By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 4, 2005
"Calvin and Hobbes" was such an exuberant, strange and metaphysical realm you wonder how it ever got shoveled into a comic strip.
You remember this when you look at "The Complete Calvin and Hobbes," a 1,456-page art-book epic of every panel ever published: It was original by sheer force of personality. Calvin sounded like a 6-year-old psychotic on Ritalin one day and a Yale lit grad the next. He was id off the leash. He wondered what was worthwhile in life if death was inevitable. ("Seafood," answered Hobbes, his imaginary tiger friend. Wait -- was Hobbes real or not? Debatable.)
Calvin battled blobs of oatmeal and the bathtub suds monster. He and Hobbes hurtled downhill in their wagon and set out for the Yukon. He turned himself into a Tyrannosaurus rex , Calvin the Human Insect, Calvin the Bug, Captain Napalm, Stupendous Man and Spaceman Spiff.
In the middle of class, Calvin's teacher suddenly turns into a pig-snouted monster! The drooling blob demands attention and homework!
"Chew electric death, snarling cur!" Spiff howls, blasting her face off with his Atomic Napalm Neutralizer!
He was known to wear little rocket ship underpants. He feared nothing but the babysitter. Also the dark.
The strip ran from 1985 to 1995. Thirty million people have bought earlier collections of the strip, but as of today you can buy it all in one pop. It will set you back $150, but the three-volume, glossy-papered tome finally gives proper appreciation and display to creator Bill Watterson's efforts, the kind of size and color quality that he waged such epic battles for with newspapers and syndicates before retiring into silence at age 37, tired of the fray, wary of drifting into the bankrolls of mediocrity.
Flip open a page here:
"I want a grenade launcher, Mom. When's Christmas?" Calvin barks in one panel.
"What do you think is the meaning of true happiness?" he asks Hobbes in another. "Is it money, cars and women? Or is it just money and cars?"
Here comes that cute girl from class! Calvin: "Hey, Susie Derkins, is that your face or is a possum stuck in your collar?"
All 10 years gone now.
People still remember because it was never worse than good, and was often simply brilliant. It parodied the issues of the day, the materialism, the greed-is-good cynicism, the pointlessness of television, the rampaging egos, the growing crassness of public intercourse, the bad behavior, our infinitesimal place in the universe. There was also time for snacks and a bedtime story.
" 'Calvin and Hobbes' is probably one of the last great American comic strips," says Dirk Deppey, editor of the Comics Journal.
A generation earlier, "Peanuts" reshaped the comics world by imagining children with interior psychological lives in a neighborhood devoid of adults. Charlie Brown was a kid on the verge of midlife crisis. There was a beagle who fancied himself a fighter pilot.
"Calvin and Hobbes," the best kid strip since, worked on the conceit that Hobbes was a stuffed animal to everyone in the world but Calvin, an only child. Only when he and Calvin are alone in the panel does Hobbes spring to life -- a tiger who walks on two feet, makes cheesecake grins at girls and appears to be more mature than Calvin by oh, about an hour and a half.
They wrestle, pull the covers back and forth at bedtime and make goofy faces at one another while sitting in the back seat of the family car -- best friends of the type boys no longer have after age 12. The only other kids in the strip were Susie, who lived around the block, and Moe, the school bully. Calvin's parents did not have names. They lived in a house that had a sort of American foursquare sensibility to it, in a nameless town that seemed lost on the Midwestern prairie. It all bespoke a certain Sunday-afternoon loneliness. (Hobbes was Calvin's imagination, right? His alter ego? Which means the whole thing is just Calvin talking to himself? Nobody knows; Watterson never made it clear.)
The childish exuberance, the adult cynicism, the gorgeous colors in the Sunday panels. Hyper-literate third graders read it, overweight taxi drivers in El Paso read it, terminally hip people wearing black in Manhattan read it.
It was a brilliant blue flame of creativity that startled Watterson's friends.
"He wasn't exactly a ball of laughs," says Richard West, a comics historian and author who has known Watterson since college. "Where did this stuff come from? I don't know. I didn't see the genius in his day-to-day personality."
Watterson, in the book's introduction: "Hobbes got all my better qualities (with a few quirks from our cats), and Calvin my ranting, escapist side. Together, they're pretty much a transcript of my mental diary . . . it's pretty startling to reread these strips ands see my personality exposed so plainly right there on paper. I meant to disguise that better."
Well. It's not that the man was ever overexposed -- and that was before he did the Garbo thing.
* * *
It is 1988. The strip has been going for three years. The phone rings at Universal Press Syndicate. It is Steven Spielberg's assistant. Mr. Spielberg would very much like to speak to Mr. Watterson.
Lee Salem, the syndicate's president, is ecstatic. Two creative minds like that getting together! The Wizard of Oz! Winnie the Pooh! Peter Pan! Excited, he calls Watterson at home in Chagrin Falls, a leafy suburb of Cleveland. Would he talk to Spielberg?
