Watterson’s World: The Authoritative “Calvin and Hobbes”

Nick Martens digs into Bill Watterson’s writing to find the motivation behind the artist’s uncompromising stance on merchandizing his creation.

A confession: I cheated on the first installment of this series. I argued, with confidence, that “The question ‘what is Hobbes?’ cannot be answered logically. He exists only for Calvin, but he truly does exist.”

I made my own case for that point, but I knew the answer before I started. In The Calvin & Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book, Bill Watterson writes:

I don’t think of Hobbes as a doll that miraculously comes to life when Calvin’s around. Neither do I think of Hobbes as the product of Calvin’s imagination. The nature of Hobbes’s reality doesn’t interest me… I show two versions of reality, and each makes complete sense to the participant who sees it.

Many literary critics frown upon the use of metatextual information to analyze a work of literature. Comments from the author about his/her own work are seen as particularly untrustworthy. But much of the mystique surrounding Watterson built up because his writing tells stories that never made it into his cartoons. He describes the phyrric struggle with his syndicate to avoid commercializing Calvin and Hobbes, and in his rhetoric we can see the artistic motivation that elevated Watterson’s work above the rest of his medium.

Though I see the actual Calvin and Hobbes strips as singularly extraordinary, I must admit that Bill Watterson is most remarkable because he fought so stubbornly for the artistic rights of a medium designed for merchandizing. To the companies that own them, the tiny daily comics of Garfield, Dilbert, and even Peanuts pale next to the mounds of junk branded with those licenses. If Calvin and Hobbes had been squeezed dry, it would almost surely have been the biggest yet. Watterson would have been a millionaire.

He defends his pinko attitude most forcefully in The Tenth Anniversary Book:

First of all, I believe licensing usually cheapens the original creation. When cartoon characters appear on countless products, the public inevitably grows bored and irritated with them, and the appeal and value of the original work are diminished. Nothing dulls the edge of a new and clever cartoon like saturating the market with it.

He goes on, and his whole screed is worth reading, but here he presents the heart of his argument. He simply values his work more than money.

But what makes his work so valuable? He gives us some hints a little later in the introduction:

The world of a comic strip ought to be a special place with its own logic and life… When everything fun and magical is turned into something for sale, the strip’s world is diminished.

He repeats the word “world” twice in short succession here, and that word is the key to Calvin and Hobbes. The strip retains its resonance because Watterson nurtured and protected Calvin’s world. Calvin never leaves to make a guest appearance on TV or on a coffee mug, and you can tell that the proliferation of knock-off Calvin and Hobbes merchandise infuriates Watterson (“Only thieves and vandals have made money on Calvin and Hobbes merchandise”).

However, I think Calvin’s world was more to Watterson than just where his fictional characters lived. In his writing, Watterson mostly comes off as cynical, even pedantic. Calvin and Hobbes has that side to it, but the strip can also exhibit a tremendous and genuine warmth. We only see that side of Watterson when he talks about the world of the stirp. He says, “it’s the one place where everything works the way I intend it to.” Further, in the introduction to The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, he rhapsodizes the process of creating the strip:

Everything having to do with Calvin and Hobbes expressed my own ideas, my own values, my own way. I wrote every word, drew every line, and painted every color. It’s a rare gift to find such fulfilling work and I tried to show my appreciation by giving the strip everything I had.

Watterson, too, lived in Calvin’s world, every day for ten prime years of his life. In this light, his indignance at the thought of selling out that world becomes more understandable. He fought his syndicate not just to protect the strip’s magic in his readers’ minds, but to keep it alive for himself as well. Now we can see Calvin’s final words as more than just a sign-off; they describe the process by which Watterson produced such vivid work: “It’s a magical world, Hobbes ol’ buddy… let’s go exploring!”

Nick Martens is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. You can email him, if you like.