In November 1985, Bill Watterson introduced newspapers to one of the most beloved cartoon strips in the world; Calvin & Hobbes. The characters were simple. A boy and his stuffed tiger. But their imagination and adventures were anything but simple. As the fascination of these characters grew, so did the life of its creator. The creative artistic work and writing of Watterson was obvious, but his life was sort of a mystery. Many have documented the career of Watterson, so I will not repeat much of what has already been said. Instead, I will focus on three features of Watterson that both surprised and impressed me. The early end of the strip, his privacy, and his refusal to license his work. Along with those features I will explore the one question; Did Watterson have any faith or relationship with Jesus? But let us start with the first feature.
1. Watterson left at the peak of his comic career.
This iconic strip ran for only 10 years. The last comic was printed on December 31, 1995. This surprised me because of how wild the demand for Calvin and Hobbes became. It appeared in over 2000 newspapers worldwide. 10 years later since his retirement, all his syndicated work was released in this large box set. Watterson jokes at how his career has been ‘embalmed in a box.’ But what a high quality box it is. This is the 2005 hardcover edition. And yes, it is heavy. The books are difficult to handle without a table top.
15 years after Watterson retired, he did a rare interview with John Campanelli from Cleveland.com. He explains why he ended his comic strip after a short run. The simple answer is that he said pretty much everything he wanted to say. His longer answer is that, “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, 10 or 20 years, the people now "grieving" for "Calvin and Hobbes" would 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.” -(Cleveland.com) 2010
There is a lot of truth to this statement because too often popular franchises become too difficult to let go. Either it becomes stale with ideas, the writers run out of creativity, or it wears out its welcome. They fall into this trap when they don’t know when to leave. Watterson knew when to leave.
2. Watterson is a private man.
He is so private that he refuses to do interviews. But he has done a few rare ones. The opening 14 pages of this first book is a short autobiography. In it, he writes how he was not prepared for the celebrity-like attention he received from the growing popularity of Calvin & Hobbes. It led to some downsides such as the diminished privacy and the inhibiting quality of feeling watched. Watterson valued his ‘anonymous boring life’ and could not write without it. He even moved out west and got an unlisted phone number. Watterson believes some reporters took it as a personal challenge. Several have tried over the years, and many failed. But few were able to lock in an interview. Why or how Watterson agreed to an interview is also a mystery in of itself. One could only wonder how on earth he could have maintained a private life during the social media era.
3. Watterson was in strong opposition on licensing his creation.
Before Calvin & Hobbes was even created, Watterson was faced with a very tempting offer. He could have launched his career drawing and writing for a syndicate. They owned the rights to a propeller-headed robot character that was going to get its own comic strip. They had a big licensing program set up in which they would roll out merchandise such as plush dolls. If Watterson could work the toy robot into his strip with Calvin, a deal would be done. He would have launched his career immediately as a national syndicate cartoonist. Watterson said how, “It was hard to decide which offended me more-writing and drawing material for a character that wasn’t my own, or creating a comic strip for the purpose of advertising a commercial product.” He rejected the offer, which took a lot of courage. Imagine struggling to find your dream career, and a golden opportunity comes your way. You get to not only do what you love, but make a lot of money. But then you turn it all down out of principle. Watterson did that. But had he not turned that opportunity down, the world would never have been introduced to Calvin & Hobbes. After much patience, Universal Press Syndicate took a chance on Watterson’s creation, and it paid off. After the first published book of Calvin and Hobbes, the popularity of the strip exploded.
But with the growth of popularity also grew the pressure from Universal Press Syndicate to Watterson for a licensing deal. But Watterson stood his ground. He worked too long and hard on his creation to let other people run away with it. Watterson states that, ”If I could not control what my own work was about and stood for, then cartooning meant very little to me.”
After a long drawn out battle, Watterson eventually got his way. But it took an emotional toll on him. It was personal and traumatic. For several years it poisoned what had been a happy relationship. It had such an emotional effect on Watterson, that he lost his conviction of wanting to spend his life cartooning. Both sides lost an estimated tens of millions of dollars. But Watterson maintained that he wanted to draw cartoons, not run an empire. He did not believe that merchandising fit with the spirit or message of his strip. He had no desire to use his hard work to push products. In a 2013 interview with The Comics Journal, when Watterson was asked about the possibility of licensing a doll, he replied “If you stick 30 Hobbes dolls on a drugstore shelf, you’re no longer talking about a character I created. At that point, you’ve transformed him into just another overpriced knickknack. I have no interest in turning my characters into commodities.”
So did Watterson believe in Jesus? The short answer is that we really do not know one way or the other. Watterson shares how “I somehow never paid much attention to government, history, politics, or for that matter, the news, in my eighteen years of life.” So it would be safe to say he also did not pay any attention to Religion; At least for his first eighteen years of life. But what about the years after?
Well there are some interesting details to note. The first is that Charles Shultz and his creation of Peanuts was a huge influence to Watterson’s drawing and writing style. As most would know, Shultz was a Christian and was not afraid to mention his faith through his work. This was especially known through the infamous Charlie Brown Christmas TV special. Shultz fought with CBS producers to keep the scene of Linus’ monologue referencing the birth of Jesus. Now this does not at all prove Shultz had a Biblical influence on Watterson. But his work might have inspired Watterson to at least read a bit about Christianity. Watterson did study historical philosophers like Plato, Machiavelli, and Locke. Since Philosophy and Theology compliment each other, it's possible he learned about Jesus’ life.
Another interesting detail is some of the characters Watterson named them after. Calvin was named after 16th century theologian John Calvin. and Hobbes was named after 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes. While Thomas’ beliefs with Christianity have been long debated, there was no debate with John. Then there is Calvin’s first grade teacher Mrs. Wormwood. Her last name references the character in CS Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. Wormwood is the apprentice nephew to his uncle who is a senior demon named Screwtape. This is fitting as Calvin is in frequent opposition to Mrs. Wormwood. Lewis is also known as one of the greatest Christian apologists of the 20th century.
Our last detail is how much of Watterson’s work is filled with philosophical themes. While there is no mention of Jesus, there are many mentions of God. What I found interesting was the logic behind Watterson’s writing. He shares how “Calvin’s and Hobbes’ personalities became more like my own, sometimes the opposite of what I would say or do, but their emotional centers are very true to the way I think...Together, they’re pretty much a transcript of my mental diary.” Once again this does not prove or answer our question whether he believes in Jesus. But it does show he had deep questions about life’s meaning, purpose, and value.
We may never know where Watterson stands with Jesus or any faith for that matter. What we do know is that he has given the world a special gift. His work is a rare and beautiful example of a dream that never gave up and never gave into corporate greed. Watterson gave everything he had for a short period of time, and left on top on his own terms. And with his continued high value of a private life, even in this age of information, it only adds to his lore and to our intrigue.
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