- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 29, 2005

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 has been nearly 10 years since he abruptly quit drawing one of the most popular comic strips of all time. Since then, he has been as absent as the precocious Calvin and his pet tiger, err, stuffed animal, Hobbes.

Some call Mr. Watterson reclusive. Others say he just likes his privacy.

“He’s an introspective person,” says his mother, Kathryn, standing at the front door of her home, its yard covered by a tidy tangle of black-eyed Susans and other wildflowers. It’s where Mr. Watterson grew up. Calvin lived there, too, so to speak. Mr. Watterson used the well-kept beige Cape Cod-style house as the model for Calvin’s home.

You even might 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, Mr. 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.

Mr. Watterson has acknowledged satirizing his father, a semiretired patent attorney, in the strip. Jim Watterson says whenever Calvin’s dad told the boy 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 scenic spots. He laughs when he says that sometimes they would spend more time choosing a site than painting — but they haven’t painted together for years.

So what has Mr. 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, Mr. 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,” Mr. Salem says.

Mr. Watterson’s parents respect — but have no explanation for — their son’s extremely private nature. It doesn’t run in the family. Mrs. Watterson is a former village council member, and her husband 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 1990 commencement speech at his alma mater, Kenyon College. However, 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 has never attended any church.

• He is interested in art from the 1600s.

Mr. Salem, who edited thousands of Calvin and Hobbes strips at Universal Press Syndicate, says Mr. Watterson is private and media shy, not a recluse. Mr. Salem didn’t want to see the strip end but says he understood Mr. Watterson’s decision.

“He came to a point where he thought he had no more to give to the characters,” Mr. 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 brilliant, Mr. Salem says.

Their all-encompassing bond of friendship — being able to share joy and have fun together yet get angry and frustrated with each other — was another reason for the strip’s success.

Universal would welcome Mr. 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,” Mr. Salem says.

There are few signs of Mr. 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-size 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, which has sent sweet smells flowing 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 Mr. Watterson’s mother used to deliver the signed copies to raise money for charity or just to help the shop. That ended when the cartoonist discovered that some of the books ended up on EBay, she says.

The demand remains, though.

“I get a couple e-mails a month from people looking for signed books,” says Jean Butler, Fireside’s office manager.

Mr. Watterson and his wife, Melissa, moved earlier this year from their home in the village — a century-old house on a hill between downtown and the high school, where the mascot is a tiger.

As a child, Mr. 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.

However, Universal liked Calvin and Hobbes and began 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 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 as the two are sitting beneath a tree.

Mr. 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 Mr. Watterson to change his mind. Some, like Mr. 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,” Mrs. Watterson says.

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