'Let's Go Exploring': The story of Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson
Calvin and Hobbes had millions of followers when it was retired in 1995 after a 10-year run
"So long, Pop! I'm off to check my tiger trap!"
With those words, on November 18th, 1985, Calvin, a six-year-old in a safari hat, introduced himself to the comics page. In the strip, Calvin sets a trap with a tuna fish sandwich. He says it's irresistible to tigers.
Three frames later, ensnared, upside down, nonchalant and munching a sandwich, Hobbes makes his debut.
"Calvin has caught — by all appearances — a gigantic tiger that's eating the tuna fish sandwich, with its front paws that look like hands, and thinking, 'yeah we're kind of idiots that way,'" says writer Michael Hingston on Day 6.
Hobbes is adorable, but we don't know yet that we're seeing him through Calvin's eyes.
"When everyone else in the strip ever sees Hobbes, Hobbes is a tiny plush stuffed animal," Hingston explains.
And that's what makes Calvin and Hobbes explode. Calvin's version of reality, supercharged by his imagination — and often gobs of sugar — was grander, funnier and way more kinetic than a toy slumped on the floor. That's exactly how Bill Watterson wanted it to be.
"He had a very clear vision in his mind that it wasn't that the doll come to life. It was that when Calvin looked at Hobbes he saw a six foot tall tiger that could speak English."
"And he saw a best friend."
Calvin and Hobbes was an instant critical and popular success and it dominated the comic pages for 10 years, until New Year's Eve 1995, when Bill Watterson sent them out into the snow one last time and walked away from the strip for good. Fans were grief-stricken, but the characters seemed to know where they were going.
"It's a magical world, Hobbes ol' buddy," Calvin says gripping his toboggan in the final strip. "Let's Go Exploring."
Never condescending, never merchandising
Michael Hingston's new book, Let's Go Exploring, looks at the duality of Calvin's life: the daily challenges for a six-year-old only child versus the animating machine of his imagination. But it also traces the development of Bill Watterson and helps explain why he ended the strip — and why 23 years later it endures.
Hingston fell in love with Calvin and Hobbes when he discovered it in the morning papers and realized how it elevated the comics page.
"I loved the drawings, and the jokes," he says. "I also loved the fact that the strip never condescended to its young readers. Watterson was always challenging you to go look up what peripatetic, or hara-kiri, or Doctor Zhivago, meant."
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He says Watterson sold readers on how the world was transformed by Calvin's imagination.
"So [Calvin's] like a living X-ray, or he's a bomb falling from the sky, or he's a drawing come to life," Hingston says. "And then suddenly in the last panel we'll do another crash back to reality and we see that, OK, he's not actually a living X-ray. He's actually just chewing his dinner with his mouth open."
But another reality was crashing in on Watterson as the strip became more popular. Watterson was at war with the syndicate that distributed the comic over the question of merchandising the characters.
"Watterson was really opposed to that idea, he thought it would kind of violate the terms of the strip, that the nature of Hobbes' reality would kind of be solved one way or the other," Hingston says. "And so he said, 'I don't want to do that.'"
Calvin and Hobbes take off down this hill and they disappear into almost literal nothingness. And who knows what's out there.- Michael Hingston
In 1991, Watterson successfully negotiated a new contract that protected the characters from licensing deals. Hingston says he left tens of millions of dollars on the table as a result.
Watterson also ignored entreaties from filmmakers who wanted to collaborate, including Stephen Spielberg who approached him twice. He never returned their calls.
Watterson prevailed, but time was running out for Calvin and Hobbes.
'A day full of possibilities'
On November 9th, 1995, Watterson published a letter alongside the strip telling readers that he was ending Calvin and Hobbes. "For readers," Hingston writes "this was another shock and for some a betrayal."
But Hingston believes Watterson always intended Calvin and Hobbes to be finite.
"The sense I got from talking to Watterson's editor was that the syndicate knew very early on that Watterston wasn't going to do this forever," he says.
That's not what fans were expecting. They grieved.
"Watterson stepped away fairly suddenly. He gave about a month's notice and he never moved on to another strip. And that's tough," says Hingston.
In the final strip, Calvin and Hobbes and their toboggan are the only colour on a white field of snow.
"That last strip is on a Sunday and Watterson's very clever to draw it in black and white," says Hingston.
It's not sombre. There's a strange levity, a feeling of infinity, and of release.
"It's like having a big white sheet of paper to draw on," Hobbes remarks.
"It's about possibility," says Hingston.
"So Calvin and Hobbes take off down this hill and they disappear into almost literal nothingness. And who knows what's out there," he says.
A generation of kids has grown up since that final strip appeared. With no merchandising or movies or cartoon specials, fans continue to buy the anthologies and read and share Calvin and Hobbes with new readers. They're doing exactly what Calvin told us to do in the final frame.
They're still exploring.
Michael Hingston says the strip was like a 10-year manifesto from Watterson, challenging the reader to explore the infinite in their imagination.
"When the strip disappeared," says Hingston, "[Watterson] wasn't taking it from people; he was leaving it for them to fill in the gaps themselves."
Every day is a day full of possibilities. Grab your toboggan and hold on.
To hear the full interview with Michael Hingston, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.