Whatever Happened To Bill Watterson from Calvin and Hobbes?
This week on Cracked we'll be talking all things Calvin and Hobbes – today's topic: what happened to Bill Watterson?
Newspaper comics, at least popular ones, last for decades. Calvin and Hobbes was immediately popular, with people writing letters to the editor demanding their paper carry the strip within its first year. Watterson got licensing pressure from his syndicate within the first year, too. Picture a mid-20s Bill Watterson, happily married and surrounded by cats. His life’s work is beloved by millions of people, there’s a promise of millions of money in his bank account. That’s a perfect life, right? Bliss, found before you turn 30.
So why did Bill Watterson quit at age 37, leaving readers and bosses alike pining for just one more sled ride through the snow-drenched pine trees? Lots of people have investigated this question. Here’s some of what they found:
Bill Watterson Basically Dave Chappelle’d, Right Down To Ohio
The first words Watterson writes in The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book are “comics are a wonderfully versatile medium.” That sentence is under the header “The Comics In Transition.” Right away, he’s passionate about the industry, but unhappy with where it’s going. The next four pages talk about how syndicates force comics to have a watered down, broad appeal. He talks about how industry standards of quality have fallen as newspapers changed. Then, he goes in on licensing and how it destroys a comic strip’s integrity, details his principled fight with the syndicate to have complete control over Calvin and Hobbes, and paints a picture of a job that looks like the bosses made it easy to quit after 10 years.
Watterson’s retirement was like Dave Chappelle leaving $50 million on the table to walk away from season three of Chappelle’s Show, except Watterson didn’t emerge decades later to make millions off of lazy transphobia. They both live in Ohio, too! (Though no word on if Watterson hates poor people.) As industry pro Jason Chatfield says, “are you a Watterson or a Schulz?” is shorthand for “do you think comics are art, or not?”
People Keep Trying to Hunt Down Bill Watterson
In retirement, Watterson has embraced reclusivity. He’s refused nearly every interview, tried to keep his name and face out of the public eye. He has no children and his wife is a painter, so personally, I prefer to think they’ve been spending every day since January 1, 1996 painting together. Maybe taking long bike rides and building snowgoons in their yard. Maybe they like to order pizza and watch Venusian Vampire Vixens together. Others, not content with the wistful visions of a mind’s eye, have tried to track Watterson down. There’s a documentary, Dear Mr. Watterson, where filmmaker Joel Allen Schroeder actually visits Watterson’s hometown of Chagrin Falls, OH, and meets up with Nevin Martell. Martell wrote Looking For Calvin and Hobbes, which he pitched to publishing houses as “I’m going to go to Chagrin Falls.” Calvin and Hobbes touched a lot of people, is what I’m saying, and Bill Watterson’s “nobody bother me” attitude only stoked that fire.
“The guy’s making it harder for the rest of us…”
“...because he’s setting this ridiculous standard of excellence.” So said Berkley Breathed, creator of Bloom County. Watterson was an immediate force to be reckoned with in the funny pages. Lynn Johnston, who wrote For Better or For Worse, said “he inspires all of us to do a little bit better,” which is a far more gentle way of saying what Breathed said. Other cartoonists were in awe of this skinny dude from Ohio who drew like he had functioning hands and wrote like he had a brain. “For Bill, it wasn’t enough just to meet the deadline, you had to sort of move the bar over what you’ve done previously.” Bill Amend, creator of Fox Trot, said.
No Seriously, There Was Money Left On The Table (And Bosses Were Irked)
Since Charles Schulz’s death in 2000, there have been nine animated Peanuts specials, plus The Peanuts Movie, plus the strip has been continuously running in many papers. Peanuts began its run in 1950; 1958 saw the first Charlie Brown/Snoopy dolls made. Nancy is on its sixth writer; old dead Ernie Bushmiller was never gonna write “Sluggo Is Lit,” so thank the stars for modern-day Nancy cartoonist Olivia Jaimes.
