I grew up reading newspapers. Like most people of their generation, my parents received the paper on a daily basis. It was even delivered by an actual paperboy (no joke). That meant I had exposure to the paper every single day. But, as a child, like a good ole fashioned Playboy magazine, I didn’t much care for the articles. The good stuff was in the comics section, and Sunday was a glorious day for the comics.
Bill Watterson was one of Sunday’s finest. For those of you who may not have heard of him, Watterson is the creator of the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes. His Sunday strips were vibrant pieces that strayed outside the conventional lines of comic strips, splashing in full color across a half page at times. Watterson, in fact, redefined what was possible for a Sunday comic strip through his ingenious cartoons.
Bill Watterson is an artist originally from Chagrin Falls, Ohio. Early in his career, he cultivated a keen set of artistic ethics and a vision for Calvin and Hobbes, which he used to guide his creative and business decisions.
Though his syndicate would attempt to woo him into licensing his comic strip on many occasions, Watterson would refuse certain fortune every time. It didn’t align with his ethics and vision for the strip.
In American culture, this is absurd. When someone offers you vast riches and untold sums of money, you take it. You don’t quit when there’s money left to make.
But that’s exactly what Watterson did: after 10 years, he quit. Sayonara. Headed down that old dusty trail. Rode off into the sunset.
What he left behind was a legacy that continues to build fans of his work long after he stopped making it. You still see caricatures of young Calvin peeing on a variety of things. In fact, both Calvin and Hobbes show up in a variety of locations and contexts, the result of people stealing their likenesses to profit in a way that Watterson, their creator, refused to be a part of.
This, to me, is what makes Watterson and his career a compelling study of creativity and art.
As I have taken a look back at the man and his characters, I’ve divined a few “rules” that have been helpful to me as I continue to grow as an artist. I hope you find them as useful as I have.
Rule #1: Once you’ve said all that needs to be said, leave the party.
Through his syndicate, Watterson sent a letter to the editors of the newspapers that ran Calvin and Hobbes. He wrote,
I will be stopping Calvin and Hobbes at the end of the year. This was not a recent or an easy decision, and I leave with some sadness. My interests have shifted however, and I believe I’ve done what I can do within the constraints of daily deadlines and small panels. I am eager to work at a more thoughtful pace, with fewer artistic compromises. I have not yet decided on future projects, but my relationship with Universal Press Syndicate will continue.
That so many newspapers would carry Calvin and Hobbes is an honor I’ll long be proud of, and I’ve greatly appreciated your support and indulgence over the last decade. Drawing this comic strip has been a privilege and a pleasure, and I thank you for giving me the opportunity.
Here’s what he left on the table.
At the height of its popularity, Calvin and Hobbes ran in over 2,400 newspapers to an audience that numbered in the hundreds of millions.
As a testament to the popularity of the strip, Calvin and Hobbes compilations still sell over half a million books each year.
But on December 31, 1995, after 10 years, the last Calvin and Hobbes strip ran.
Fans and newspapers were dismayed. For Watterson, who had continually forsaken potential profit by eschewing his syndicate’s attempts to license his characters, the decision was simple.
In a 2010 interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, he spoke about the strip’s end.
“This isn’t as hard to understand as people try to make it. By the end of 10 years, I’d said pretty much everything I had come there to say.
“It’s always better to leave the party early. If I had rolled along with the strip’s popularity and repeated myself for another five, 10 or 20 years, the people now ‘grieving’ for Calvin and Hobbes would be wishing me dead and cursing newspapers for running tedious, ancient strips like mine instead of acquiring fresher, livelier talent. And I’d be agreeing with them.
“I think some of the reason Calvin and Hobbes still finds an audience today is because I chose not to run the wheels off it.
“I’ve never regretted stopping when I did.”
What strikes me about these words is Watterson’s conviction to his artistic purpose for the work he created. In his mind, the decision to stop writing Calvin and Hobbes was obvious, even easy. When it’s time to move on, you move on. His artistic ethics provided all the guidance that he needed to make the decision.
Rule #2: Maintain total artistic control so that you can tell the story in the way it’s meant to be told.
His syndicate tried many times throughout his career to talk him into licensing Calvin and Hobbes. Watterson carefully considered each opportunity. But when he weighed them against what he would be giving up - total artistic control of his creation - the money didn’t make sense.
“They would turn my characters into television hucksters and t-shirt sloganeers and deprive me of characters that actually expressed my own thoughts,” he said.
Watterson had reason to balk. Back when he was hunting a job, on the verge of signing with a syndicate, he turned down an opportunity to use his comic strip as an advertising vehicle.
