This week sees the release of Dear Mr. Watterson, a documentary about Bill Watterson, the author and illustrator of the much-beloved cartoon strip Calvin & Hobbes. Happily, the film is as much a celebration of the strip as anything else. Calvin & Hobbes has always inspired a special brand of obsessive geekdom, after all, and it’s good to see that the filmmakers didn’t go out of their way to pursue the strip’s reclusive creator. And indeed, watching the film has roused our own Watterson geekdom — so here’s a selection of things you mightn’t have known about the artist and his work!
Bill Watterson was briefly a political cartoonist.
He worked for six months at the Cincinnati Post in 1980, right after he graduated from Kenyon College in Ohio (with a degree in political science, incidentally). Some of this work is available online, and as you can see from the example above, his distinctive style was already pretty much fully formed long before Calvin and Hobbes entered the picture.
He attended the same college as the guy who draws Zits.
Jim Borgman, who’s been drawing Zits since 1997, also attended Kenyon College. According to a mutual friend, Borgman was two years ahead of Watterson, and both studied under the same drawing teacher.
He did the artwork for his brother’s band.
Behold: the cover art for a 1992 tape released by The Rels, featuring Tom Watterson on guitar and lead vocals. The artwork is credited to one “Fang Wampire,” a pseudonym for the singer’s famous brother. (h/t to the excellent Calvin & Hobbes fan site Magic On Paper.)
Both Calvin and Hobbes are named for historical figures.
As any undergraduate philosophy student will know, Hobbes is named for Thomas Hobbes, who’s best known for his weighty 1651 treatise Leviathan. Calvin, meanwhile, takes his name from John Calvin, the cheerless Protestant theologian responsible for founding the strand of Christianity that now bears his name. Neither were particularly big on people in general; Leviathan argued for government as necessary to prevent humanity from descending into endless anarchy, while Calvinism is based around the idea of humanity’s base state being “total depravity.”
Hobbes never calls Calvin “Calvin.”
Well, very rarely, anyway. Go on, read through the script and see how many instances you can find.
Hobbes isn’t imaginary.
Watterson has had some interesting things to say about the idea of an animated stuffed tiger over the years. He’s described Hobbes as “more about the subjective nature of reality than dolls coming to life,” and in a rare interview for Comics Journal in 1989, he said “[Hobbes being imaginary] is the assumption that adults make because nobody else sees him, sees Hobbes, in the way that Calvin does… It would seem to me, though, that when you make up a friend for yourself, you would have somebody to agree with you, not to argue with you. So Hobbes is more real than I suspect any kid would dream up.”
Watterson’s work is crazily expensive.
The entire Calvin and Hobbes strip is available online, but if you want a Watterson original… well, that’ll cost you lots of money. Lots and lots. In fact, a Watterson strip holds the current record for the highest price paid at auction for a comic-strip original — one of his pieces sold for $203,150 last year.
There’s a Calvin and Hobbes textbook.
It’s called Teaching With Calvin and Hobbes, and it was published in 1993 by a small press in Fargo, North Dakota. Apparently Watterson was persuaded to make an exception to his general refusal to license his strip after the authors communicated with him directly, and described how using the strip had assisted in their lessons for children with learning disabilities. There were only 2,500 copies printed, and these days, their rarity means they’re worth a small fortune — a copy sold for $10,000 in 2009.
Susie Derkins was named after a dog.
Specifically, her surname was taken from the name of a beagle owned by the family of Watterson’s wife Melissa. This also perhaps lends some credence to the oft-repeated fan theory that Susie herself is based on Watterson’s wife as a little girl.
Watterson didn’t draw the strip that’s been doing the rounds of late.
You’ve probably seen it on Facebook or Tumblr or wherever else — Watterson’s rather lovely advice to college graduates, all illustrated in a style strikingly similar to that of the artist himself. But while the words are Watterson’s, the drawings aren’t — they’re the work of artist Gavin Aung Than, who runs Zen Pencils.