Calvin and Hobbes occupies rarified air in my brain. Running from 1985-1996, Bill Watterson’s eleven years of illustrated adventures featured six-year old Calvin (whose wisdom far exceeded his years) and his tiger friend, Hobbes, and captured millions of imaginations around the world, from those of youngsters to fully-grown adults. The legacy of Calvin and Hobbes lives on to this day, and I suspect, forever. One day people will forget about Shakespeare and won’t be able to tell you a thing about James Joyce (I doubt, actually, the average person off the street today could tell you a single thing about Joyce) but I’m pretty sure Calvin and Hobbes is going to endure.
To me, Watterson’s genius lied not in the gorgeous art or the sparkling characters and dialogue –though those are all superlative, to be sure– but in the sheer, unbridled imagination and creativity of the work. Calvin had alter-egos like Stupendous Man and Spaceman Spiff, built mind-boggling inventions like the Transmorgifier, Duplicator, and Time Machine (all cardboard boxes in different horizontal orientations), founded games like Calvinball and foundational clubs like G.R.O.S.S. (with First Tiger Hobbes). He maintained a lifelong rivalry with Susie Derkins, the girl somewhere in his neighborhood, an antagonistic relationship with Mrs. Wormwood and Rosalyn, and created snowmen masterpieces that, if there were any justice in the world, would find homes in the Louvre and Met.
In his eleven years, Calvin never grew a single day older. And yet, he possessed more wisdom than just about all of us. What’s funny is that as a child, I often skipped the long, wordy strips when Calvin and Hobbes rode their toboggan or red wagon through the woods. There were just so many words. But as an adult, years later, when I revisited the strip, those cartons –long winding contemplations about culture, media, and the tenuousness of existence– are among my favorites. Calvin and Hobbes was so far ahead of its time and Watterson really pushed the envelope and, I would argue, redefined the entire genre in showing the world that cartoons were a serious medium with serious things to say.
Recently, I stumbled over a write-up Maria Popova did on Watterson’s 1990s commencement address which he gave at Kenyon College that May. It’s filled with many gems of great advice and insight but these two quotes most stood out to me (emphasis, mine):
“Most of us discover where we are headed when we arrive” and “loving the work” is what matters. If we truly love what we do then there is no obstacle too great or setback too severe that will deter us. Watterson famously never authorized McMeel, his publisher, to merchandise Calvin and Hobbes. It was a bitter, long-drawn dispute but Watterson prevailed in the end; he’d felt that such a commercial move would compromise the artistic integrity and authenticity of the cartoon. It is rare that you hear about someone turning down tens of millions of essentially free money based solely on principle. Bill Watterson, thank you for giving us your genius and creativity. The world is better off for it; you are truly a shining star to us all.