An Overnight Success After Five Years

Cartoonist Bill Watterson struggled with several comics during the early 1980's before hitting it big with 'Calvin and Hobbes'

By David Astor for Editor & Publisher
February 8, 1986 edition; pg.34

Bill Watterson has been a syndicated cartoonist for less than three months, but his Calvin and Hobbes comic already runs in approximately 130 newspapers - including major dailies like the Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Enquirer, and Washington Post.

It took Watterson a lot longer than three months, however, to get syndicated. About five years, in fact.

Watterson submitted his first strip -- "a sort of outer space parody" -- to several syndicates back in 1980. It was rejected. Then he tried an animal comic and a couple of strips starring a young person in his first job and apartment. All of these were turned down, too.

"When each one was rejected, I would read into any comments the syndicates had written and try to figure out what they were looking for," recalled Watterson. This, he realized in retrospect, was a mistake -- because he was trying to do something "trendy" rather than drawing what came "most naturally" to him.

But Watterson's years of effort were not wasted, because one of his failed strips featured two minor characters named Calvin and Hobbes. A syndicate liked this outrageous six-year-old boy and his pet tiger so much that it advised Watterson to make them the stars of their own comic.

"Once I started working on Calvin and Hobbes by themselves, the writing immediately became easier," said Watterson, who is now 27. "I had more fun doing it. It just clicked."

Yet the syndicate ultimately nixed the comic. Watterson, who said he was "sort of baffled" by the decision and still doesn't know the exact reason for it, then sent Calvin and Hobbes to two more syndicates. The result: two more rejections.

Finally, Watterson went to Universal Press Syndicate, which liked the comic, asked for more samples, and eventually took it on. Calvin and Hobbes was formally introduced last November 18.

But Watterson's worries weren't over yet. "My concern was really very basic: whether the strip would make enough in sales so it could continue," said the cartoonist. This, as it turned out, was no problem at all. Watterson last month was even able to quit his advertising layout job at a "sleazy tabloid shopper" -- where he had worked for over three years to make ends meet.

Why has Calvin and Hobbes become so popular so fast? Watterson is not absolutely sure, but he has some ideas. For one thing, the cartoonist said many readers can identify with a kid -- certainly more than with a "worm or space alien."

But some people can be turned off by a comic child who is too "cutesy," and Calvin is far from that. "There's an undercurrent of nastiness to him," said Watterson. "He's got a little dark side."

Examples of this abound. In one strip, Calvin tries to hide his crush on classmate Susie Derkins by screaming, "I hope you suffer a debilitating brain aneurysm, you freak!" In a later episode, Calvin plaintively asks his mother, "Can I set fire to my bed mattress?"

Another possible reason for the comic's popularity is its fantasy element, believes Watterson. Hobbes is a stuffed tiger to everyone else, but the animal is absolutely real to Calvin. They converse, play, and do many other things together. The hyperactive Calvin also has an intense imagination, slipping into bizarre fantasies at a moment's notice.

In one strip, his teacher turns into a "hideous Zondarg" monster and Calvin into the daring "Spaceman Spiff, Conqueror of the Cosmos." He tries to make a daring escape out of his ship's "air lock," only to come back to reality finding that he has jumped out of the classroom window -- with the teacher grasping his shirt to stop his fall.

And editors and readers may be drawn to the comic's art, which has an exaggerated quality akin to some animated cartoons. For instance, when Calvin yells (a frequent occurrence), his mouth becomes a gaping black hole with a little tongue in the bottom.

Indeed, Watterson said he admired certain television cartoons as a kid. He also loved the drawing and writing in Pogo by the late Walt Kelly and Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz of United Features Syndicate. Watterson remembers first getting interested in cartooning when he saw two of his father's Peanuts books as a youngster growing up in a Cleveland suburb.

Watterson still likes Peanuts, and also closely follows Doonesbury by Gary Trudeau of Universal and Bloom County by Berke Breathed of the Washington Post Writers Group. He said he is impressed with the way Trudeau and Breathed don't settle for easy, predictable gags each day -- choosing instead to "challenge" their readers. In the case of Bloom County, Watterson expressed admiration for the way Breathed creates his own "separate little world" in which Opus the penguin and other talking animals interact with adult and kid characters.

Some cartoonists who do comics starring kids look at their own offspring to help come up with strip ideas. This is not the case with Watterson. The only "children" he and his wife Melissa (a graduate student in art) have are three cats named Juniper Boots, Pumpernickel, and Sprite. Watterson noted that Calvin is "sort of rambunctious" like a cat, and that Hobbes sometimes looks like a feline when his fur stands on end in surprise.

The cartoonist, who is also a big fan of Krazy Kat by the late George Herriman, is not just a comic strip cartoonist. He currently does one editorial cartoon a week for a chain of suburban Cleveland newspapers that he has contributed to since high school.

Watterson also did editorial cartoons for the student paper at Ohio's Kenyon College, where he majored in political science. The Hudson, Ohio, resident then became editorial cartoonist for the Cincinnatti Post for several months before embarking on his quest for comic strip syndication.