No, Watterson says.
"Bill simply was not interested," Salem remembers now, the sound of lost millions in licensing revenue like so much static down the phone line.
It turned out Watterson wasn't interested in doing anything other than the strip. After the first couple of years, no interviews. No "Calvin and Hobbes" dolls -- even if Hobbes was, at least as adults see it, a doll himself. (There's no telling how much a Hobbes doll could have made. The syndicate originally had licensing rights, but Watterson's opposition was so vehement that Salem ultimately "caved in completely'' and gave all the rights back to Watterson. "Otherwise, I'd be on the beach somewhere right now,'' Salem says.) No animated specials. No calendars, notebooks, pencils, backpacks or lunch boxes. (Those car decals of a Calvinesque brat whizzing on one thing or another are rip-offs.)
In 1990, Watterson gave the commencement speech at his alma mater, Kenyon College in Ohio. It was about fleeing the "real world."
He apparently hasn't appeared in a public forum since.
Very few photographs, too. These are old now, but show a slender, bespectacled man with a Marine buzz cut and a thick, somber mustache. Dark eyes, maybe friendly, maybe just tired of you.
He's 47 now. Lives in Cleveland proper with his wife, Melissa, in a house tax records show the couple bought last year for less than you can get a condo for in Washington. In the introduction to the book, he says he paints and studies music.
"He's a pretty regular guy who lives on a regular street," says West. "His neighbors know who he is. He visits his family, but trotting around the world never interested him. He doesn't live significantly different than he did 20 years ago."
Watterson was born in the District and grew up in the droning normalcy of Chagrin Falls. His mom, Kathryn, was on the city council and his dad a patent attorney. He would use the family house as the model for Calvin's, Kathryn Watterson says in a telephone interview, and his dad as the model for Calvin's. ("I'd be happy to talk to you all day long, but Bill's been so private," she says. "He's a thoughtful, introspective person, so it sort of goes along that he wouldn't seek out publicity.")
At Kenyon, Watterson wanted to be a political cartoonist. He got a job as one for a paper in Cincinnati after graduation, but wound up in the unemployment line six months later. He designed ads for a weekly shopper in the windowless basement of a convenience store.
After hours and on weekends, he developed comic strips no one wanted. He eventually drew one populated by a dozen characters including a kid named Marvin and his stuffed tiger, Hobbes. On the suggestion of one syndicate, Watterson kept the stuffed tiger, gave Marvin's Beatlesque mop a haircut, changed his name and dumped the rest of the cast.
Universal Press Syndicate picked up the strip in 1985. There were clues all along that this was about more than slapstick. Calvin was named for the 16th-century Protestant theologian who believed in predestination, Hobbes for the philosopher a century later who once observed that life is "nasty, brutish and short." Miss Wormwood, Calvin's teacher, was named after the apprentice devil in "The Screwtape Letters."
Success was quick -- the cartoon was quickly picked up by dozens of papers, and eventually ran in more than 2,400. But the young cartoonist was developing his characters on the fly, uncertain about working in the huge shadow cast by "Peanuts." He often agreed with syndicate editors who thought a lot of the early submissions didn't work.
"Calvin was little more than a mischievous loudmouth and Hobbes was simply his somewhat more sensible friend," Watterson writes of those early days in his introduction.
But the strip was deepened by the friendship between the main pair, which was always sent into the stratosphere by Calvin's imagination. This led to Watterson's other breakthrough idea, that of drawing Calvin's daydreams as the boy himself saw them -- a cartoon within a cartoon.
It became a running gag, a four-panel rimshot: First panel, a crocodile floating to the top of the murky Amazon. Second and third panels, the croc drifting toward a hippo. Panel 4: Calvin's dad (the hippo) standing in the shallow end of the swimming pool, asking his floating-face-down son what on earth he's doing.
The joke was in the contrast; fantasy compared with banal reality. That one goes B-B-B-A. Others, which started in reality, would go A-B-B-A. On Sundays, when Calvin turned into a roaring T. rex, the pattern was elongated for more space.
This got harder to do as time wore on.
"That was originally a fun idea, but the burden on the strip has been to make each switch more clever," Watterson said in an interview with West, published in the Comics Journal in 1989. "Each time it's got to be done with some unpredictability, some cleverness to it so that it doesn't become moribund. . . . I'm doing fewer because it's getting more and more difficult."
Six years later, he would do no more at all. He drew one final cartoon and let a boy and his tiger take off downhill on their snow sled and slide into comics history.
Ten years gone now.
Maybe that was the smart thing, you know. Maybe it was for the best. But still, the last book comes along and you realize there'll be no more Spaceman Spiff, no more Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Snow Goons. As a cartoon blockhead might have observed in an earlier era:
You wonder what that Susie Derkins is doing these days.