Why Bill Watterson Vanished
The creator of Calvin and Hobbes is back, but the mystery is why he disappeared in the first place.
When Bill Watterson walked away from Calvin and Hobbes in 1995, he was exhausted. The comic strip had consumed ten years of his life, the latter half of which were spent fighting his syndicate for creative control and warring with himself as he fitfully came to realize that he had nothing left to say about a six-year-old boy and his stuffed tiger. And the decision couldn’t have come at a worse time: Calvin and Hobbes was at the height of its popularity. To quit then seemed like career suicide.
It was suicide, the intentional, ritualistic sort. Watterson wasn’t just done with daily newspaper cartoons; he was finished with public life. After his last Sunday strip ran on December 31 of that year, he retired to his home and resolved never again to publish cartoons. Watterson described the experience as a sort of death: “I had virtually no life beyond the drawing board,” he said of the years leading up to the decision. “To switch off the job, I would’ve had to switch off my head.”
For the next five years, he did not so much as touch his drawing board. With each day that he did not draw, he acquired the reputation of a latter-day J.D. Salinger, a tortured minor genius, who, having carried off the highest honors available to a newspaperman, turned from the admiration that haunted his steps and sought for a better and quieter satisfaction in secluded work around the Cleveland suburbs.
Too frequently, however, was his seclusion interrupted by nosy fans. In 1998, a reporter from the Cleveland Plain Dealer staked out Watterson’s house in Chagrin Falls. He caught the cartoonist on the front lawn and the two debated, off the record, the nature of privacy. Watterson made his points forcefully. “He wanted to debate,” the reporter recalled. “It was almost collegiate.” In 2003, Cleveland Scene sent another reporter to Watterson’s neighborhood, who also returned empty-handed. That same year, Gene Weingarten, then as now the Washington Post’s resident nerd, flew to Cleveland and posted up in a hotel room, with a message sent through Watterson’s parents, accompanied by the bribe of a rare comic book, declaring that until he was granted an interview, he would not leave. But Watterson had no interest in comics, rare or otherwise. The next day, his editor at Andrews McMeel, Lee Salem, told Weingarten to fly back to Washington.
Only one time did Watterson directly answer his pursuers. In 2008, the superfan Nevin Martell repeatedly attempted to corner him at home—grasping, like all the others, for contact through his parents—and received this message in reply: “Why is he doing this? Who cares?”
So it came as some surprise earlier this year when Watterson’s publisher announced his first new book in nearly thirty years. The Mysteries is a “modern fable” with illustrations by the caricaturist John Kascht. At seventy-two pages, the book itself is a slight thing, in no way a return to the daily grind of the funny pages. It is being sold exclusively in print. And, typical of Watterson, press access is limited. Andrews McMeel is not sending review copies until the week of its publication in early October.
In all promotional material, publicists take pains to stress—sometimes rather awkwardly—that The Mysteries is emphatically not Calvin and Hobbes. This marketing choice was no doubt made at the request of Watterson, who for years has required that Andrews McMeel post a notice at the bottom of its website informing fans that he will not autograph their books and he will not read their correspondence if it at all relates to Calvin and Hobbes. Of course, people try anyway, and, according to the publisher, if it forwarded correspondence to Watterson, “he would be unable to keep up with the overwhelming demand.”
All of this predictably left me more curious about Calvin and Hobbes than it did about The Mysteries. Watterson’s retirement is understandable; most people grow old and no longer find delight in their work. Besides, at a certain age, other goods in life tend to take precedence: children, grandchildren, and, in more reflective minds, contemplation of death. But this is not exactly the course that seems to have led Watterson away from Calvin and Hobbes.
In the years since the strip’s end, Watterson has indicated that there was something false inherent to Calvin and Hobbes, some impurity either in his approach or encoded in the strip itself that made it impossible to continue in good faith. That, combined with the fight over licensing with his syndicate, crushed him. “I lost the conviction that I wanted to spend my life cartooning,” he remembers realizing in 1991, four years before he ended the strip. Beyond stray comments such as this one, he has never forthrightly explained where exactly he went wrong. But I think I have an explanation.