But Watterson didn’t want, say, decals of Calvin pissing on the back of every truck everywhere. Nor did he want assistant writers or artists or for the strip to continue when he was done. As he says in The Tenth Anniversary Book, “...trainloads of money were at stake—millions and millions of dollars could be made with a few signatures. Syndicates are businesses, and no business passes up that…without an argument.” In his case, it was a five-year (half the run!), increasingly bitter argument that spilled into the work. Watterson singles out these two strips as examples of him venting frustrations.
Watterson Had Already Signed His Rights Away
The syndicate’s trump card was that they already owned C&H. They could license the characters and replace Watterson in a second. They just wanted him along for the ride. In an interview with Mental Floss, he says “I signed most of my rights away in order to get syndicated…I had no legal position to argue anything. I could not take the strip with me if I quit, or even prevent the syndicate from replacing me, so I was truly scared I was going to lose everything I cared about either way.” Luckily, the bosses knew where their bread was buttered, and cared too much about having Watterson along to go nuclear without his consent.
Commercialism Vs Creativity in C&H: Two Strips
In one Sunday strip, Calvin’s world turns Cubist.
In another Sunday strip, Calvin’s world turns black and white.
Both strips are massive artistic flexes, beautifully rendered stylistic leaps from the norm. One even spits in the face of the Sunday color strip convention, which you have to imagine looked rad in the paper against all the other comics. Both strips dump us into this shocking perception shift before revealing Calvin’s imagination is literalizing an argument he’s having with his dad. Watterson explicitly says in The Tenth Anniversary Book that the black and white one was about him fighting with the syndicate. The Cubist one “was fun to draw.” Sure, Bill, that’s all it was.
Bill Watterson Said What He Said
Leaving people wanting more is one way to become adjectives like “beloved” and “legendary.” Not to flex on midcentury Alabama, but my grandmother briefly knew Harper Lee in college. She wrote to her once and asked why she never published another book. Harper wrote back “I said what I needed to say.” At least that’s how I remember my grandmother telling me the story of the one time my grandmother wrote to Harper Lee after they briefly knew each other in college. No way to fact-check now, my grandmother’s dead. So’s Harper Lee, after she said what she said, but not before some moneygrubbers pushed her into publishing a book she didn’t want published. Reading this 2010 Cleveland.com interview with Bill Watterson reminded me of that story.
Bill Watterson Does “Catch and Release Painting” Now
Again from the Mental Floss interview: “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.” I think all artists could benefit from doing “catch and release” stuff from time to time. Write a poem no one ever hears, sketch a picture no one ever sees, compose a song no one ever sings. Kinda like a Tibetan Buddhist Sand Mandala. Practice your craft for craft’s sake.
Bill Watterson Was Drawing Visual Gags In High School
According to archives Joel Allen Schroeder pulled from the library in Chagrin Falls, OH, Bill Watterson contributed cartoons and photographs to his high school yearbook. He doodled the “four fearless photographers” of the yearbook staff as such: a black panel, signifying a dark room, with three pairs of wide eyes. The caption read “Watterson (blinking) is the one of the far right.” Even in high school, Bill shied away from recognition.
Bill Watterson’s Doodle Assault On Berkeley Breathed
Cracked’s covered this before, but it very bears repeating: Berkeley Breathed licensed Bloom County to merchandising and bought a speedboat. Oh, dear reader: you do not understand how brutal Bill Watterson got with his reponse to Breathed. Not Jim Davis making Jon Arbuckle drink dog semen, but still wild enough that I’m gonna give each doodle paragraph breaks, so the descriptions can really sing:
Watterson drew Breathed kicking his exhausted characters off a dock and ordering the “lazy freeloaders” back to work as he shovels money into his boat while a businessman fantasizes about Breathed eating out of the palm of his hand (eating what, and as an appetizer to what is implied that the businessman wants from Breathed, we dare not wonder).
