30, 1987, Gene Williams, "Watterson: Calvin's Other Alter Ego;" December 20, 1998, "Cartoonist Bill Watterson Returns to a Cloistered Life."
Rolling Stone, May 19, 1988.
San Francisco Chronicle, April 13, 1987.
School Library Journal, September, 1990, review of Weirdos from Another Planet!, p. 271.
Time, November 20, 1995, p. 123.
Wall Street Journal, November 3, 1988, David Brooks, review of The Essential Calvin and Hobbes, p. A18.
Cleveland Scene Online, http://www.clevescene.com/ (November 26, 2003), James Renner, "Missing!"
In Search of Bill Watterson, http://www.kerzap.com/calvin/billw.html/ (April 24, 2005).