The trouble with Calvin and Hobbes started at the very beginning, when Watterson was a year out of college. In those days, he was nothing if not earnest. He was working at the Cincinnati Enquirer as a political cartoonist, a job he had scored through Jim Borgman, a school connection on the paper’s staff. (Borgman is better known now for illustrating Zits.) The job was a bad fit: Watterson had no feel for horse race politics. At Kenyon College, he had studied political science under the school’s resident Straussians, reading Plato, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke—but decontextualized theories of political life did him little good in the 1980 presidential primaries, which he had been assigned to cover. Watterson recalls absentmindedly doodling George H.W. Bush in an editorial board meeting as the rest of the staff drilled the future vice president on Ronald Reagan’s fitness for office. He felt totally lost. Within a few months, he was fired.
Then came a long period of bitterness. Watterson moved back in with his parents and took a job designing layouts for a weekly free ad sheet which was handed out at his local grocery store. He received minimum wage and slaved in a windowless basement office. His boss shouted at him frequently. His car was in constant need of repair. During his lunch break, he read books in a cemetery. He did this job for four years.
And he developed a monomania that would become the force behind his life’s work. He had failed at politics. He could feel himself failing at advertising. There was only one other career he could envision, and it was in humor. But there was nothing funny about how he achieved it. Calvin and Hobbes was conceived in desperation and executed in panic.
By the time Watterson secured syndication for the strip (it debuted in thirty-five newspapers), he had devised a system of work that he describes as “pathologically antisocial.” His editor advised him at the outset not to quit his day job immediately; strips often fail within the first year, and it would be discouraging for him to leave one gig only to lose another. But Watterson didn’t listen. He decided that he would rather be destitute than ever do anything besides Calvin and Hobbes. As the years rolled on and the strip grew in its popularity, his wish was granted.
“Work and home were so intermingled that I had no refuge from the strip when I needed a break,” Watterson recalls. “Day or night, the work was always right there, and the book-publishing schedule was as relentless as the newspaper deadlines. Having certain perfectionist and maniacal tendencies, I was consumed by Calvin and Hobbes.”
By Watterson’s own admission, he cannot accurately recall a whole decade of his life because of his “Ahab-like obsession” with his work. “The intensity of pushing the writing and drawing as far as my skills allowed was the whole point of doing it,” he says. “I eliminated pretty much everything from my life that wasn’t the strip.” While Watterson’s wife, Melissa Richmond, organized everything around him, he furthered his isolation, burrowing ever more deeply into the strip’s world. There was no other way, he believed, to keep its integrity absolute. “My approach was probably too crazy to sustain for a lifetime,” he says, “but it let me draw the exact strip I wanted while it lasted.”
When crises arose, it often seemed like the end of the world. First, there was the fight with the syndicate. It looks like a piddling matter now, when few newspapers turn a profit, but in the Reagan era, there was still some money to be made in print media—particularly in licensing the rights to popular cartoons. Watterson wasn’t opposed to licensing in principle, but he felt that nearly all the merchandising proposals presented to him would devalue his strip of its artistic merit. He fought with his syndicate for years and expressed his dissatisfaction with the business side of the comics industry in speeches, in interviews, and, eventually, in court. At last, he won a renegotiated contract and the right to draw bigger, more complex Sunday strips, something Watterson had wanted since he began. The victory was pyrrhic. “For the last half of the strip, I had all the artistic freedom I ever wanted, I had sabbaticals, I had a good lead on deadlines, and I felt I was working at the peak of my talents,” he says. But Watterson had designed a world for himself so self-contained that any disruption could mean its destruction: “I just knew it was time to go.”
This much became clear in the middle of the licensing fight. It took up so much of his energy that he lost his lead time on the strip and found himself in a situation where he was drawing practically every single comic on press night. After a few weeks of this, he broke down. “I was in a black despair,” he says. “I was absolutely frantic. I had to publish everything I thought of, no matter what it was, and I found that idea almost unbearable.” His wife saw him spiraling out of control and drew up a schedule that helped him slowly, over the course of six months, rebuild his lead time.
