This week marks the anniversary of a sad day, but one that has unexpected relevance, considering the biggest challenges facing businesses and employees today.
It will be 26 years since cartoonist Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes, wrote a resignation letter of sorts, informing newspaper editors and readers that he would soon be ending 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 everyone knows who Watterson was 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 how this, but Calvin and Hobbes was maybe the last great and iconic newspaper comic — which is ironic because Watterson chafed against the artistic confines of newspaper comics for the strip’s entire 10-year span.
Partly it was Watterson’s stories and artwork that made it so popular; partly it was the rebellious mischievousness of lead character Calvin. Partly, I think it just matched the tone of the era.
Also, this was the very end of the pre-consumer-Internet, when people of every political persuasion still mostly consumed the same news sources and subscribed to the same regional newspapers.
Honestly, if you grew up after that era, well, you have a lot of things going for you, but as a card-carrying member of Generation X, I hope you find something you like as much as people like me 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 had 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, 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, and why any business owner quitting a difficult client or dealing with departing employees should value it, too.
The letter began like this:
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. Reportedly, Watterson’s letter was sent to the newspaper editors who were his syndicate’s clients, but he addressed it to his most important constituency, his readers. I also think it’s key that it’s addressed as if it’s an intimate letter to one person: “Dear Reader,” rather than to his millions of readers.
From there, it’s so important that it commences with a simple, declarative, no-nonsense sentence: Here’s what I will be doing and what I won’t be doing, and when the changes will take place.
There is no hemming or hawing, no invitation to negotiate. Newspaper editors were surely disappointed to lose Calvin and Hobbes, which for some readers was the only reason they bought the newspaper.
But, if you 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 eventually, come up with another solution.
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 really just makes clear that despite the following and financial success he had, this job of writing a daily newspaper comic just wasn’t a good fit anymore.
We should also make a point 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 the same ones estimated MY net worth at $1 billion, which I’m sorry to say is nowhere near correct. So take it with a grain of salt.
I mention all this because one might reasonably observe that it’s easier to be calm, and polite, and to walk away from a dream job when it just doesn’t fit as well anymore, 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.
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.
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 edition on New Year’s Even, 1995.
There are literally hundreds of strips that I still find funny and touching now, but let me just choose one to leave you with: it’s about what happens when six-year-old Calvin finds a dying raccoon and tries to nurse it back to health for a day, but ultimately the raccoon dies.
“What a stupid world” pic.twitter.com/BZhXltvVEk
— Calvin and Hobbes (@Calvinn_Hobbes) December 12, 2014
It was good stuff. And when Watterson decided to end the strip, he did it the right way.