Why the Short-Lived Calvin and Hobbes Is Still One of the Most Beloved & Influential Comic Strips

If you know more than a few mil­len­ni­als, you prob­a­bly know some­one who reveres Calvin and Hobbes as a sacred work of art. That com­ic strip’s cul­tur­al impact is even more remark­able con­sid­er­ing that it ran in news­pa­pers for only a decade, from 1985 to 1995: bare­ly an exis­tence at all, by the stan­dards of the Amer­i­can fun­ny pages, where the likes of Garfield has been lazi­ly crack­ing wise for 45 years now. Yet these two exam­ples of the com­ic-strip form could hard­ly be more dif­fer­ent from each oth­er in not just their dura­tion, but also how they man­i­fest in the world. While Garfield has long been a mar­ket­ing jug­ger­naut, Calvin and Hobbes cre­ator Bill Wat­ter­son has famous­ly turned down all licens­ing inquiries.

That choice set him apart from the oth­er suc­cess­ful car­toon­ists of his time, not least Charles Schulz, whose work on Peanuts had inspired him to start draw­ing comics in the first place. Calvin and Hobbes may not have its own toys and lunch­box­es, but it does reflect a Schulz­ian degree of thought­ful­ness and per­son­al ded­i­ca­tion to the work. Like Schulz, Wat­ter­son eschewed del­e­ga­tion, cre­at­ing the strip entire­ly by him­self from begin­ning to end. Not only did he exe­cute every brush­stroke (not a metaphor, since he actu­al­ly used a brush for more pre­cise line con­trol), every theme dis­cussed and expe­ri­enced by the tit­u­lar six-year-old boy and his tiger best friend was root­ed in his own thoughts.

“One of the beau­ties of a com­ic strip is that peo­ple’s expec­ta­tions are nil,” Wat­ter­son said in an inter­view in the twen­ty-tens. “If you draw any­thing more sub­tle than a pie in the face, you’re con­sid­ered a philoso­pher.” How­ev­er mod­est the medi­um, he spent the whole run of Calvin and Hobbes try­ing to ele­vate it, ver­bal­ly but even more so visu­al­ly. Or per­haps the word is re-ele­vate, giv­en how his increas­ing­ly ambi­tious Sun­day-strip lay­outs evoked ear­ly-twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry news­pa­per fix­tures like Lit­tle Nemo and Krazy Kat, which sprawled lav­ish­ly across entire pages. Even if there could be no return­ing to the bygone gold­en age of the com­ic strip, he could at least draw inspi­ra­tion from its glo­ries.

Iron­i­cal­ly, from the per­spec­tive of the twen­ty-twen­ties, Wat­ter­son­’s work looks like an arti­fact of a bygone gold­en age itself. In the eight­ies and nineties, when even small-town news­pa­pers could still com­mand a robust read­er­ship, the comics sec­tion had a cer­tain cul­tur­al weight; Wat­ter­son has spo­ken of the car­toon­ist’s prac­ti­cal­ly unmatched abil­i­ty to influ­ence the thoughts of read­ers on a dai­ly basis. In my case, the influ­ence ran espe­cial­ly deep, since I became a Calvin and Hobbes-lov­ing mil­len­ni­al avant la let­tre while first learn­ing to read through the Sun­day fun­nies. It took no time at all to mas­ter Garfield, but when I start­ed get­ting Calvin and Hobbes, I knew I was mak­ing progress; even when I did­n’t under­stand the words, I could still mar­vel at the sheer exu­ber­ance and detail of the art.

Calvin and Hobbes also attract­ed enthu­si­asts of oth­er gen­er­a­tions, not least among oth­er car­toon­ists. Joel Allen Schroed­er’s doc­u­men­tary Dear Mr. Wat­ter­son fea­tures more than a few of them express­ing their admi­ra­tion for how he raised the bar, as well as for how his work con­tin­ues to enrap­ture young read­ers. Its time­less­ness owes in part to its lack of top­i­cal ref­er­ences (in con­trast to, say, Doones­bury, which I remem­ber always being the most for­mi­da­ble chal­lenge in my days of incom­plete lit­er­a­cy), but also to its under­stand­ing of child­hood itself. Like Stephen King, a cre­ator with whom he oth­er­wise has lit­tle in com­mon, Wat­ter­son remem­bers the exot­ic, often bizarre tex­tures real­i­ty can take on for the very young.

He also remem­bers that child­hood is not, as J. M. Coet­zee once put it, “a time of inno­cent joy, to be spent in the mead­ows amid but­ter­cups and bun­ny-rab­bits or at the hearth­side absorbed in a sto­ry­book,” but in large part “a time of grit­ting the teeth and endur­ing.” Being six years old has its plea­sures, to be sure, but it also comes with strong dos­es of tedi­um, pow­er­less­ness, and futil­i­ty, which we tend not to acknowl­edge as adults. Calvin and Hobbes showed me, as it’s shown so many young read­ers, that there’s a way out: not through stu­dious­ness, not through polite­ness, and cer­tain­ly not through fol­low­ing the rules, but through the pow­er of the imag­i­na­tion to re-enchant dai­ly life. If it gets you sent to your room once in a while, that’s a small price to pay.