Not long after, Watterson crashed his bike, bruised a rib, and broke a finger. He was so afraid of losing his lead again that he propped his drawing board on his knees in his sickbed and drew anyway. That freaked him out, too, and so gradually he scaled his life down to the point where nothing unpredictable could happen. Even as he harnessed every waking second for Calvin and Hobbes, some malignant force within pushed him to dizzying heights of anxiety. “I would go through these cycles of despair and elation based on the perceived quality of the strip—things that I doubt anyone else could see in either direction,” Watterson says. “It was all a bit manic.”
Needless to say, Watterson had no children throughout the entire run of Calvin and Hobbes. He wasn’t particularly interested in that sort of thing, and, anyway, in his guarded world there was no time for children. This is odd to consider, especially since the strip is putatively about childhood and family life, and its reputation rests largely on the fact that kids still love it.
For my own part, Calvin and Hobbes consumed much of my childhood, as I am sure is the case for many other people who came of age at the turn of the millennium. But the attraction, I think, derived mainly from the fact Calvin thinks, speaks, and acts like no child in existence. Everything about his character is utterly alien to an actual six-year-old; yet his environment is so fully realized and the adults in his world so true to life that his own reality is almost completely convincing. To the clever child, however, it becomes clear quickly that in the mind of his creator, Calvin is a tiny adult surrounded by large adults, confined to the strictures of childhood only by accident of his age and size. This is why the strip often appeals most to the lonely and unhappy, to children who do not think of themselves as such and to adults who are better thought of as children.
Watterson admits freely that he falls into that latter category. “Calvin reflects my adulthood more than my childhood,” he says. “I suspect that most of us get old without growing up, and that inside every adult (sometimes not very far inside) is a bratty kid who wants everything his own way.” Of course, Calvin and Hobbes aren’t the only characters who reflect Watterson. Calvin’s mom, his dad, Susie Derkins, Rosalyn the babysitter, even Moe the bully—they’re all Watterson’s creations; his own personality is present in all of them. “Together, they’re pretty much a transcript of my mental diary,” he says. “I didn’t set out to do this, but that’s what came out, and frankly it’s pretty startling to reread these strips and see my personality exposed so plainly right there on paper. I meant to disguise that better.”
Watterson is right that he didn’t disguise himself very well, and the way his monomania practically screams off the page can be rather unsettling. I have before me now the three-volume, complete Calvin and Hobbes, which, at twenty-three pounds, is the heaviest book ever to have appeared on the New York Times bestseller list. I have read it multiple times in its entirety. For every delightful Sunday strip about dinosaurs or Spaceman Spiff or Calvin’s wagon careening into a pond as Hobbes covers his eyes in mock horror, there are five daily strips about the evils of television, the depravity of advertising, the sorry state of modern art, and, of course, the four last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell—all placed in the mouth of six-year-old who with each passing year seems to become more cynical, more pissed-off, more bitter.
I can flip to almost any page in this set and find something that reveals its creator’s inner anguish. The most famous example—often cited by Watterson himself—is a Sunday strip that appeared in February 1991. It is drawn almost entirely in black-and-white ink and depicts an argument between Calvin and his dad. In the last panel, the only one drawn in color, Calvin’s dad says, “The problem is, you see everything in terms of black and white.” Calvin replies: “SOMETIMES, THAT’S JUST THE WAY THINGS ARE.” Watterson says that the strip was a “metaphor” for the battle with his syndicate. It is a blatant reference to Watterson’s own life, and anyone following Calvin and Hobbes closely would have picked up on it.
But many of the other individual strips don’t refer to anything specific outside Calvin’s world at all. They read like the work of someone struggling to make it through the day. For instance, in early March 1992, we find Calvin in the classroom, asking a question to his teacher, Miss Wormwood:
Wormwood: If there are no questions, we’ll move on to the next chapter.
Calvin: I have a question.
Wormwood: Certainly, Calvin. What is it?
Calvin: What’s the point of human existence?
Wormwood: I meant any questions about the subject at hand.
Calvin: Oh. Frankly, I’d like to have the issue resolved before I expend any more energy on this.
Then, a week later, here’s Calvin talking to his mom:
Calvin: Mom, can I have some money to buy a Satan-worshiping, suicide-advocating heavy metal album?
