Calvin and Hobbes is a beautifully-drawn comic strip following the adventures of a six-year-old boy and his best friend, a stuffed tiger. However, the image from it you’re most likely to see day-to-day is marginally less beautiful. Modified from the fourth frame of the June 5, 1988 strip, the image seen on bumper stickers across the world originally showed Calvin filling a water balloon from an outdoor faucet, but has been altered to show him doing, er, a great big piss.
It’s a pretty ubiquitous sight. Hundreds of websites sell them, with the option for Calvin to piddle on your own text. And Chris Parnell’s character in Hot Rod has a tattoo on his stomach referencing it.
“It’s probably the most iconic bootleg image out there,” says a guy who we’ll call Brendan, an enthusiastic collector of all things bootleg and the proprietor of a legally sketchy webstore selling bootleg Simpsons merch. “I have memories of a child going to soccer games and seeing this character urinating on rival team’s shirts, being completely unfamiliar with Calvin and Hobbes at the time. It definitely wasn’t until years later that I even connected this design with the actual character of Calvin. That’s a testament to how well it holds its own.”
The peeing-Calvin sticker is thought to have entered the world around 1995, shortly after reclusive creator Bill Watterson retired the strip. According to incredibly deep research by Phil Edwards, the first mention of it in the press seems to date from Florida in November of that year, with a story in the St. Petersburg Times describing “a 25-foot motor home with a sign showing Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes urinating on the letters FSU.”
FSU is Florida State University, and the world of college football was the first arena to really embrace peeing Calvin. This was swiftly followed by NASCAR, with stickers showing Calvin peeing on various drivers’ numbers, and then the thing he is most associated with today: auto manufacturers.
It’s a peculiar thing, being so dedicated to the idea that another car sucks that you’ll make your own car look worse, an odd kind of fandom where your love of something is defined as much by how much you hate everything else. Before the Ford-Chevy rivalry, which generally remains reasonably civil and jokey although has occasionally descended into violence, adopted online memes as its main culture war weapon, it went all-in on peeing Calvin. In 2005, Watterson joked in a rare interview, “I clearly miscalculated how popular it would be to show Calvin urinating on a Ford logo.”
None of this explains why, though. Why Calvin?
The answer possibly has something to do with the fact you don’t ever see stickers of Calvin doing anything that isn’t peeing. This is because Watterson was (and remains) adamantly against licencing his characters for merchandising purposes, something that led to a lot of arguments with his syndication agency, Universal Press Syndicate (now part of Andrews McMeel Universal, who didn’t want to talk to me about pee). Watterson could have made millions — think about how much Garfield crap you can buy — but chose artistic integrity instead.
As he wrote in The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book, “I believe licencing usually cheapens the original creation. When cartoon characters appear on countless products, the public inevitably grows bored and irritated with them, and the appeal and value of the original work are diminished.”
“I’d like to think the original intention of Calvin being drawn in this way was maybe a swipe at Bill Watterson’s hard stance on not licensing the characters for merchandise,” says Brendan the bootlegger. “It definitely makes it a lot funnier to me, seeing as the sole use of his character on merch ended up being something so vulgar that he has no control over — it’s sort of the ‘Streisand effect’ of the bootleg world.”
Universal Press continues to try to shut down operations making the stickers, but it’s a losing battle. As the strip’s late editor Lee Salem told Cleveland Scene in 2003, companies making bootleg stickers aren’t large operations — the legal cost of finding and pursuing all these tiny outfits would be incredibly prohibitive, and far exceed anything they’d make in damages. Since then, of course, the internet has made the idea of controlling such things laughable. “Mall stores openly sold T-shirts with drawings illegally lifted from my books, and obscene or drug-related shirts were rife on college campuses,” wrote Watterson. “Only thieves and vandals have made money from Calvin and Hobbes merchandise.”
The thing that seems slightly egregious and distasteful about it all is that Calvin and Hobbes, as a work of art, is basically perfect. It’s beautiful, hilarious, profound and occasionally heartbreaking. There’s a purity of vision to it — an unfakeable sincerity about the innocence of childhood and the magic of imagination — that makes all the peeing stuff just feel a bit grubby. Sure, the bootleg Simpsons shirts with “Crack Kills” on them showing Bart lodged between the buttocks of a large woman, or the “Bart Marley” ones where he’s smoking a huge joint, are much more adult than the show. But The Simpsons always had an element to it of nothing being sacred. Watterson’s creation is genuinely heartfelt — messing about with it feels that bit more sacreligious.
Making matters worse, the popularity of a cultural meme like the peeing Calvin sticker is self-perpetuating — once it became a staple, more and more riffs and spins on it became inevitable. There are redrawn versions that resemble the original less and less, gender-flipped versions (squatting to pee on the word ‘MEN’) and a surprising amount of religious ones, with the mischievous little scamp imploring people to pray. But peeing remains Knockoff Calvin’s main activity. There he is, on the backs of millions of cars, pissing away.
At least Watterson has gotten to a point where he has a sense of humor about it. In 2013, Mental Floss journalist Jake Rossen asked him, “Owing to spite or just a foul mood, have you ever peeled one of those stupid Calvin stickers off of a pickup truck?” To which Watterson replied, “I figure that, long after the strip is forgotten, those decals are my ticket to immortality.”