Thursday, October 27, 2005

Bill Watterson’s Privacy

Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes, is a recluse. That’s been evident since he quit drawing Calvin and Hobbes in 1995, after 10 highly-successful years, when it was still as funny as it was the day he started. Watterson wrote briefly about his desire for privacy in the 10th anniversary book. The book also revealed Watterson’s strong-will natured, evident in his artistic integrity, such as his refusal to license the characters of Calvin and Hobbes for any merchandise.

However, it wasn’t until I stumbled across this article that I realised how private a man he is.

CHAGRIN FALLS, Ohio - Maybe someday, officials will put up a statue marking this quaint village as the birthplace of "Calvin and Hobbes"

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:

• He reads newspaper comics, but doesn't consider this their golden age.

• He's never attended any church.

• 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.

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.

The last sentence of that article rings especially true. The funny pages haven’t been the same since Calvin and Hobbes and I doubt I will ever enjoy a comic as much as I did that one. Part of it is probably rooted in the fact I grew up with the strip (well, over the last two and three years) and the appeal that comics possess for children, as opposed to adults.

However, I have no doubt I could read the books in twenty years and still get a great laugh from them, which is something few strips can provide. None can provide it with the consistency and hilarity of Calvin and Hobbes. In fact, over the last 10 minutes I’ve firmly decided that at some point in my life I will own The Complete Calvin and Hobbes. It will not be out-of-place on my bookshelf, at all.


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