“It’s surprising how hard we’ll work when the work is done just for ourselves.” This line by Bill Watterson, which was featured in his comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, is perhaps the best description of the principle that he followed in his work and also the attitude with which he led his life. Intensely guarded about his personal life and reclusive, he was known to be very reluctant even to give interviews.
It has been more than ten years since Calvin and Hobbes last strip appeared but it seems highly unlikely that the brilliance of hard work and genius that Watterson put into his work would fade any time soon. Calvin and his best buddy Hobbes still remain ever present in comic strips all over the world.
As a child, Watterson loved the comic strip Peanuts and started drawing cartoons. At that time, Watterson always wanted to be either an astronaut or a cartoonist. He writes in the introduction to the book The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, “As a kid, I wanted to be either a cartoonist or an astronaut. The latter was never much of a possibility, as I don’t even like riding in elevators.” He majored in Political Science at Kenyon. He wanted to combine politics with cartooning and became a political cartoonist. But he was fired from his very first job at the Cincinnati Post after a few months. So he took up a job designing cars and grocery ads but continued cartooning. Several of his strip ideas were rejected. But at last, Universal liked the idea of Calvin and Hobbes and the strip was launched in November 19, 1985 in 35 newspapers across America.
The first strip in this series depicted Calvin catching Hobbes in a tiger trap, using a tuna sandwich as bait. Since then, there has been no looking back. Calvin and Hobbes have spent the next 10 years driving their parents crazy, creating a make-believe world where Stupendous Man, aliens and space heroes exist or just dispelling beautiful words of wisdom or sometimes plain cynicism to us readers. The six-year old Calvin was named after a 16th century theologian who believed in predestination. As a person, Calvin is portrayed as being very curious, imaginative, impulsive, sarcastic and intelligent but a kid who fails to score high grades or impress the teacher. Calvin, whose last name was never mentioned in the strip, had the psychological complexity of an adult and the naivety of the six -year old that he was. Hobbes, his stuffed toy who would mysteriously jump to life whenever they were alone was named after a 17th century philosopher who had a dim view of human nature. Watterson, speaking of the difference in Hobbes when looked at from Calvin’s point of view, which transforms him into a living creature filled with lots of energy and ideas, says, “When Hobbes is a stuffed toy in one panel and alive in the next, I’m juxtaposing the ‘grown-up’ version of reality with Calvin’s version, and inviting the reader to decide which is truer.”
Calvin’s parents are the typical middle-class American parents who are both down-to-earth and sensible and both remain unnamed in the strip. But they are very critical of Calvin’s actions and once, Calvin’s dad was even shown saying that he would have preferred a dog instead of him. Watterson agrees that the inspiration for the character of Dad came from his own father. Whenever Calvin didn’t want to do something that he should be doing, his father used to tell him that doing it ‘builds character’. These were words that Watterson’s father used to tell him. Again, like Watterson’s father, Calvin’s dad also happened to work as a patent attorney.
The strip was a tool for Watterson to comment on modern American culture and society and his opinions are often voiced out by Hobbes, while making his wry and clever observations. He is also the wiser of the two but he would rather let Calvin do something and then regret it than try to intervene or stop him from doing that. Watterson expresses his frustration with commercialisation, lack of human apathy while at the same time voicing feelings of someone like Calvin, who is essentially a loner and shows the turbulence faced by someone who might not adhere to the society’s notions of propriety and is different from the others. Watterson seems to want to take the readers back to a world where magic-realism can exist, where life can be looked at as a mystery to explore, a puzzle to solve and not as something to just go through.
Not long after the first publication of the strip, it became a huge success. People began to look forward to the exploits of the precocious kid with his stuffed tiger, who always had an opinion about everything. Within a year of syndication, the strip was published in roughly 250 newspapers. Calvin and Hobbes earned Watterson the Reuben award from The National Cartoonist Society twice first in 1986 and then in 1988, for being the Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year. During the strip’s ten year run, from 1985 to 1995, it was featured in more than 2500 newspapers worl
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