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Calvin and Hobbes Creator Draws on the Simple Life

April 01, 1987|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer

He didn't like the idea of being taken away from his drawing board. He also thinks the success or failure of Calvin and Hobbes should depend on the strength of his drawing and writing . . . not on the nation learning that their creator is a slender recluse, quite short and with a mustache, round spectacles and a bristle cut.

"Besides, if I had to spend two weeks shuttling between airports and shopping malls, my brain would be guacamole."

Spoken like Calvin. Whose eyes would be wide in grand innocence at the disgusting imagery of green paste for brains. Hobbes would be smirking behind his paw. "Ssmrrrkzz . . . "

It's that very form of impudence, the fresh setups, the infinite alliance between a rascal and his pretend tiger living in fantasies we share, that have elevated Calvin and Hobbes to unprecedented success.

"It's getting off to a much faster start that I did," said Charles Schulz, father of Peanuts and Charlie Brown and Snoopy. "I started with seven newspapers and at the end of the first year I was only in 40 newspapers."

Schulz (now in 2,000 newspapers worldwide) lives in Santa Rosa and reads Calvin and Hobbes daily. "My favorite sequence is where Calvin gets into dad and starts drawing his popularity charts."

For 27 years, Bil Keane of Paradise Valley, Ariz., has drawn the Family Circus. It appears in 1,200 publications. Keane reads Calvin and Hobbes.

"I think it's great," Keane said. "He's a very innovative cartoonist. Calvin is brash and precocious and that's not the usual try at kid and family humor. But that's why it's so imaginative."

Then there's Doonesbury (in 1,000 newspapers) and cartoonist Garry Trudeau. He thought enough of Watterson's work to write the foreword for the first Calvin and Hobbes book. In it, Trudeau criticizes those who create comic youngsters ("up to and including the perpetrators of the Cosby 'kids' ") and the dialogue that converts these children into "wisecracking, miniature adults."

But Watterson, Trudeau said, is unusual. He's the reporter who has gotten it right. He knows that in a child's blessed fantasies parents aren't resented "because they don't even exist."

Heady stuff. It flatters Watterson who grew up (the son of an Ohio lawyer) besotted by Peanuts. And Pogo drawn by the late Walt Kelly. Then Bloom County (by Berke Brethed) and Doonesbury. Yet he does not accept all of Trudeau's praise.

No Great Insight

"I think that as a father himself he attributed certain insights to me that I'm not sure that I actually possess," he said. "I'm not sure that I'm 'the reporter that got it right.' I don't think I have any great insight to the knowledge about real children."

Nor is he convinced that in Calvin there isn't another miniaturized adult. After all, he has been known to ponder Einstein's theory of relativity.

"He certainly has a vocabulary that most 6-year-olds wouldn't have," Watterson agreed. "I think what I'm trying to do is see the world through a child's eyes where all experience is new, looking at the world with everything being fresh and without prejudices. Then I give Calvin the ability to articulate his thoughts."

It seems to be working and not only with his cartooning contemporaries. From Orange County came a request to use a Calvin and Hobbes episode on the death of a raccoon as part of a grief counseling presentation. That same sequence touched Lillian Rader of Los Angeles.

"I felt dreadful when the little raccoon died," she wrote in a letter to Watterson.

Yet it's not all praise. One episode with Calvin and Hobbes in the family car produced several protests. Why weren't they wearing seat belts? Then he drew Calvin playing Elephant Man with his head in a paper sack.

"I got a letter from the society of whatever that horrible disease is. They suggested I could atone by sending them a check for at least $1,000. And apologize. I did neither."

It has been much. It has been soon. It certainly is a long way from a high school senior's only cartoon credits--the school newspaper, the yearbook and stall doors in the boys room.

Watterson majored in political science, not art, at Kenyon College and here's the long-awaited nugget: Calvin comes from John Calvin, the Protestant reformer, and Hobbes was borrowed from Thomas Hobbes, the social philosopher. "It's an inside joke for poli-sci majors," Watterson said.

Fresh from college, Watterson was hired by the Cincinnati Post as an editorial cartoonist. Three months later, he was fired. He continued drawing. He developed into a major collector of rejection slips.

He tried science fiction and a parody named "Spaceman Spiff." It got lost in space. Watterson turned to a strip about a young man of his own age. His central figure had a kid brother who had a toy tiger.

A syndicate suggested developing the boy and his tiger. Watterson did. Universal Press saw a Huckleberry Finn flair in the new version and added Calvin and Hobbes to its lineup.

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