A Tiger in Ohio: How Bill Watterson’s Hometown Inspired “Calvin and Hobbes”

The classic comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes” depicts an idealized American suburban landscape that bears some resemblance to cartoonist Bill Watterson’s hometown of Chagrin Falls, Ohio. What seems like little more than a neat Easter Egg, however, may have greater implications for how Americans view the region. Cover graphic by Jason Mecchi for Midstory.

In 1995, the final edition of Bill Watterson’s iconic comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes” ended with the title characters (a precocious, rascally child and his stuffed tiger/closest friend, respectively) admiring the beauty of a snow-covered wood. In the concluding panel, the duo sled off towards the edge of the page, Calvin yelling, “Let’s go exploring!”

It’s a heartfelt farewell from Watterson to not only his two beloved characters but also the fans who loved them. These last words reassured readers that the twosome’s youthful spirit of curiosity, adventure and, at times, chaos was still alive in this world — or at least, in the world of Calvin and Hobbes. But where might a place so familiar and yet wonderfully dreamy actually exist? As it turns out, the answer may lie close to home for the roughly 4,000 residents of Chagrin Falls, Ohio (or somewhere similar enough to be mistaken for it).

Bill Watterson was born in Washington, D.C. in 1958, but he spent most of his childhood years in Chagrin Falls, where his family moved when he was six. Watterson has since remained in the Buckeye State, graduating from Kenyon College in 1980 and pursuing his subsequent career as a cartoonist. 

Bill Watterson’s signature. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1985, Universal Press Syndicate purchased “Calvin and Hobbes” from Watterson, publishing his work nationally. Just one year later, Watterson became the youngest cartoonist to receive the National Cartoonist Society’s highest honor: the Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year. He won again in 1988.

The strip ran daily for ten years with Watterson taking two sabbaticals in 1992 and in 1994. In 1995, Watterson decided to end the strip, with the final installment being published on December 31. He told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 2010 that he thought the comic’s enduring popularity was likely because he “chose not to run the wheels off it.”

Watterson still lives in the Cleveland area (near Chagrin Falls) with his wife, although he has not published much work in the years since “Calvin and Hobbes” ended. His cartooning credits since 1995 are for a poster for the documentary “Stripped” and a guest run on Stephan Pastis’ strip “Pearls Before Swine,” both in 2014. This October, he is set to publish a new book with caricaturist John Kascht entitled “The Mysteries.” Watterson lives an incredibly private life and rarely speaks publicly.

While it’s not explicit whether “Calvin and Hobbes” takes place in Chagrin Falls, most agree that Watterson took inspiration from his hometown and his childhood in creating Calvin’s world — a quaint, suburban small-town neighborhood.

Calvin’s father, for instance, goes to work in a harbor city that could easily be Cleveland. The town is also said to have a “town triangle,” an unusual feature that Chagrin Falls notably shares. In fact, the cover of “The Essential Calvin and Hobbes” (one of many books collecting the strips) depicts a fantasy of a giant Calvin terrorizing what is clearly the Chagrin Falls town triangle, featuring the town’s clock tower and iconic Popcorn Shop.

The Chagrin Falls Popcorn Shop. Image courtesy of David Ploenzke via Wikimedia Commons.

While comic strips are known for their simplistic backgrounds, some of the most memorable ones have a clear setting and often reflect and critique regional norms. Strips like “Pogo” represented the rural American South and “Nancy” represented working-class urban life to readers across the country.

While the details of Watterson’s Midwest are unique in some ways, the landscape is somehow familiar — no matter where you grew up.

“Watterson is able to achieve something that feels both universal and specific at the same time, which, I’m sure, is part of what really endeared it to so many readers and made it feel so loved to so many readers. I assume there’s plenty of readers who didn’t have access to a forest like that, but who would have wanted it,” Tyne Lowe, manuscripts archivist at the Browne Popular Culture Library at Bowling Green State University, said.

Throughout the thousands of panels of the comic, you’ll find nostalgic images of Americana reflected in the ideal of Midwest, middle-class suburban life — AKA Anywhere, U.S.A. — as seen through the wondrous eyes of a child.

“Calvin is always like going down, either on a wagon or a sled, these rolling outdoor gorgeous settings — really nicely detailed forests and hills — some imagined, some not,” Lowe said. “Maybe it’s easier for us to have this be a place of imagination that may or may not be real.”

Although American landscapes and lifestyles are diverse, the canonized American life is still often imagined as small-town living.

“It sort of did seem like any kind of America in general,” Lowe said. “And obviously, it’s specific enough that it’s deciduous trees, it’s outdoors. It seems not to be the desert or something like that. And a lot of the content specifically seems American, to me, as someone from the Mid-Atlantic, maybe not necessarily just the Midwest, but anywhere that is not too touched by development in a way. Like a childhood that really loves going on adventures in the woods. I always really related to that. I thought it was wonderful.”

Recent years have seen increased pushback against the narrative of idealized small-town living as the true, unvarnished American Dream. At the same time, the Midwest narrative seems to have shifted to be less “anywhere” and more “nowhere,” an American Wasteland with few contributions to the social and cultural future of America.

And, of course, comic strips themselves have waned in popularity with the demise of newspapers across the nation. 

“On the one hand, I don’t think comics have ever been more widely accepted or taken as seriously as they are now. On the other hand, the mass media is disintegrating, and audiences are atomizing. I suspect comics will have less widespread cultural impact and make a lot less money. I’m old enough to find all this unsettling, but the world moves on,” Watterson said in a 2013 interview with Mental Floss.

Websites like GoComics give readers access to comic strips, but readers have to seek out the comics first, rather than simply experiencing them as part of their daily routine.

“The idea that you have to go seek out a website to encounter something like a newspaper strip, rather than encountering it through your average social media diet —  it doesn’t come to you as easily as it would otherwise,” Lowe said.

Comics once filled large sections of the paper with very little white space, as can be seen in this promotional image for the television show “Charlie Reads the Comics.” Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The fact that Watterson refused to merchandise “Calvin and Hobbes” means that Calvin’s (likely) Midwestern hometown is forever preserved through the continued and very popular reprintings of the comics in book form. In fact, the complete collection of the strips released in 2012 was the most expensive and heaviest book to make the New York Times bestseller list.

And so Calvin and Hobbes’ legacy lives on, and so too does their world of Anywhere, U.S.A. (which may or may not be Chagrin Falls, Ohio). Preserved at the nostalgic intersection of childhood and small-town America, the comic strip reminds us of simpler times and simpler places — whether imagined or real.

“Calvin doesn’t grow up,” Lowe said. “It is this sort of foreverness and never-die-ness of being a cartoon character, which is what’s so appealing about it and so comforting about it — that this is the way they are forever.”

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