Calvin and Hobbes to End

by Jerry Carroll, Staff Writer for The San Francisco Chronicle
December 30, 1995. pg. C1

Tomorrow is the last day for ``Calvin and Hobbes,'' the newspaper cartoon drawn by Bill Watterson and followed by millions of readers for 10 years. The hermetic artist who draws the 6- year-old kid and his tiger chum is fed up with the limits of the downsized comic strip form.

In throwing in the towel, Watterson continues a trend and joins distinguished ranks. In recent years, Gary Larson (``The Far Side''), Berke Breathed (``Bloom County'') and Jim Unger (``Herman'') have quit daily newspaper work. Success at their level is rewarded by spectacular riches, but deadline pressures are punishing.

The grieving is already well advanced, especially since Watterson has said he won't allow any of his strips to be rerun. ``The demise of Calvin and Hobbes is a disaster,'' said Jack Nachbar, professor of popular culture at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. ``Bill Watterson has no right to do this to us, damn it!''

``I don't think they are going to find a replacement,'' said Paola Muggia Stuff, executive director of the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco. ``It'll be the same as `The Far Side.' Imitations may come up, but nothing will replace it.''

In announcing his decision earlier this year to put an end to the comic, which is carried by 2,400 newspapers, Watterson said: ``I've done what I can do within the constraints of daily deadlines and small panels.''

``Bill is both refreshingly different and exasperatingly different, depending on one's perspective,'' said Lee Salem, editorial director of Universal Press Syndicate, which distributes ``Calvin and Hobbes.'' ``I'm an editor, not a creative person. I think it's difficult for those of us not (creatively) inclined to judge what toll that takes on a person. With some of these people it's a toll they didn't want to pay anymore.''

Salem said Watterson ``has a very highly defined aesthetic that seems a little out of place in the '90s, and has a business prospective that is alien.'' How alien? Watterson, 38, refused from the beginning -- when ``Calvin and Hobbes'' was just taking off and he drew the strip in a tiny room overlooking a driveway in Ohio -- to allow his characters to be commercially licensed. This is why there are no ``Calvin and Hobbes'' sweatshirts, pajamas, greeting cards, refrigerator magnets or stuffed tigers. It meant turning his back, conservatively, on $10 million a year. Do the math yourself -- that's roughly $100 million he could have pocketed but didn't because of his scruples.

At a 1990 symposium at Ohio University, the prickly Watterson ripped into colleagues whose standards are not so elevated. ``Why are so many comic strips poorly drawn, why do so many of them offer only the simplest interchangeable gags and puns? Why are strips written by committee and drawn by assistants? Why are some strips little more than advertisements for dolls and greeting cards?''

That was a rare public appearance. Watterson refuses to be interviewed or photographed. The last time he consented to either was in 1987, when his comic strip appeared in only a tenth as many newspapers and still needed promotion. ``I'm very happy that people enjoy the strip and have become devoted to it,'' he said. ``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.''

Each of his 14 books of ``Calvin and Hobbes'' cartoons sold a million copies even though Watterson refused to go on tour to jack up sales. ``They started out with three weeks in 15 cities,'' he said about one proposal his publisher made. ``I said it would be no weeks in no cities.''

``Doing a daily cartoon strip is an unbelievable drag, worse than a paper route,'' says Jacque Parsons, a former editor for United Media who represents ``Sylvia'' cartoonist Nicole Hollander. Cartoonists such as Monterey's Hank Ketcham, whose ``Dennis the Menace'' is 45 years old, preside like chairmen over artists and idea men who do the work. The same is true of Mort Walker, whose ``Beetle Bailey'' strip has run as long. Watterson accepts no help on his strip, which he sometimes uses to plumb the sort of questions people ask themselves at 3 in the morning when they can't sleep.

Calvin: Isn't it strange that evolution would give us a sense of humor? It's weird that we have a physiological response to absurdity. We laugh at nonsense.

Hobbes, walking away: I suppose if we couldn't laugh at things that don't make sense, we couldn't react to a lot of life.

Calvin, now alone: I can't tell if that's funny or really scary.

Watterson majored in political science instead of art at Kenyon College. Calvin is named after John Calvin, the ascetic 16th century Protestant theologian who believed the human condition was an abyss from which man could not escape. Thomas Hobbes was a 17th century political philosopher best known for this observation: ``And the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.''

It is clear that Watterson is no Pollyanna despite the engaging humor of ``Calvin and Hobbes.'' Dark currents move in complicated ways beneath the sparkle of the surface.

Calvin: This whole Santa Claus thing just doesn't make sense. Why all the secrecy? Why all the mystery? If the guy exists, why doesn't he ever show himself and prove it? And if he doesn't exist, what's the meaning of all this?

Hobbes: I dunno. Isn't this a religious holiday?

Calvin: Yeah, but actually, I've got the same questions about God.

After college, Watterson worked as an editorial cartoonist for the Cincinnati Post. Fired after three months, he then collected rejection slips from newspaper syndicates. He pitched a comic strip based on a young man his own age who had a kid brother with a stuffed tiger, but Universal Press Syndicate spotted more potential in the kid and tiger. The new concept had the button-eyed stuffed animal become a 6-foot living creature when the two were alone.

Watterson resisted describing his creations. ``I've never sat down to spell it out,'' he said in 1987 about Calvin, ``but I guess he's a little too intelligent for his age. The thing that I really enjoy about him is that he has no sense of restraint, he doesn't have the experience yet to know the things that you shouldn't do.''

One fan is ``Doonesbury'' creator Garry Tru deau. He said ``Calvin and Hobbes'' clicks because Watterson saw that in a child's fantasies, adults aren't resented ``because they don't even exist.'' Watterson, who lives with his wife and their cats in Santa Fe, didn't quite agree with the analysis.

``I don't have any great insight to the knowledge about children,'' he said, adding crankily: ``I don't think of Hobbes as a doll that miraculously comes to life when Calvin's around. Neither do I think of Hobbes as the product of Calvin's imagination. The nature of Hobbes' reality doesn't interest me, and each story goes out of its way to avoid resolving the issue. Calvin sees Hobbes one way, and everyone else sees Hobbes another way. I show two versions of reality, and each makes sense to the participant who sees it. I think that's how life works.'' He tangled with newspapers a few years back by demanding that his comic strip be run in a larger format or not at all. ``By unimaginatively imposing standardized, reduced formats on all comics, papers give the comics cost-efficient space, not graphically effective space.'' When a number of newspapers, hard-pressed by rising newsprint costs, canceled the strip, his syndicate talked Watterson into a compromise. Editors could choose between large and small versions.

``I think he had a legitimate complaint,'' said Salem. ``Unfortunately, newspapers . . . are looking at possible further reduction of web width and reduction of comic strips. I think it is unfortunate to see them treated this way.''

As with so many of the more than 3,000 strips Watterson has drawn over the decade, tomorrow's curtain dropper will feature Calvin and Hobbes coming down a snowy hill on a sled. ``It works whether people know they are leaving or not,'' Salem said.