Calvin and Hobbes Creator Draws on the Simple Life

Times Staff Writer

Calvin and Hobbes and Bill Watterson are using this clapboard village as a cloister from fame. It's their transmogrifier, if you will, with its pointer set on a sanity far from the hideous scum beings of reporters and other bat barf.

"Calvin and Hobbes will not exist intact if I do not exist intact," explained creator Watterson, very determined at 28, new to success, and thoroughly confused by the country's quick addiction to his 16-month-old comic strip about a brash kid and his loyal tiger. "And I will not exist intact if I have to put up with all this stuff."

This stuff, however, is the stuff of which cartooning fortunes are made. Sweat shirt sales. Greeting cards. Robin Leach. Calvin and Hobbes toys, a profile in People . . . and pitches from hustlers sniffing fresh meat for a marketplace monopolized by Peanuts and Garfield.

"I'm very happy that people enjoy the strip and have become devoted to it," Watterson said. They certainly have. After little more than a year of syndication, Calvin and Hobbes appears in 250 newspapers. "But it seems that with a lot of the marketing stuff, the incentive is just to cash in. It's not understanding what makes the strip work."

So despite dangled millions, Watterson has ended discussions to license Calvin and Hobbes for greeting cards. Proposals to animate the strip for television have been placed on hold. One day, there could be a Calvin doll or a stuffed Hobbes because "they (items) are pretty much advertisements for the strip . . . they're not trying to do the job of the comic strip, they're not giving jokes or developing characters."

Preserving the integrity and fullness of his characters, is cardinal with Watterson.

Similarly, he's opposing attempts to intrude upon his unassuming life style. Sleeping late, enjoying slow moments, knowing only simple concerns are his pleasures. Maybe as a superstition, he feels that if anything is allowed to change Watterson it also will change Calvin and Hobbes.

So home remains the rented, century-old doll house that was all Watterson could afford two years ago when he was earning minimum wages as makeup editor for "a sleazy, tabloid shopper."

Calvin and Hobbes are born daily on an undersized drawing board in a 9x9 room that's a cell overlooking a driveway. Despite a sudden surge in his income, Watterson is content with his Honda Civic. Wife Melissa, also an artist, drives a Volkswagen that barely makes it to the store and back.

Bill and Melissa Watterson have no children. But there are three cats: Sprite and Pumpernickel, who are normal, and Juniper Boots. He snores and attacks anything that moves.

They live a couple of miles from the 19th-Century clock tower at Hudson (pop. 1,538) where each day is 1952. The most controversial thing in the village is the billboard outside the First Baptist Church. It predicts that Russia will invade Israel.

And Watterson, at least for the moment, can still walk Main Street and suck a soda at Saywell's Drug Store without anyone saying his best strip was the one where Hobbes thought a bushel equalled four pecks, which was a quick smooch. . . .

'I Enjoy the Isolation'

"I enjoy the isolation (from people), that's how I work," he said. "I read an article on Garrison Keillor (author-broadcaster and sole city father of Lake Wobegon) where he said that fame has, to a certain extent, corrupted his work. He gets some of his inspiration from being an unrecognized observer. But if he can't walk into a hardware store and overhear people and be inconspicuous he can't get his material."

To protect his own world, Watterson has gone to an unlisted telephone number ("People were nice, but they had a knack of calling at dinnertime") and ducks autograph situations ("If I scrawl my name on a napkin, it becomes valuable to somebody and that's ludicrous"), gives interview priorities to client newspapers and is interviewed at home only reluctantly.

He does not want to be photographed. The picture with this story was obtained from the Vancouver Province, which published it last year when the cartoonist was a lesser celebrity. "I don't want to be more recognized than I am," Watterson explained.

And he does not sell nor give away originals.

But as Calvin and Hobbes grow in popularity (it recently won reader polls in the Detroit Free Press and the Chicago Tribune), the artist's personal idealism is tested harder by commercial realism.

This month the first collection of Calvin and Hobbes cartoons (Andrews, McMeel & Parker: $6:95) will go on sale. Watterson was asked if he would embark on a national tour to promote the volume.

"They started out with three weeks in 15 cities," Watterson recalled. "I said it would be no weeks in no cities."

He didn't like the idea of being taken away from his drawing board. He also thinks the success or failure of Calvin and Hobbes should depend on the strength of his drawing and writing . . . not on the nation learning that their creator is a slender recluse, quite short and with a mustache, round spectacles and a bristle cut.

"Besides, if I had to spend two weeks shuttling between airports and shopping malls, my brain would be guacamole."

Spoken like Calvin. Whose eyes would be wide in grand innocence at the disgusting imagery of green paste for brains. Hobbes would be smirking behind his paw. "Ssmrrrkzz . . . "

It's that very form of impudence, the fresh setups, the infinite alliance between a rascal and his pretend tiger living in fantasies we share, that have elevated Calvin and Hobbes to unprecedented success.

"It's getting off to a much faster start that I did," said Charles Schulz, father of Peanuts and Charlie Brown and Snoopy. "I started with seven newspapers and at the end of the first year I was only in 40 newspapers."

Schulz (now in 2,000 newspapers worldwide) lives in Santa Rosa and reads Calvin and Hobbes daily. "My favorite sequence is where Calvin gets into dad and starts drawing his popularity charts."

For 27 years, Bil Keane of Paradise Valley, Ariz., has drawn the Family Circus. It appears in 1,200 publications. Keane reads Calvin and Hobbes.

"I think it's great," Keane said. "He's a very innovative cartoonist. Calvin is brash and precocious and that's not the usual try at kid and family humor. But that's why it's so imaginative."

