Bill Watterson

bill watterson

Bill Watterson (b. 1958) is an American artist and the author of the comic strip ‘Calvin and Hobbes,’ which was syndicated from 1985 to 1995. Watterson stopped drawing the strip at the end of 1995 with a short statement to newspaper editors and his readers that he felt he had achieved all he could in the medium.

Watterson is known for his views on licensing (he refused to merchandise his creations on the grounds that displaying their images on commercially sold mugs, stickers and T-shirts would devalue the characters and their personalities) and his move back into private life after ‘Calvin and Hobbes.’

He was born in Washington, D.C. where his father, James G. Watterson worked as a patent attorney. The family relocated to Chagrin Falls, Ohio in 1965 when Watterson was six years old because his mother, Kathryn, wanted to be closer to her family and felt the small town was a good place to raise children. Watterson, who drew his first cartoon at age eight, spent much time in childhood alone, drawing and cartooning. This continued through his school years, during which time he discovered comic strips like ‘Pogo,’ ‘Krazy Kat,’ and ‘Peanuts’ which subsequently inspired and influenced his desire to become a professional cartoonist.

On one occasion, when he was in fourth grade, he wrote a letter to Charles Schulz, who—to Watterson’s surprise—responded, making a big impression on him at the time. His parents encouraged him in his artistic pursuits. Later they would recall him as a ‘conservative child’—imaginative, but ‘not in a fantasy way,’ and certainly nothing like the character of Calvin he would later create. Watterson found avenues for his cartooning talents throughout primary and secondary school, creating high school-themed superhero comics with his friends and contributing cartoons and art to the school paper, and yearbook.

From 1976 to 1980, Watterson attended Kenyon College and received a BA in political science. Although he had already decided upon a career in cartooning, he felt his studies would help him move into editorial cartooning. While at college he continued to develop his art skills—during his final year he painted Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’ on the ceiling of his dorm room. He also contributed cartoons to the college newspaper, some of which included the original ‘Spaceman Spiff’ cartoons.

Later, when Watterson was creating names for the characters in his comic strip, he decided upon Calvin (after the Protestant reformer John Calvin) and Hobbes (after the social philosopher Thomas Hobbes), allegedly as a ‘tip of the hat’ to the political science department at Kenyon. In ‘The Complete Calvin And Hobbes,’ Watterson stated that Calvin is named for ‘a 16th-century theologian who believed in predestination,’ and Hobbes for ‘a 17th-century philosopher with a dim view of human nature.’

Syndicated cartoonist Jim Borgman had graduated from Kenyon before Watterson arrived, and his work as a political cartoonist so impressed Bill that he decided to pursue a career as one himself. Borgman worked at ‘The Cincinnati Enquirer’ and encouraged and advised Watterson through his student years. When Watterson graduated in 1980, he was offered a 6-month trial as a political cartoonist for ‘The Cincinnati Post.’ Things didn’t quite work out as expected. Watterson soon found himself out of his depth and unable to live up to the expectations of his editor. Having never been a resident prior to commencing work, he found the politics of the ‘weird, three-party, city manager government’ to be a steep learning curve, and one that he never had a chance to fully understand before finding his employment abruptly terminated.

He then joined a small advertising agency and worked there for four years as a designer, creating grocery advertisements while also working on his own projects including development of his own cartoon strip and contributions to ‘Target: The Political Cartoon Quarterly.’

Watterson has said he works for personal fulfillment. As he told the graduating class of 1990 at Kenyon College, ‘It’s surprising how hard we’ll work when the work is done just for ourselves.’ ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ was first published on November 18, 1985. In the ‘Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book,’ he wrote that his influences included Charles Schulz for ‘Peanuts’; Walt Kelly for ‘Pogo,’ and George Herriman for ‘Krazy Kat.’ Watterson wrote the introduction to the first volume of ‘The Komplete Kolor Krazy Kat.’ Watterson’s style also reflects the influence of Winsor McCay’s ‘Little Nemo in Slumberland.’

Like many artists, Watterson incorporated elements of his life, interests, beliefs and values into his work—for example, his hobby as a cyclist, memories of his own father’s speeches about ‘building character,’ and his views on merchandising and corporations. Watterson’s cat, Sprite, very much inspired the personality and physical features of Hobbes. He spent much of his career trying to change the climate of newspaper comics. He believed that the artistic value of comics was being undermined, and that the space they occupied in newspapers continually decreased, subject to arbitrary whims of shortsighted publishers. Furthermore, he opined that art should not be judged by the medium for which it is created (i.e., there is no ‘high’ art or ‘low’ art—just art).