Mom: Calvin, the fact that these bands haven’t killed themselves in ritual self-sacrifice shows that they’re just in it for the money like everyone else. It’s all for effect. If you want to shock and provoke, be sincere about it.
Calvin: Mainstream commercial nihilism can’t be trusted?!
Mom: ’Fraid not, kiddo.
Calvin: Childhood is so disillusioning.
I could go on like this for pages, flipping back and forth at random through the entire collection. But the point is, save for the first few months of the strip, which, for easily forgivable reasons, veer more toward lame, canned jokes, Calvin and Hobbes reads like a ten-year-long experiment in hysterical realism. Fans often mistake these outbursts for philosophy (a characterization that Watterson vigorously resists), but the truth is much more mundane. These are simply the natural thoughts of a man chained to his desk. “Comic strips are typically written in a certain amount of panic,” Watterson sometimes reminds fans. “I just wrote what I thought about.”
What then to do when there is nothing left to think about? Watterson compares ending Calvin and Hobbes to reaching the summit of a high mountain. He had ascended slowly, covering much rough ground, and when he had reached the crest of that lofty peak, he paused to survey his surroundings. Anyone who has climbed a mountain knows exactly what happens in this moment: You look up and see nothing but pale blue sky. You look down, and the whole world is laid out before you, seemingly complete. In that rarified air, it is easy to imagine that there is nothing else beside. People go crazy on mountaintops. Which is exactly what happened to Watterson. He had no desire to return whence he came. And he couldn’t go any higher; no one can ascend into the air itself. So he took his next best option. He jumped.
Watterson had no choice. The world that he built was by its nature finite, and he had reached its limits. This much becomes clear in the last few weeks of the strip. It’s almost apocalyptic: the ancillary characters all disappear. There are no more elaborate flights of fancy. And by the last week of the strip, there is nothing left but Calvin and Hobbes themselves, trudging through a thick Ohio snow. The famous final Sunday strip, “Let’s Go Exploring” is dominated by a massive white space in the center of the page, spreading outward toward the margins. It is often said that “Let’s Go Exploring” ends Calvin and Hobbes on an upbeat note, exhorting readers to remember that life, after all, is a tabula rasa, and you can make it whatever you wish. But this gets it backward. The end of Calvin and Hobbes is not about filling a blank sheet. It is about taking a colored sheet and making it blank again.
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In the years following the strip’s end, Watterson has done his best to make sure that the sheet remains entirely blank. He of course stopped drawing comics after retiring. But he also emptied himself of all physical attachment to Calvin and Hobbes. In 2005, he donated the bulk of his original proofs to the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum in Columbus. Once he had unburdened himself of the madness that had consumed him for practically his entire adulthood, he embarked upon the project of actually living. In the early 2000s, he and his wife, then in their forties, adopted a daughter who became, Watterson says, his first priority. And fatherhood, it seems, altered the way he views his old obsession. When asked by a fan in 2005 if there is anything he would change if he were to restart Calvin and Hobbes now, Watterson laughed at the impossibility of such an idea and said, “Well, let’s just say that when I read the strip now, I see the work of a much younger man.”
A strange episode in that younger man’s career, I think, reveals the impetus behind Watterson’s desire to completely remove himself from past projects. There is an often-told story about how, midway through his sophomore year at Kenyon College, Watterson decided to paint a reproduction of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” on the ceiling of his dorm room, in imitation of the Sistine Chapel. He undertook the project in secret and painted for hours at a time, lying on his back, copying the fresco from an artbook. His reproduction was no masterwork, but that wasn’t the point of doing it. It was “done out of some inexplicable inner imperative,” he recalls, and the very fact of him doing the work “lent an air of cosmic grandeur to my room, and it seemed to put life into a larger perspective.”
What Watterson recalls most clearly about the episode is its end. When the dorm masters discovered the work, they allowed him to finish, so long as he returned the room to its normal state at the end of the semester. Watterson was more than happy to comply. When the work was complete, he didn’t even have the option to leave God and Adam to decay; he had the satisfaction of erasing it all, covering the creation in a shining white coat.