60 facts about Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson
July 5, 2018 marked the 60th birthday of legendary comic creator Bill Watterson. His iconic cartoon Calvin and Hobbes has entertained generations of readers, bringing the witty adventures and philosophical musings of a six-year-old boy and his stuffed tiger to newspapers around the world. To mark Watterson's birthday, here are 60 facts you may not know about him.
1. William Boyd Watterson II was born on July 5, 1958 in Washington, D.C.¹
2. Watterson spent most of his childhood in Chagrin Falls, a suburb in Ohio.¹
3. As a child, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes was quiet and mild-mannered — markedly different from his rambunctious characters. One thing he did have in common with them was a passion for sledding.¹
4. Calvin was not very good at sports, but he did invent the game Calvinball. Players must make up the rules as they go and cannot use the same rule twice.
5. Cartoons captured Watterson's curiosity from an early age. In the introduction to The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, he reminisces:
6. According to Calvin, he met Hobbes by setting a tuna fish sandwich "tiger trap."
7. Watterson dabbled in architectural sketches. He accompanied a high school essay on the buildings of downtown Chagrin Falls with meticulous illustrations of the town's bank and other landmarks. The work received a grade of "AAA Excellent."¹
8. He contributed cartoons to his high school newspaper, the Valley Lantern. According to Nevin Martell, author of the biography Looking for Calvin and Hobbes, none of these early works resemble Calvin and Hobbes.¹
9. However, a tiger does make an appearance in Watterson's high school sketches. The creature featured in one vignette of the Valley Lantern is based on the school's mascot — a tiger.¹
10. Watterson was a lifelong admirer of the Peanuts comic strip by Charles Schulz.¹
11. Walt Kelly's comic Pogo was another important early influence on Watterson. He first discovered the strip at a library book sale in the fifth grade.
12. Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Berkeley Breathed was an admirer of Watterson's famed duo: "It was our great joy to see the interplay between — as it is with any bit of fiction — between two conflicting characters. Conflict is the essence of humour."
13. Calvin's parents were never named, known only as "mom and dad."
16. In 2014, when the library's curator Jenny Robb interviewed Watterson about his decision to house his work there, he explained, "The library helps counteract the art world's condescension to the 'low art' of cartoons, and it protects work that would otherwise be scattered or lost."
17. Calvin's teacher Miss Wormwood was named after the apprentice devil in The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis.
18. Before Calvin and Hobbes, Watterson was a political cartoonist and grocery ad designer.
19. Realizing that a political cartoonist must have some knowledge of politics, Watterson decided to study the subject. He remembers reading Plato, Machiavelli, Locke — and Hobbes.²
21. Watterson filled the strips of Calvin and Hobbes with philosophical concerns. In the process of creating the 2013 documentary Dear Mr. Watterson, filmmaker Joel Allen Schroeder found that, "As a child, you love some of the physical humour going on there. But then, as an adult, you can catch on to more of the discussion of what Calvin and Hobbes are talking about."
22. While Schroeder's documentary centres on the legacy of Calvin and Hobbes, it does not feature its creator. Watterson is known for refusing to grant interviews, choosing to instead remain away from public attention.
23. Before Calvin and Hobbes, Watterson was briefly an editorial cartoonist at the Cincinnati Post. From the very first day on the job, he discovered, "I was completely out of my depth, rarely got published and within a few months, the fraud that was my career was over."²
24. Unemployed, Watterson drew up a comic strip about "a loudmouthed spaceman and his dimwitted assistant." This was the prototype for Calvin and Hobbes.²
26. One of the first companies to show interest in Watterson's drawings of an imaginary tiger was United Feature Syndicate, Inc., which also distributed Peanuts. They asked Watterson to add a character called Robotman because they'd acquired the rights to it and had a licensing plan ready. Watterson turned them down.²
27. After being rejected many times, Watterson finally signed a contract with Universal Press Syndicate. November 1985 marked the launch of Calvin and Hobbes, appearing in about 35 newspapers.²
28. After a modest first year in newspapers, Calvin and Hobbes was published as a book and was a surprise hit. The book sales encouraged more newspapers to publish it.
29. In 1986, Watterson became the youngest person to ever win the Reuben Award for "Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year." He won again in 1988.
