‘Calvin and Hobbes’ Creator Keeps Privacy
CHAGRIN FALLS, Ohio – Maybe someday, officials will put up a statue marking this quaint village as the birthplace of “Calvin and Hobbes.”
Just don’t expect cartoonist Bill Watterson to attend the unveiling ceremony. It’s been nearly 10 years since he abruptly quit drawing one of the most popular comic strips of all time. Since then, he’s been as absent as the precocious Calvin and his pet tiger, err, stuffed animal, Hobbes.
Some call Watterson reclusive. Others say he just likes his privacy.
“He’s an introspective person,” says his mother, Kathryn, standing at the front door her home, its yard covered by a tidy tangle of black-eyed Susans and other wildflowers. It’s where Watterson grew up. Calvin lived there too, so to speak. Watterson used the well-kept, beige Cape Cod-style house as the model for Calvin’s home.
You might even expect Calvin to come bounding out the door with Hobbes in tow, the screen door banging behind them. After all, the guy on the front porch kind of resembles Calvin’s dad. Readers will remember him as the exasperated patent attorney who enjoyed gummy oatmeal and jogging in 20-degree weather.
Sure enough, Watterson’s father, Jim, has a sheen of sweat on his neck, not from a run but from the 73-year-old’s three-mile morning walk.
Watterson has acknowledged satirizing his father, who is now a semiretired patent attorney, in the strip. Jim Watterson says whenever Calvin’s dad told him that something he didn’t want to do “builds character,” they were words he had spoken to his cartoonist son.
After “Calvin and Hobbes” ended, Jim Watterson and his son would paint landscapes together, setting up easels along the Chagrin River or other vistas. He laughed that sometimes they’d spend more time choosing a site than painting. But they haven’t painted together for years.
So what’s Watterson been up to since ending “Calvin and Hobbes?” It’s tough to say.
His parents will say only that he’s happy, but they won’t say where he lives, and the cartoonist could not be reached for an interview.
His former editor, Lee Salem, also remains mum, saying only that as a painter Watterson started with watercolors and has evolved to oils.
“He’s in a financial position where he doesn’t need to meet the deadlines anymore,” Salem says.
Watterson’s parents respect √≥ but have no explanation for √≥ their son’s extremely private nature. It doesn’t run in the family. Kathryn is a former village councilwoman and Jim is seeking his fourth council term this fall. Their other son, Tom, is a high school teacher in Austin, Texas.
Bill Watterson, 47, hasn’t made a public appearance since he delivered the commencement speech in 1990 at his alma mater, Kenyon College. But he recently welcomed some written questions from fans to promote the Oct. 4 release of the three-volume “The Complete Calvin and Hobbes,” which contains every one of the 3,160 strips printed during its 10-year run.
Among his revelations:
√Ø He reads newspaper comics, but doesn’t consider this their golden age.
√Ø He’s never attended any church.
√Ø He’s currently interested in art from the 1600s.
Salem, who edited thousands of “Calvin and Hobbes” strips at Universal Press Syndicate, says that Watterson is private and media shy, not a recluse. Salem didn’t want to see the strip end, but understood Watterson’s decision.
“He came to a point where he thought he had no more to give to the characters,” Salem says.
“Calvin and Hobbes” appeared in more than 2,400 newspapers during its run, one of the few strips to reach an audience that large.
Its success was rooted in the freshness of Calvin √≥ an imaginative 6-year-old who has the immaturity of a child and the psychological complexity of a 40-year-old. As for Hobbes, the device of Calvin viewing him as alive and everybody else seeing him as a stuffed animal was simply brilliant, Salem says.
Their all-encompassing bond of friendship √≥ being able to share joy and have fun together, yet get angry and frustrated with one another √≥ was another reason for the strip’s success.
Universal would welcome Watterson back along with “Calvin and Hobbes” or any other characters he dreams up. “He knows the door’s open and he knows where we are,” Salem says.
There are few signs of Watterson or “Calvin and Hobbes” in Chagrin Falls, a town of 4,000 that has evolved from a manufacturing hub centered on its namesake falls to an upscale area of stately homes and giant maple trees.
A Godzilla-sized Calvin is depicted wreaking havoc on Chagrin Falls on the back cover of “The Essential Calvin and Hobbes,” released in 1988. He’s carrying off the Popcorn Shop, where sweet smells have flowed from its spot on the falls for about 100 years.
Fireside Book Shop, located just out of earshot of the water’s roar, carries 15 different “Calvin and Hobbes” books √≥ customers used to be able to find autographed copies. Store employee Lynn Mathews says Watterson’s mother used to deliver the signed copies to raise money for charity or just to help the book shop. That ended when the cartoonist discovered that some ended up on eBay, she said.
The demand remains, though.
“I get a couple e-mails a month from people looking for signed books,” said Jean Butler, Fireside’s officer manager.
Watterson and his wife, Melissa, moved earlier this year from their home in the village √≥ a century house on a hill between downtown and the high school, where the mascot is a tiger.
As a child, Watterson knew he would be an astronaut or a cartoonist. “I kept my options open until seventh grade, but when I stopped understanding math and science, my choice was made,” he wrote in the introduction to “The Complete Calvin and Hobbes.”
He loved “Peanuts” as a child and started drawing comics. He majored in political science at Kenyon. Thinking he could blend the two subjects, he became a political cartoonist but was fired from his first job at the Cincinnati Post after a few months. So he took a job designing car and grocery ads, but continued cartooning, even though several strip ideas were rejected.
But Universal liked “Calvin and Hobbes” and launched its run Nov. 18, 1985, in 35 newspapers. Calvin caught Hobbes in a tiger trap with a tuna sandwich in the first strip. He spent the next 10 years driving his parents crazy, annoying his crush, Susie Derkins, and playing make-believe as his alter egos Spaceman Spiff and Stupendous Man.
Many of the best moments, though, were time spent alone with his pal, Hobbes.
“The end of summer is always hard on me, trying to cram in all the goofing off I’ve been meaning to do,” Calvin tells Hobbes in an Aug. 24, 1987 strip, the two sitting beneath a tree.
Watterson ended the strip on Dec. 31, 1995, with a statement: “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.”
The last strip shows Calvin and Hobbes sledding off after a new fallen snow. “It’s a magical world, Hobbes, ol’ buddy … let’s go exploring!” Calvin says in the final two panels.
Fans cried out in letters for Watterson to change his mind. Some, like Watterson’s parents, say the funny pages haven’t been the same since.
“It was like getting a letter from home,” Jim Watterson says of reading his son’s work each morning.
People continue to ask the Wattersons if their son will ever send Calvin and his buddy Hobbes on new adventures.
“He might draw something else, but he won’t do that again,” Kathryn Watterson says.
‘Calvin and Hobbes’ Creator Keeps Privacy