Calvin and Hobbs was based on the premise that your imagination can take you anywhere.
Calvin is a six year old boy who hates school, so imagines he’s in space instead. He resents his teacher’s instructions, so imagines her as a grotesque alien. Through it all, his stuffed tiger toy tiger Hobbs is brought to life through the power of Calvin’s imagination. His constant companion and occasional antagonist, Hobbes is the intellectual foil to Calvin’s impulsivity. The duo’s friendship is what makes these comics so beautiful, funny and often poignant.
Besides having a sound premise to wok with, Bill Watterson (b. 1958) is highly skilled as an artist. Using ink and watercolour on some of the coloured pages, Watterson’s artistic talent cemented Calvin and Hobbs something incredibly special over the course of its 10 year run as a comic strip, from 1985 -95. This art style and Watterson’s artistic talent helped distinguish Calvin and Hobbes from the more simple comics which were is competition. Now reprinted as books, the strip has an overall coherence, including multi-page stories which would have been harder to catch during its serialisation.
In 2013, the film Dear Mr Watterson was released. A crowd funded project, the director Mr Joel Allen Schroeder set out to look at the impact of Calvin and Hobbes, and their reclusive creator, who largely retired from society following the end of the Calvin and Hobbes strip.
Watterson’s principles and strongly held convictions surrounding his work also helped elevate “comics” as an art form in themselves. Although Calvin and Hobbes were immensely popular, and remain so today, Watterson refused to license his characters to be merchandised. The fight to protect his characters from merchandising took place primarily between 1985 – 91, and was draining for Watterson, who was under immense pressure from his syndicate’s editors.
At the time that Calvin and Hobbes was being serialised, characters like Snoopy were everywhere, because they had been licensed to a range of companies for commercial use. In an interview conducted by Richard Samuel West with Bill Watterson in 1989, Watterson expressed his views on merchandising and the use of characters. “I think it is wrong that a syndicate should own characters it had no hand in creating, and that a syndicate should use that ownership to thwart the intentions of the cartoonist who did create the characters.”
In Dear Mr Watterson, animation and comic historian/critic Charles Solomon considers the reason why Bill Watterson “…walked away from literally 10s of millions of dollars in merchandising.” It may have been, says Solomon, to avoid the fate of characters like Garfield or Snoopy. “[…] The character becomes ubiquitous – he becomes like a pest, or something you can’t escape.”
The characters never were merchandised, and after 1991, Watterson also gained more control over how the comics were published, meaning that his strips became known for their creative layouts. Incidentally, if you ever see a Hobbes toy or a Calvin and Hobbes T-shirt for sale, they were probably produced without Watterson’s consent, and should not be purchased.
I respect Watterson for his decision – such success and popularity is rare, and the choice not to license his characters helped to give the Calvin and Hobbes illustrations themselves more value as comic art. As an example, it is also important to artists – we should protect our work and make sure that we are completely comfortable with the ways it is used by others.
However, while I respect Watterson for his principals and his conviction, I also don’t think that artists like Charlz M. Shultz, creator of the Peanuts strip which featured Snoopy, should be blamed for monetizing their creations, either. The desire not to disappoint anyone, or perhaps the need for extra income, must play into those decisions. To reach such a pinnacle of success is almost unheard of in the world of illustration or graphic art. Creators of such characters should be remembered for their incredible creativity and dedication to their characters, often over many years, regardless of if they were ultimately merchandised or not.
As a comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes is a wonderful body of work. It’s creative, innovative and at times emotionally challenging. Reading it makes you remember what it was like to be a child – to have an imagination so powerful that things seem real. I’m thankful that I discovered Calvin and Hobbes, as through this body of work Bill Watterson shows us what’s possible, even within a one page comic-format, when you have creativity and imagination.