31. Watterson once received a fan letter from horror master Stephen King.
32. Susie Derkins's surname was the nickname of Watterson's wife's family beagle.
33. In 2003, The Washington Post's humour columnist and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Gene Weingarten attempted to interview Watterson for the newspaper. Weingarten travelled to the illustrator's village of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, and sent Watterson a letter informing him that he was willing to remain in town until the author decided to speak to him. The next morning, the columnist received a call from Watterson's editor, Lee Salem, letting him know that the artist had turned down the interview.¹
34. Stephan Pastis, the creator of the comic strip Pearls Before Swine convinced Watterson to come out of retirement in 2014. For one week, Watterson contributed new art for Pearls Before Swine.
36. Hobbes's feline gestures are modeled after Watterson's cat, Sprite.²
38. Watterson clashed with his syndicate on the issue of licensing Calvin and Hobbes merchandise. "For several years it poisoned what had been a happy relationship with my syndicate," he said. "In my disillusionment and disgust at being pushed to the wall, I lost the conviction that I wanted to spend my life cartooning."²
39. After taking a sabbatical in 1991, Watterson privately returned to Calvin and Hobbes with the intention of ending the famous comic strip.²
40. Watterson's legacy was explored in the documentary Dear Mr. Watterson, which was funded by a Kickstarter campaign. It raised over $96,000. Watch the trailer below:
41. George Herriman's Krazy Kat Sunday strip became the template for Watterson's own Sunday format after returning from his sabbatical. He was inspired by Herriman's use of the full page to tell his stories.²
42. Watterson considers his Sunday pages to be the work he is most proud of.²
43. In 2014, Watterson was awarded the Angoulême Grand Prix in celebration of his career. It is one of the world's biggest prizes for a cartoonist and Watterson was the second American to ever receive the prize.
44. Whether Hobbes is real or imaginary is a question that fans have often debated. Canadian writer Michael Hingston, author of the Calvin and Hobbes investigation Let's Go Exploring, told CBC's Day 6 that Watterson believed Hobbes to be both.
46. Watterson does not believe Calvin and Hobbes has a future in Hollywood. In a 2013 conversation with Mental Floss Magazine's Jake Rossen, Watterson remarked, "The visual sophistication of Pixar blows me away, but I have zero interest in animating Calvin and Hobbes."
47. Despite his staunch opposition to licensing his characters, unofficial decals of Calvin can be seen on many cars around the world. When asked if he had ever peeled one of these off a car out of spite, Watterson told Mental Floss, "I figure that, long after the strip is forgotten, those decals are my ticket to immortality."
48. Refusing to license the comic strip represented a commercial loss for Universal Press Syndicate. Watterson's editor estimated that '"tens of millions of dollars" for the author were lost and an equal amount for the Universal Press Syndicate.
49. Not wanting Calvin and Hobbes to "coast into half-hearted repetition," Watterson concluded his comic strip on New Year's Eve 1995.²
50. Bill Watterson's parting words to readers were:
51. Watterson dedicated himself to painting after Calvin and Hobbes ended.²
52. In 2011, Watterson created a new piece of art for the public. It was a portrait of Petey Otterloop, a character in Richard Thompson's comic strip Cul de Sac, to be auctioned in support of the Michael J. Fox Foundation after Watterson learned of Thompson's Parkinson's diagnosis.
53. Watterson's Cul de Sac artwork sold for $13,145.
54. His colleagues at Ohio's Sun Newspapers remember Watterson's political cartoons being "frequently funny and sometimes poignant," but they also "rubbed readers the wrong way." (Digitized images of these cartoons can be found here)
56. As a sophomore student at Kenyon College, Watterson painted a version of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel art Creation of Adam on his dorm room ceiling.
57. Watterson views philosophy as a practical part of everyday life. "Reading those turgid philosophers here in these remote stone buildings may not get you a job," he told the Keyon College graduating class of 1990, "but if those books have forced you to ask yourself questions about what makes life truthful, purposeful, meaningful and redeeming, you have the Swiss Army Knife of mental tools, and it's going to come in handy all the time."
58. Watterson does not believe he would be able to duplicate Calvin and Hobbes's success. "Somehow everything came together," he clarifies, "readers were ready for the strip at the same moment I was ready to draw it."²
59. Some of Calvin's many iconic superhero alter-egos include: Spaceman Spiff, Captain Napalm and Stupendous Man.
¹Martell, Nevin. Looking for Calvin and Hobbes. 2010. Published by Bloomsbury.
²Watterson, Bill. The Complete Calvin and Hobbes. 2012. Published by Andrews McMeel Publishing.