What is a true friend?
Lessons in love and frolic, from a boy and his tiger.
In 1996, at the age of 44, Bill Watterson published the last collection of his comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes. On the back cover is a six-year-old boy hugging his best friend - a stuffed tiger who only comes to life for him. On the front, they are adventuring through waist-deep snow with a toboggan, ready for fun. Hobbes, the tiger, is carrying it.
Watterson was born in Washington D.C. on July 5th, 1952. When he was six, his family moved to Chagrin Falls, Ohio. His mother became a member of City Council and his father practiced law. After obtaining a degree in political science in 1980, he drew cartoons for the Cincinnati Post, but found the work objectionable. So, he set out to become a self-employed cartoonist.
If you open It’s a Magical World to page 45, you’ll see Calvin’s alter-ego, the fearless Spaceman Spiff, land on an uncharted desert planet. Looking across the alien terrain, he bravely waits for something to happen. But nothing does. So, he gets Hobbes, and they decide to make their own “weirdness” together.
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Calvin was completely fictional. Cartoonists typically use their own childhoods for inspiration. Some even fashion characters after family members. But Watterson chose to keep his real family out of the strip. This enabled him to keep things fresh and gave him more freedom to explore creative ideas.
On page 95, Calvin tells Hobbes that the world has a shortage of heroes. Where are the virtuous people to inspire the youth of today? In the last panel, Hobbes reflects on how entertainment substitutes for inspiration. Meanwhile, Calvin says it is up to him to be the hero and dawns a cape.
Hobbes was based on Watterson’s cat. On page 86, he is about to pounce. Calvin innocently plays with a toy bulldozer. Hobbes sniffles. Calvin hears him and starts running. Hobbes stays behind to sneeze. Calvin makes it safely to the front door of his house and decides that hay fever season has a bright side after all, but Hobbes protests; “You thig id’s fuddy, bud id’s dot.”
The real Calvin and Hobbes were influential thinkers who would disagree if they were alive today. Watterson, no doubt, studied them both in college. Jean Calvin was a controversial 16th century theologian who doubted free will. Thomas Hobbes was a 17th century philosopher who advanced the social contract. One believed in fate, the other warned of the dangers in unrestrained freedom.
Although Watterson did not base his characters directly on their namesakes, he did find humor in philosophical disagreements between friends. Throughout the strip, the depth of Calvin and Hobbes’ relationship is unmistakable. They simply are who they are, as odd and naive and foolish as they are, and it is okay. Neither character asks for acceptance because it is freely given. Neither must approve of, agree with, or even say the other is right. They can intrude, get angry, unload advice on each other, and then go enjoy an adventure together. There is never a doubt that they care, and yet there is something more. Something that makes their friendship true.
On page 124, Calvin and Hobbes are wandering through an autumn forest. Hobbes says how much he is enjoying the air, the sky, and the smell of the leaves. Calvin describes the season as dreary and reflects upon the coming bleakness of winter. So, Hobbes asks him, “If good things lasted forever, would we appreciate how precious they are?”
A leaf falls in front of Calvin.
In the final panel, Calvin changes his mind and acknowledges what he took for granted. Hobbes looks forward to the taste of apple pie.
Watterson’s ideas were unconventional, but they worked. When he started out, newspapers had a standard 4-panel comic strip format. There were size limitations, every panel had borders, and the first two often got cut by editors trying to save space on the page. Calvin and Hobbes was one of the first comic strips to get an exception from these constraints.
Watterson intentionally drew Calvin’s father to look like a clean-shaven version of himself. He used the boy’s parents to show that acceptance is not the same as permissiveness. In some ways, it is the opposite because permissiveness contains a real sense of not caring. The freedom to be yourself is not a license to live without conscience or consequence. Calvin’s parents remind readers that the essence of caring may be a much-needed permission but “taking care of” means something more.
On page 156, there is a complete strip drawn in a single wide panel. Calvin has been making snowmen. One snowman has ripped the head off the other and used it as a bowling ball. Calvin’s mother has called him inside. As the two friends walk away from the scene, Calvin says to Hobbes; “First she says go out. Now she says come in.”
Calvin has a six-year-old neighbor named Susie. Hobbes likes her and the "good" part of Calvin has feelings for her. Watterson did not have a specific woman in mind when he created Susie, but he was thinking of a type. Her character is the kind of woman he believed he always attracted - and eventually married. Susie is like the woman who finally got Watterson to play “house” for real.
Watterson sometimes drew Susie and Calvin as grown-ups. He once presented them in color for a full-page strip: They’re married. Susie comes home with a baby. Calvin points out that it is a rabbit. Susie tells Calvin to pretend it is a baby. Calvin says, “No! This is idiotic!”
Suddenly, they are six again. Calvin is refusing to play “house” anymore. Susie is holding a stuffed rabbit, which she thinks is just as good as Hobbes, and feeling confused.
There is an enormous amount of fan-art inspired by Calvin and Susie. Most of it is optimistic, some is deeply romantic, and Hobbes is frequently included. They are portrayed at nearly every age, and every piece reflects Watterson’s unique artistic or comedic style. Yet he himself only drew Calvin and Susie pretending to be adults together. In his art, they are always six-year-olds in some way.
"Things are never quite as scary when you've got a best friend."
- Bill Watterson
Calvin and Hobbes was Watterson’s 7th comic strip idea, but it was his first big success. The strip was syndicated on November 18th, 1985. It started in thirty-five newspapers across America and less than a year later, was in over 250. When Watterson finally retired the strip on December 31st, 1995, it was in over 2,400 newspapers world-wide.
Watterson reported feeling “shell shocked” by the amount of media attention he got. In his own words he was, “perplexed that people would want to know about him or his life.” Today, he does not give interviews. He prefers to let his work speak for itself.