By: Dave Astor
With Tuesday’s release of “The Complete Calvin and Hobbes,” Bill Watterson is “speaking” more than he has in years. That’s because the 1,456-page collection includes a 13-page introduction by the reclusive cartoonist, whose wildly popular comic appeared in more than 2,400 newspapers at the end of its 1985-1996 run.
In the intro, Watterson discusses how “Calvin and Hobbes” got started, why he stays out of the public eye, why he didn’t allow the comic to be licensed, why he retired, and other topics.
Watterson recalled, in his younger days, wanting to be either a cartoonist or an astronaut. “(W)hen I stopped understanding math and science, my choice was made,” he wrote.
The cartoonist said he was influenced heavily by “Peanuts” (as a kid) and then “Pogo” (as a teen). While at Ohio’s Kenyon College, Watterson admired the work of Cincinnati Enquirer editorial cartoonist Jim Borgman — and ended up competing against Borgman during a brief sojourn at The Cincinnati Post. “I was completely out of my depth,” he wrote. “Embarrassed and demoralized by the experience, I turned back to comics. At least in comics, if you don’t understand what’s going on, you can make stuff up.”
Watterson then spent four years designing grocery ads and drawing freelance cartoons while pitching comic ideas to syndicates. Finally, a syndicate gave Watterson a contract to develop two secondary characters — a boy (Calvin) and his stuffed tiger (Hobbes) — into stars of their own strip. “I knew these characters had more life than any of the others I’d done, but I’d always resisted the idea of doing a ‘kid strip,’ partly because of the long shadow that ‘Peanuts’ cast over the whole genre,” he wrote. The syndicate ultimately rejected the comic.
A few months later, the syndicate called back to say it would distribute “Calvin and Hobbes” if Watterson put into the strip a character (not created by Watterson) the syndicate wanted to license. He said no. “The experience was a lesson in how the cartoon business works sometimes,” wrote Watterson, “and this little episode undoubtedly fueled some of my later outrage at the prospect of licensing ‘Calvin and Hobbes.'”
Watterson then sent his comic to two other feature distributors — and Universal Press Syndicate signed it. “Calvin and Hobbes” launched in November 1985 with about 35 newspaper clients.
For the first couple of years, Watterson sent rough ideas to Universal. Some were rejected — requiring the creation of replacement strips that also had to be submitted for approval. The ones that got approved could then be inked by the cartoonist. The process took a long time, because the roughs were sent by postal mail in those days.
In the beginning, “Calvin was little more than a mischievous loudmouth and Hobbes was simply his somewhat more sensible friend,” recalled Watterson. “As the characters expanded, Calvin’s and Hobbes’ personalities became more like my own. … Hobbes got all my better qualities (and a few quirks from our cats), and Calvin got my ranting, escapist side.”
A little more than a year after the comic entered syndication, it was collected in a book that became a bestseller — which helped the newspaper client list grow faster. “I was not prepared for the resulting attention,” said Watterson. “Besides disliking the diminishment of privacy and the inhibiting quality of feeling watched, I valued my anonymous, boring life. In fact, I didn’t see how I could write honestly without it. A year later, I moved out west, got an unlisted phone number, stopped giving interviews, and tried to fly as low under the radar as possible. Of course, some reporters took this as a personal challenge to intrude, but in general, my quiet life let me concentrate on my work.”
And it was a lot of work. Unlike a number of cartoonists who hire assistants when their comic becomes popular, Watterson continued to do all his own writing and drawing. “(T)his approach kept the strip very honest and personal — everything having to do with ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ expressed my own ideas, my own values, my own way,” he wrote. But comic and book deadlines were relentless.
Meanwhile, Watterson resisted pressure to license. “I didn’t think greeting cards, T-shirts, or plush dolls fit with the spirit or message of my comic strip, and I didn’t like the idea of using this hard-won, precious job to peddle a bunch of trinkets,” he wrote. Though Universal had the contractual right to license, Watterson was prepared to quit the strip if the syndicate did so. The battle, he said, “poisoned” his relationship with Universal for several years.
In the intro, Watterson goes on to recount his 1991 sabbatical and his request for a half-page format on Sundays. A number of newspapers complained, but Watterson felt the format enabled him to do his best work. “The new Sunday strips often took me twice as long to draw, but it was exciting to cut the strip loose and see where it would go,” said the cartoonist.
Discussing his retirement from the comic, Watterson said: “I didn’t want ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ to coast into halfhearted repetition, as so many long-running strips do. I was ready to pursue different artistic challenges, work at a less frantic pace … and start restoring some balance to my life.”
Since 1996, Watterson has painted, studied art history, and studied music.
Part of his closing remarks in the intro: “In ‘Calvin and Hobbes,’ I used my childhood — sometimes straight out of the can, sometimes wildly fictionalized, and sometimes as a metaphor for my twenties and thirties — to talk about my life and the issues that interested me. Without exactly intending to, I Iearned a lot about what I love — imagination, deep friendship, animals, family, the natural world, ideas, ideals … and silliness. These things make my life meaningful, and having the opportunity to consider it all at length through the medium of drawing was the most personally rewarding part of ‘Calvin and Hobbes.'”
The three-volume “Complete Calvin and Hobbes” is from Andrews McMeel Publishing, whose sister company, Universal, has been syndicating “Calvin and Hobbes” reruns to promote the book. Interested newspapers are publishing the strips from Sept. 4 to Dec. 31.