For years Watterson battled against pressure from publishers to merchandise his work, something he felt would cheapen his comic. He said that Universal kept putting pressure on him and added that his contract, which he said he signed without fully perusing it because he was so happy about finding a syndicate willing to give him a chance (which two syndicates had denied Watterson) was so one-sided that if Universal really wanted to, they could fire him but continue ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ with a new artist. Watterson’s position eventually won out and he was able to renegotiate his contract so that he would receive all rights to his work, but later added that he had become so burnt out by the fight that he took a nine-month sabbatical in 1991. Despite Watterson’s efforts, many unofficial knockoffs have been found, including college T-shirts which show Calvin and Hobbes binge drinking or Calvin urinating on a logo. Watterson has said that only ‘thieves and vandals’ have made money off of Calvin and Hobbes trinkets.

Watterson was critical of the prevailing format for the Sunday comic strip. The typical layout consists of three rows with eight total squares, which takes up half a page if published with its normal size. Since some newspapers are restricted with space for their Sunday features, they often reduce the size of the strip. One of the more common ways is to cut the top two panels out, which Watterson believed forced him to waste the space on throwaway jokes that did not always fit the strip. While he was set to return from his first sabbatical, Watterson discussed with his syndicate a new format for ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ that would enable him to use his space more efficiently and would almost require the papers his strip ran in to publish it as a half-page.

Universal agreed that they would sell the strip as the half-page and nothing else, which garnered anger from papers and criticism for Watterson from both editors and some of his fellow cartoonists (which he described as ‘unnecessarily hot tempered’). Eventually, Universal compromised and agreed to offer papers a choice between the full half-page or a reduced-sized version as to alleviate concerns about the size issue. Although Watterson conceded that this caused him to lose space in many papers, he said that in the end it was a benefit because he felt that he was giving the papers’ readers a better strip for their money and editors were free to not run ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ at their own risk; he added that he was not going to apologize for drawing a popular feature.

Watterson has been both complimentary and critical of fellow contemporary cartoonists. In the past, he has praised Lynn Johnston (‘For Better or For Worse’), Bill Amend (‘FoxTrot,’ which he wrote a foreword for one of the book collections), Gary Larson (‘The Far Side’), and Richard Thompson (‘Cul-De-Sac’). He also has a friendly rivalry with Berkeley Breathed of ‘Bloom County,’ with the two making tongue-in-cheek jabs at each other in past cartoons. On the other end, Watterson has been critical of Jim Davis, calling ‘Garfield’ ‘consistent’ and ‘U.S. Acres’ an ‘abomination.’ He also has been critical of comics that use ghosts after the original cartoonist has retired or passed away. He believes those strips should be retired and replaced with new strips to keep the comics page fresh.

Since the conclusion of ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ in 1995, Watterson has taken up painting, at one point drawing landscapes of the woods with his father. He has kept away from the public eye and has given no indication of resuming the strip, creating new works based on the strip’s characters, or embarking on other projects, though he has published several anthologies of ‘Calvin and Hobbes strips.’ He will not sign autographs or license his characters, staying true to his stated principles. In previous years, Watterson was known to sneak autographed copies of his books onto the shelves of the Fireside Bookshop, a family-owned bookstore in his hometown of Chagrin Falls, Ohio. However, after discovering that some were selling the autographed books online for high prices, he ended this practice as well. Valuing privacy, he is reluctant to give interviews or make public appearances.

In early 2010, he was interviewed by ‘The Plain Dealer’ on the 15th anniversary of the end of ‘Calvin and Hobbes.’ Explaining his decision to discontinue the strip, he said, ‘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 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.’

In 2013, the magazine ‘Mental Floss’ published an interview with Watterson, only the second since the strip ended. He gave his opinion on the changes in the comic book industry and where it would be headed in future: ‘Personally, I like paper and ink better than glowing pixels, but to each his own. Obviously the role of comics is changing very fast. On the one hand, I don’t think comics have ever been more widely accepted or taken as seriously as they are now. On the other hand, the mass media is disintegrating, and audiences are atomizing. I suspect comics will have less widespread cultural impact and make a lot less money. I’m old enough to find all this unsettling, but the world moves on. All the new media will inevitably change the look, function, and maybe even the purpose of comics, but comics are vibrant and versatile, so I think they’ll continue to find relevance one way or another. But they definitely won’t be the same as what I grew up with.’

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