Calvin & Hobbes

A sad anniversary, but a good lesson for today. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

This month, we passed the anniversary of a sad day—but one with unexpected modern relevance.

It’s been 26 years since cartoonist Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes, wrote a public resignation letter, informing newspaper editors and readers that he would soon stop writing the beloved comic.

I'm going to dissect the letter below and examine why right now, during the Great Resignation, it's so poignant and instructive.

But first, I think I'd better make sure we’re all on the same page about who Watterson is, and why Calvin and Hobbes was so popular a quarter-century or more ago.

It might be hard to wrap our 21st-century heads around this, but Calvin and Hobbes was maybe the last great and iconic newspaper comic—an ironic status, since Watterson chafed against the artistic confines of newspaper comics for the strip's entire 10-year span.

Partly, its success was due to Watterson's stories and artwork. Partly, it was the rebellious mischievousness of lead character Calvin. Partly I think it just matched the tone of the era. 

Also, this was just before the rise of the consumer Internet, when people of every political persuasion still (mostly) consumed the same news sources and subscribed to the same regional newspapers.

As a card-carrying member of Generation X, if you weren’t one of us, I hope you find something you like as much as people my age liked Calvin and Hobbes

With that, let's talk about the resignation letter.

Calvin and Hobbes was published in 2,400 newspapers at its apex and read by millions every day.

It was so popular that Watterson managed to cajole unprecedented concessions from his syndicate and the newspaper industry, including two nine-month-long sabbaticals (during which publishing clients had to keep paying full-price for the right to publish reruns of old strips), and the right to change the format of newspaper comics in general.

Nevertheless, at the absolute height of its popularity, Watterson announced he was calling it quits on November 9, 1995. 

Here's the letter he wrote, annotated to show why I think it's a model that anyone who wants to leave a position on good terms should strive to follow:

Dear Reader:

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. 

We start with the salutation. I think it's key that it's addressed as if it's an intimate letter to one person—"Dear Reader"—rather than to millions.

From there, it rolls into a simple, no-nonsense declaration: Here's what I will be doing and what I won't be doing, and when the changes will take place. 

No hemming, no hawing, no invitation to negotiate. Newspaper editors were surely disappointed to learn they were losing Calvin and Hobbes; for some readers, it was the only reason they bought the newspaper.

But if you can't get what you want in life, the second-best thing to have is usually the certainty of not getting it. At least you can plan around that, and maybe come up with another solution.

The letter continues:

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.

This is polite and calm, but if you knew about the tension Watterson always had with the newspapers that carried his comic, it was also pointed. It makes clear that despite the following and financial success Watterson had, this job just wasn't a good fit anymore.

This is a good time to talk about money. Watterson clearly had some level of monetary success, but at least during the early part of his tenure, his syndicate owned all the rights.

It's not clear how wealthy he became; some of those "celebrity net worth sites" estimate his net worth at $100 million or more, but at the same time, Google used to estimate MY net worth at $4 billion.

Sorry to say, that’s nowhere near correct. So take it with a grain of salt.

I mention all this because it might be easier to be calm and polite while walking away from a dream job if you already have financial independence. But it's also clear that Watterson intended to continue working, just in different forms or formats than what he'd been doing. 

Back to the letter:

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.

Bill Watterson

Always end on notes of gratitude, positivity, and sincerity. There's rarely a need to burn a bridge, and you never know who will be reading your words later. 

In the case of an employee leaving a job, or a company "firing" a difficult client, you might want to work with them again at some point. And in Watterson's case—well, I doubt he could have predicted it, but here we are dissecting his words 26 years later.

Readers had a little bit less than two more months to enjoy Calvin and Hobbes, which published its last installment on New Year's Eve, 1995.

There are literally hundreds of Calvin and Hobbes strips that I still find funny and touching today, but let me choose just one to leave you with.

It's about what happens when 6-year-old Calvin finds a dying raccoon and tries to nurse it back to health for a day, but ultimately the raccoon dies.

It was good stuff. And when Watterson decided to end the strip, he did it the right way.

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Thanks for reading. Photo credit: Matthew Yohe at en.wikipedia. I wrote about some of this in a different version for Want to see all my mistakes? Click here.