Then there's Doonesbury (in 1,000 newspapers) and cartoonist Garry Trudeau. He thought enough of Watterson's work to write the foreword for the first Calvin and Hobbes book. In it, Trudeau criticizes those who create comic youngsters ("up to and including the perpetrators of the Cosby 'kids' ") and the dialogue that converts these children into "wisecracking, miniature adults."

But Watterson, Trudeau said, is unusual. He's the reporter who has gotten it right. He knows that in a child's blessed fantasies parents aren't resented "because they don't even exist."

Heady stuff. It flatters Watterson who grew up (the son of an Ohio lawyer) besotted by Peanuts. And Pogo drawn by the late Walt Kelly. Then Bloom County (by Berke Brethed) and Doonesbury. Yet he does not accept all of Trudeau's praise.

No Great Insight

"I think that as a father himself he attributed certain insights to me that I'm not sure that I actually possess," he said. "I'm not sure that I'm 'the reporter that got it right.' I don't think I have any great insight to the knowledge about real children."

Nor is he convinced that in Calvin there isn't another miniaturized adult. After all, he has been known to ponder Einstein's theory of relativity.

"He certainly has a vocabulary that most 6-year-olds wouldn't have," Watterson agreed. "I think what I'm trying to do is see the world through a child's eyes where all experience is new, looking at the world with everything being fresh and without prejudices. Then I give Calvin the ability to articulate his thoughts."

It seems to be working and not only with his cartooning contemporaries. From Orange County came a request to use a Calvin and Hobbes episode on the death of a raccoon as part of a grief counseling presentation. That same sequence touched Lillian Rader of Los Angeles.

"I felt dreadful when the little raccoon died," she wrote in a letter to Watterson.

Yet it's not all praise. One episode with Calvin and Hobbes in the family car produced several protests. Why weren't they wearing seat belts? Then he drew Calvin playing Elephant Man with his head in a paper sack.

"I got a letter from the society of whatever that horrible disease is. They suggested I could atone by sending them a check for at least $1,000. And apologize. I did neither."

It has been much. It has been soon. It certainly is a long way from a high school senior's only cartoon credits--the school newspaper, the yearbook and stall doors in the boys room.

Watterson majored in political science, not art, at Kenyon College and here's the long-awaited nugget: Calvin comes from John Calvin, the Protestant reformer, and Hobbes was borrowed from Thomas Hobbes, the social philosopher. "It's an inside joke for poli-sci majors," Watterson said.

Fresh from college, Watterson was hired by the Cincinnati Post as an editorial cartoonist. Three months later, he was fired. He continued drawing. He developed into a major collector of rejection slips.

He tried science fiction and a parody named "Spaceman Spiff." It got lost in space. Watterson turned to a strip about a young man of his own age. His central figure had a kid brother who had a toy tiger.

A syndicate suggested developing the boy and his tiger. Watterson did. Universal Press saw a Huckleberry Finn flair in the new version and added Calvin and Hobbes to its lineup.

Watterson examining his own work is something of a disappointment to those who feed on the vitality of alter egos and the influence of personal experience on the creative condition.

For the artist--shy and unadventuresome as a lad--brings no autobiography to his strip. He cannot remember living through a toy, not even a teddy bear.

No Sense of Restraint

"One of the things that I don't think most people realize is that I don't have any more idea of what these two are going to do next week than anybody else."

Who is Calvin? "I've never sat down to spell it out . . . but I guess he's a little too intelligent for his age. The thing that I really enjoy about him is that he has no sense of restraint, he doesn't have the experience yet to know the things that you shouldn't do.

"But I wouldn't want to be him and I wouldn't want to have him in the house."

Hobbes? "Hobbes is a little more restrained, a little more knowledgeable . . . has a little bit of that sense of consequence that Calvin lacks entirely."

And the strip? His formula is to transcend the joke-a-day by carrying his characters to a message. With a tiny plot. Like writing a novel, he says, in daily installments.

"You must go through life with these characters and experience each day through their eyes and maybe find a new way of interpreting the world. When Charlie Brown says: 'When you're lonely, peanut butter sticks to the roof of you mouth' . . . there's a pathos, its a real experience that somehow has been encapsulated and everybody can identify it and relive it or experience it through Charlie Brown."

As they identified and experienced when Calvin and Hobbes found a dying raccoon and put Watterson on a tightrope between schmaltz and message.

He walked it thus: "I made it a progression from Calvin and Hobbes' emotional response to death through the grieving process to the philosophical aspects. Why did this have to happen? If it can happen to a raccoon that hasn't harmed anyone then we all are vulnerable.

"At the end, Calvin and Hobbes hug and they are reaching out to each other, recognizing the preciousness of friendship and the realization that this does not last forever."

High response to the raccoon series brought Watterson a satisfaction superior to financial gain.

"The motivation is the work itself and having a job I've aspired to since I was a kid," he said. "I wouldn't be doing this if I were just in it for the money."

Not that he's opposed to money. He would like to buy a new house with a spare bedroom so Melissa can have her own studio. And he does want to replace her limping Volkswagen.

Beyond that: "Really, the joys of life are very simple. Having a couple of cats around the house, a quiet life, dabbling in watercolors and woodblock printing . . . the more succcess it (Calvin and Hobbes) has, the happier I am, but if it coasted along at the current number of papers now I would be more than happy."

Calvin, he knows, does not share that view.

"He's pretty much the capitalist."

Hobbes, of course, would go along with Calvin.

Especially if fame and fortune means surfing at Malibu and being on television and maybe getting to smooch Vanna White.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
66°