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Calvin and Hobbes Creator Draws on the Simple Life

April 01, 1987|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer

HUDSON, Ohio — 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."

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