Relat­ed con­tent:

How to Make Comics: A Four-Part Series from the Muse­um of Mod­ern Art

George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, Praised as the Great­est Com­ic Strip of All Time, Gets Dig­i­tized as Ear­ly Install­ments Enter the Pub­lic Domain

17 Min­utes of Charles Schulz Draw­ing Peanuts

The Dis­ney Artist Who Devel­oped Don­ald Duck & Remained Anony­mous for Years, Despite Being “the Most Pop­u­lar and Wide­ly Read Artist-Writer in the World”

The Comi­clo­pe­dia: An Online Archive of 14,000 Com­ic Artists, From Stan Lee and Jack Kir­by, to Mœbius and Hergé

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (21)
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  • RTSmith says:

    I absolute­ly love Calvin and Hobbes. From the moment I first caught the strip in the news­pa­per ear­ly 1986, I was hooked. Very rarely did I read strips that actu­al­ly made me laugh out loud. Of course that led to col­lect­ing the books as they came avail­able, and now after 30+ years, I have all of them. I still enjoy read­ing through them from time to time.
    I had the plea­sure of attend­ing the “Explor­ing Calvin and Hobbes” exhi­bi­tion when it was in Colum­bus Ohio years ago and it did not dis­ap­point. (I lat­er pur­chased that book as well.)
    I have always admired Mr. Wat­ter­son for end­ing the strip on a high point rather than milk it until it lost its shine. Yes I would love more, but that’s what makes this strip so mag­i­cal even today. Thank you Mr. Wat­ter­son. You still remind us what it’s like to be young, have an imag­i­na­tion, and enjoy every day of adven­ture. Even some­one like me in my 60s. May you all stay young at heart folks!

  • Dave Koschnick says:

    I’m of the boomer gen­er­a­tion and read “Calvin and Hobbes” as an adult. I always felt it was writ­ten more for adults than kids and find it inter­est­ing that kids would get so attached to it. I guess that shows how uni­ver­sal the themes were.

  • Brent says:

    The rea­son C&H is still beloved is that Water­son knew when to exit still leav­ing peo­ple want­i­ng more. The strips you men­tioned run­ning real­ly long *suck* because they’re old and bor­ing.

  • Steve says:

    I think you mean Gen­er­a­tion X, not Mil­len­ni­als. 1985–1995 is right when 80’s Hair Met­al segued into Grunge.

  • Chris Polliwoods says:

    Cor­rect me if I’m wrong, but I thought Schulz DID pass off the lat­er Peanuts comics to assis­tants. Or was the drop off in qual­i­ty due to his own declin­ing tal­ents?

  • Pat Gray says:

    My hus­band and I, our chil­dren, and now our grand­chil­dren all love Calvin and Hobbes. We give the books as gifts to friends and fam­i­ly.
    My chil­dren grew up learn­ing to read with C&H comics. I was helped by C&H strips to par­ent one of my sons. He was hard to appre­ci­ate because of his eccen­tric­i­ties. When I got to know and laugh at Calvin, I got to know my own son!
    Thank you, Mr. Wat­ter­son. We still miss you!

  • Eric Hamilton says:

    I don’t know what I would have done with­out Calvin and Hobbes. Grow­ing up in the 80’s I spent hours with Calvin and Hobbes…and even when I was not with them in a strip, they were with me help­ing me to devel­op and sharp­en my own imag­i­na­tion and sense of adven­ture and curios­i­ty. Even today, many years lat­er, I still some­times take breaks from life and go on an adven­ture with Calvin and Hobbes through one of the books or strips that I keep.

    Even though deep down I wish that we had more than a decade, I do appre­ci­ate going out with the audi­ence want­i­ng more…and it led me to cre­ate var­i­ous adven­tures with them in my own mind. What a gift we have been giv­en and we trea­sure to this day.

  • Jessica J says:

    I think there’s some crossover… the strip start­ed when Mil­len­ni­als were just being born, so obvi­ous­ly they weren’t read­ing it then… but as they entered ele­men­tary school, the com­ic was still run­ning, and so I think most Mil­len­ni­als had at least some expo­sure. There’s also the “bor­der” groups such as myself (I pre­fer the term “Xen­ni­al” because I’m def­i­nite­ly younger than most of gen X to where peo­ple want to lump me in with Mil­len­ni­als, yet for the most part more strong­ly iden­ti­fy with X than Mil­len­ni­als, who were still “kids” as I was enter­ing the work­force). We were start­ing to look for­ward to the Sun­day fun­nies just as C&H was hit­ting its stride, and I have (or at least had 😢) all the C&H col­lec­tion books; at least one of them has still man­aged to sur­vive sev­er­al moves, and resides on my shelf to this day.