United Features Syndicate offered him a shot at syndication if he included the character Robotman in the strip he was pitching. At the time, the licensing for Robotman was already in production, and they were envisioning a product line - t-shirts, toys, tchotchkes, cartoon, the works.
Watterson said no.
“It really went against my idea of what a comic strip should be… I really recoiled at the idea of drawing somebody else’s character. It’s cartooning by committee, and I have a moral problem with that. It’s not art then.”
Rule #3: Let your work speak in its own voice.
Licensing his creation would mean that his characters would go to work for the syndicate, selling products with their likenesses on them. Once that happens, the whole game changes, and the focus of the work becomes marketing to gather more dollars and cents. Same as if he were to take a character created by somebody else. It’s no longer about the art. Instead, it’s about what sells, and the syndicate would want to direct what the characters do and say to promote products in other categories.
To be fair, Watterson was not against all licensing, he didn’t agree with licensing Calvin and Hobbes.
“Basically I’ve decided that licensing is inconsistent with what I’m trying to do with Calvin and Hobbes. I take cartoons seriously as an art form, so I think with an issue like licensing, it’s important to analyze what my strip is about, and what makes it work.”
Watterson believed that licensing his characters would dilute the effectiveness of his creation. He also rebuffed the notion that if he entered into a licensing deal, the syndicate would provide assistants to write the strip.
“I spent five years trying to get this stupid job and now that I have it I’m not going to hire it out to somebody else. The whole pleasure for me is having the opportunity to do a comic strip for a living, and now that I’ve finally got that I’m not going to give it away…”
Throughout the rest of his career, the syndicate continued to pitch licensing to Bill, but each time he rejected their proposal.
Rule #4: Develop a love for the creative process by doing what you love.
Like most artists, Watterson followed an oblique path to success. After graduating college, he landed work as an editorial cartoonist with The Cincinnati Post.
Working for The Post, he did the typical stuff that you do when you work for money — you try to please your boss by giving them things that they want. In Watterson’s case, he tried to deliver cartoons that would please his editor. But he didn’t quite have the eye or the instinct to be a successful editorial cartoonist. The job lasted six months.
He now had the time to focus on the work that was meaningful to him - comic strips. Over the next five years, he drew and pitched concepts to the syndicates to get a contract, but no one was biting. The rejections were piling up.
Things took a turn when one of his strips, which featured Calvin and Hobbes as minor characters, got some attention. The syndicate suggested that he focus on those two characters, as they were the funniest and most interesting. Perhaps he should develop a strip around them, the syndicate suggested. Watterson went to work creating the strips and submitting them to the syndicate.
They were rejected.
But he knew he had something now and the work was coming easier. The characters were beginning to take on a life of their own and developing their unique personalities, which is the best case scenario for any creation.
He began pitching Calvin and Hobbes to other syndicates. Universal expressed interest in the work and wanted to see more. Bill drew up another month’s worth of cartoons and that helped them make a decision. Universal signed him.
This marked the end of a foundational period in Watterson’s life and career. During the five years that he was working toward syndication, he fell in love with the process of writing comic strips.
“To endure five years of rejection to get a job requires either a faith in oneself that borders on delusion, or a love of the work,” Watterson wrote in his Kenyon College commencement speech. “I loved the work. Drawing comic strips for five years without pay drove home the point that the fun of cartooning wasn’t in the money; it was in the work. This turned out to be an important realization when my break finally came.”
As it turns out, this is the most influential tenet of Watterson’s philosophy, and the one that he turned to most during his licensing fights.
Watterson’s career is a prime example of what it means to live deliberately. He knew he wanted to be a cartoonist, had a vision for his work that evolved, and he went after it. He believed in the integrity of the work he created and protected it. Before the work soured, he moved on.
Like most heroes, in the beginning, he used conventional measures of success — money, notoriety, fame — but quickly moved on to define his own success. When he dove headlong into the work he loved, it solidified his personal ethics. Those ethics became the litmus test for his creative and business decisions. “We define ourselves by our actions. With each decision, we tell ourselves and the world who we are. Think about what you want out of this life, and recognize that there are many kinds of success,” he said in his Kenyon College commencement speech.
“To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble. Reading those turgid philosophers here [Kenyon College] in these remote stone buildings may not get you a job, but if those books have forced you to ask yourself questions about what makes life truthful, purposeful, meaningful, and redeeming, you have the Swiss Army Knife of mental tools, and it’s going to come in handy all the time.”