Tracer Bullet (Calvin & Hobbes)

Created by Bill Watterson

“The dame said she had a case. She sounded like a case herself, but I can’t choose my clients.”
— Tracer Bullet (Calvin) confronts his mom; something about a broken lamp.

TRACER BULLET is simply one of the best spoofs of the hard-boiled eye to hit the comics page since Snoopy dragged his typewriter on top of his dog house to write The Great American Detective Novel.

Tracer, of course, is the alter-ego of Calvin, the precocious and hyper-imaginative six-year old of Bill Watterson‘s classic Calvin and Hobbes comic strip. Other alter-egos of the pint-size daydreamer over the years included Stupendous Man and Spaceman Spiff, which allowed Watterson to lampoon the superhero and space hero genres respectively, and as with Tracer, a great amount of gentle affection.

Tracer made his first appearance in a story arc in May 1987, in which Calvin receives an extremely unfortunate hair cut from Hobbes, his stuffed (and possibly imaginary) tiger. Of course, Calvin panics. “If Mom sees this, she’ll blow her blood vessels!” he proclaims.

After Hobbes’ styling suggestions pan out (“Let’s try parting your hair from ear to ear.”) he tries to convince Calvin to first wear a kerchief and then a fedora. It’s the wearing of the hat that triggers Calvin’s P.I. full-tilt gumshoe fantasy (and the strip’s shift, stylistically and in dialogue and tone, to a spot-on spoof of detective fiction and film noir, as he adapts the persona of Tracer Bullet, a down-on-his-luck shamus in a rundown office on 49th Street. He charges $50 per day (plus expenses, of course), and he likes to keep both his guns and himself well-loaded.

Tracer didn’t make a return appearance until 1990, when he showed up in an arc that had Calvin daydreaming in the middle of a classroom math quiz (where he also tries to copy the answers from “that Derkins dame”), and his final appearance was a year later, when he tackled “The Case of the Broken Lamp.”

Evidently, although he made only three brief appearances, Watterson always had a fondness for Tracer. In the intro to The Tenth Anniversary Book of Calvin and Hobbes, regarding the first Tracer arc, Watterson mused “Would that I could write like this more often. He also confessed that the sight of Calvin’s haircut was one of the few times his own work made him laugh out loud… But he also noted that the “Tracer Bullet stories are extremely time-consuming to write, so I don’t attempt them often. I’m not at all familiar with film noir or detective novels, so these are just spoofs on the clichés of the genre. Cartoonists don’t use black much anymore (the eye, being lazy, is attracted to empty white space, especially when the panels are so small), and we miss some dramatic possibilities that way.”

Calvin and Hobbes ran for just over ten years, from November 18, 1985 until December 31, 1995, and at its height appeared in over 2,400 newspapers.


  • “I’ve got eight slugs in me. One’s lead, and the rest are bourbon. The drink packs a wallop and I pack a revolver.”
  • “My buddies travel light, and they’re fun to have around. One travels in a holster, and the other in a hip flask.” 
  • “I keep two magnums in my desk. One’s a gun and I keep it loaded. The other’s a bottle and it keeps ME loaded.”
  • “If business was as good as my aim, I’d be on Easy Street.”



  • The Complete Calvin and Hobbes (2005)Buy this book
    Sure, it’s pricey, and it weighs approximately half a ton, but this hefty three-volume collection (a surprise best-seller!) of ALL the daily and Sunday strips is the only one that gathers together all three Tracer Bullet arcs.


Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. Images taken from Calvin & Hobbes, ©1985-1996 Universal Press Syndicate. Please don’t sue me.

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