  • Vincent Saunders says:

    The inge­nu­ity of imag­i­na­tion. That was the genius of Calvin and Hobbs. Mr. Wat­ter­son por­trayed Calvin as an exten­sion of his grand­est day dreams. Whether as Space­man Spiff, in ver­bal com­bat with Suzie, the ani­ma­tion of snow­men, fly­ing down the Hill with Hobbes on his tobog­gan or wag­on or out­wit­ting his par­ents in kid fash­ion, every sin­gle strip was about his super imag­i­na­tion that coped with life no mat­ter how it came. Sure the top­ics were often “adul­tri­fied” for the age of the main read­ers but every­one of us iden­ti­fied with Calvin and his tri­an­gu­lar, glee­ful smile and his smart-aleck bud­dy Hobbes. I have his books and no mat­ter when I look at them, I am trans­port­ed back in time to the good times (and some­times the bad times) of my youth. The sim­ple times worth remem­ber­ing. God Bless you Bill Wat­ter­son. Laugh­ter tru­ly is the best med­i­cine!

  • floydburney says:

    .… Calvin & Hobs was­n’t any­where near as good as “Bloom Coun­ty” That was the great­est strip since Doons­ber­ry.

  • Davide says:

    Not at all. Not even close. And it’s Calvin and Hobbes.

  • Bobby says:

    I have no idea how 10 years is con­sid­ered “short lived”.

  • Kunle Busari -Adamasingba says:

    My friend Like Mar­tin was a Nigeria/ Cana­da half cast, our love of read­ing makes us great friends. Apart from intro­duc­ing to great author like Stephen King and Frank Her­bert, he also intro­duced me to the lov­able duo of Calvin and Hobbes. I’ve read as many of the series as I can lay my hands on. And it’s becom­ing my num­ber one gift to myself friend’s chil­dren and mine too

  • Kunle Busari -Adamasingba says:

    My friend Like Mar­tin was a Nigeria/ Cana­da half cast, our love of read­ing makes us great friends. Apart from intro­duc­ing to great author like Stephen King and Frank Her­bert, he also intro­duced me to the lov­able duo of Calvin and Hobbes. I’ve read as many of the series as I can lay my hands on. And it’s becom­ing my num­ber one gift to myself friend’s chil­dren and mine too

  • Byron Wilson says:

    I got hooked on Calvin and Hobbs decades ago as an adult. Loved the com­ic yet seri­ous nature of the strip. Many years ago my wife bought me a 3 vol­ume set of the com­plete strip. I break it out a cou­ple times a year and still enjoy every sin­gle strip.

  • ZankFrappa says:

    It’s fun­ny how mil­lenials are fast approach­ing their 50s, and still haven’t fig­ured out the pop cul­ture they pas­sive­ly leeched off of as chil­dren and teens actu­al­ly belongs to Gen X and Baby Boomers.

  • Spiffman says:

    I think it’s telling that one would say mil­lenials leeched off things not belong­ing to them, espe­cial­ly when the media itself was devel­oped dur­ing their life­time and served as a greater foun­da­tion for their lived expe­ri­ence than the past gen­er­a­tions due to their ear­li­er life expo­sure.

    What­ev­er is cre­at­ed dur­ing their child­hood is almost always cre­at­ed by old­er peo­ple, but that does­n’t mean the expe­ri­ences belong to those that cre­at­ed it.

    All gen­er­a­tions that were around enjoyed and grew from it, albeit in dif­fer­ent ways. It’s a shared expe­ri­ence that does not belong to one group of gen­er­a­tional cohorts.

    Also to be pedan­tic, it’s gen­er­a­tion X that is reach­ing their 50s still. Mil­lenials still have a few years and are most­ly in the mid 40s to mid/late 30s.

  • JRD says:

    As an avid news­pa­per read­er dur­ing the 80s I was lucky to expe­ri­ence Calvin and Hobbes dai­ly. That along with Gary Lar­son­’s The Far Side and Berke­ley Breathed’s Bloom Coun­ty cer­tain­ly gave us a gold­en age of comics dur­ing this era. Comics strips have nev­er been this good since. It was a treat when Bill Wat­ter­son did a few guest draw­ings for Pearls Before Swine back in 2014. He is sore­ly missed.

  • BA says:

    Thank you. They want to con­nect every­thing to mil­len­ni­als in these types of sto­ries.

  • BillS says:

    Why does EVERYTHING have to be about mil­len­ni­als? This com­ic time­frame appealed to a lot of GenX (if not more than any oth­er gen­er­a­tion) and boomers as well. Stop it. Oth­er gen­er­a­tions exist and have been involved in stuff besides mil­len­ni­als. Bill Wat­ter­son him­self sure as hell isn’t a mil­len­ni­al and was­n’t mak­ing it ‘for them’.

  • eg says:

    I’m a (late) Boomer and have always loved the series. My 22 year old daugh­ter also enjoyed my col­lec­tion of the books when she was in grade school.

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