Watterson drew a naked Ronald Reagan looking at his own junk while talking on the phone to Breathed. Given Reagan’s pro-business, make-much-money-screw-everyone-else approach to life, we wonder: is Watterson implying Reagan and the Bloom County creator were bloomin’ in their bloomers over the news that Breathed had sold out? Just asking questions about authorial intentionality.
Watterson drew Opus from Bloom County with his head blown off by a bazooka and mounted ass-out on The Family Circus’s wall. Watterson kinda loses the moral high here, brutally decapitating 1) a penguin and 2) a main character of Breathed’s. Breathed would never do anything to Hobbes…
…except at some point, Hobbes ended up with his face shoved in Blondie’s crotch. That was Breathed’s response to Watterson’s cartoon postal terrorism, but remember that Watterson *ahem* shot first with that Reagan stunt. Poor Blondie didn’t ask to be included in any of this, by the way.
Bill Watterson Co-Wrote A Book With Zach Galifianakis’s Cousin
The Art of Richard Thompson explores the work of the creator of the comic strip Cul de Sac. Five artists are credited on the book, including Watterson and Carolyn Hax cartoonist Nick Galifianakis, who has that last name for the reason the header to this paragraph implies he does. His uncle, another Nick Galifianakis, was both a U.S. Congressperson and the subject of Zach’s “I hate the right wing” bit in Live At The Purple Onion.
Bill Watterson Knows Any Return Would Disappoint
After a certain amount of time away, nostalgia fossilizes things into amber. Any new comic strip Watterson were to draw would always be compared impossibly to Calvin and Hobbes. As Watterson puts it in a 2014 interview with Mental Floss, “...there’s always risk of disappointment. You can’t really blame people for preferring more of what they already know and like.” So no more Bill Watterson comics, huh?
Bill Watterson Secretly Returns To Comics
Like Michael Jordan dusting off his knee braces for two seasons with the Kwame Brown-led Washington Wizards, Bill Watterson ghost-drew some comics in 2014 with Pearls Before Swine creator Stephan Pastis. True to form for Bill, this story is sweet (the comics raised money for charity to fight Parkinson’s Disease) and shockingly savage (Watterson appears in this strip and out-draws Pastis so devastatingly that an in-strip Pastis begs Watterson to draw him forever).
Is The Stripped Poster An Adult Calvin?
This documentary follows comic strip artists navigating the changing nature of newspapers. Bill Watterson drew the poster and even consented to an interview (though not with his face on camera).
Here are some questions we’d ask him: Is that aging, spiky-haired blonde guy an adult Calvin? Would Calvin get a dog? Perhaps a dachshund to fulfill a deathbed promise to his father? Did Calvin’s constant mischief-making and poor school performance put such a stress on both his parents that they died young? Is the dog Hobbes, who happened to be playing with the Transmogrifier? Can you get stuck in a transmogrification, like how Tobias from Animorphs was permanently a red-tailed hawk because he stayed in morph too long? If so, did Hobbes transmogrify into a dog to make it easier to live an adult life with Calvin? Is Hobbes officially a service animal?
About Those Urinating Calvin Truck Decals
Much like Calvin acknowledging that he is but a speck of dust in the universe, the man famous for clinging to copyright like a sacred totem takes the long view, per Mental Floss: “I figure that, long after the strip is forgotten, those decals are my ticket to immortality.” Gotta have a sense of humor about at least one bastardization of your work, I guess. Maybe Mad Max: Fury Road was onto something, and the road to paradise is plastered on the back of a Range Rover. Let’s go exploring.
Chris Corlew is a writer and musician living in Chicago with a child who has Calvin tendencies and a cat too fat to be Hobbes. He co-hosts The Line Break podcast and is one-half of b and the shipwrecked sailor. Send him Calvin and Hobbes strips on Twitter.
Top image: Andrews McMeel Publishing