Drawing the (Comic) Line

`Calvin and Hobbes ' artist struggled before attaining success

Knight-Ridder Newspapers article by Martin F. Kohn
Printed in the Houston Chronicle
Sunday, April 26, 1987
Section: ZEST, page 11

THAT HE named his cartoon little boy and toy tiger Calvin and Hobbes for a couple of heavy thinkers was, Bill Watterson says, "a tip of the hat to the political science department at Kenyon College," his alma mater. More important, "I thought it was funny."

Lots of people think Watterson's comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes, is funny. More than 200 newspapers (including the Houston Chronicle) have bought the strip since it was syndicated a year and a half ago.

Newspaper readers regularly proclaim their loyalty in fan letters to Watterson and responses to surveys. In a Chicago Tribune poll last October, readers named Calvin and Hobbes their favorite strip.

And don't forget other cartoonists.

Garry Trudeau (Doonesbury), whom Watterson has never met or spoken with, wrote an enthusiastic foreword to the recently published first book of Watterson's strips, Calvin and Hobbes (Andrews, McMeel & Parker, $6.95). "Watterson," wrote Trudeau, "is the reporter who's gotten it right; childhood as it actually is, with its constantly shifting frames of reference."

Lynn Johnston (For Better Or For Worse) called Watterson one day to express her enthusiasm for his work, and so did legendary animated cartoon artist Chuck Jones. In perhaps the most public tribute, Berke Breathed (Bloom County) drew one of the characters in his strip wearing a shirt that said "Calvin and Hobbes Rule." Watterson and Breathed have never communicated.

If all this sounds as though Watterson is poised on the verge of major celebrityhood, you're partially right and partially wrong.

You're right that he's poised. Having struggled all his working life to make it as a cartoonist, Watterson, 28, knows that his overnight success took a while. He's not about to be distracted by public attention. He is happy to talk, but has started politely declining to allow photographs to be taken of himself or his home.

Even if he hadn't slipped and let his picture be taken before fame and glory ever struck, Watterson's strips provide a clue. To visualize Bill Watterson, take a look at Calvin 's father, a slim, dark-haired man with a high forehead and large, round glasses. Make his face more of an oval, his nose sharper and his hair lying flat and as short as it's possible for hair to be and still be hair. Then draw a moustache, but not a bushy one, from one side of his mouth to the other. That's Watterson.

He modeled Calvin 's dad after his own.

Home for Watterson and his wife, Melissa (they have no little Calvins or Calvinettes; they do have three cats), is a modest, rented four-room house on the outskirts of Hudson, a few miles north of Akron, Ohio. Watterson's studio, the birthplace of Calvin and Hobbes as we know them, is a spare room that is spare in both senses of the word.

Watterson drives a Honda Civic. A reporter, he says with gentle scorn, once asked him why he didn't drive a Maserati.

Watterson is not a Maserati kind of guy.

Calvin is.

"Calvin ," his dad says in a strip, "your mother and I have decided to give you an allowance. It's important that one learns the value of money."

"Money!" Calvin shrieks. "Ha ha ha! I'm rich! I'm rich! I can buy off anyone! The world is mine! Power! Friends! Prestige. ..."

"I blew it again, dear," says dad.

Bill watterson, on the other hand, is not about to blow it.

"What's it like to be a great success?" Watterson muses. "There was a time not so long ago when I wondered when I was going to stop this nonsense."

Watterson was born in Washington, D.C. His parents moved to Chagrin Falls, Ohio, east of Cleveland and about 20 miles north of Hudson, when he was 6, and that's where Watterson grew up.

He was always a comic strip reader, "not comic books. The superheroes did nothing for me." His favorite strip - if you read Calvin and Hobbes you've probably guessed it - was Peanuts. Watterson started drawing cartoons as a child, "goofing around with my brother." He drew cartoons for his high school newspaper and yearbook. He majored in political science at Kenyon, in Gambier, Ohio, with an eye toward becoming an editorial cartoonist, and drew for the college paper.

He admires editorial cartoonists Jeff MacNelly and Pat Oliphant, superb wits, says Watterson, and "wonderful draftsmen." A particular source of encouragement was his friend Jim Borgman, a year ahead of him at Kenyon, who nabbed a job as the Cincinnati Enquirer's editorial cartoonist right after college. When Watterson graduated, he went to work as editorial cartoonist for the rival Cincinnati Post.

He was not a howling success. After a couple of months he knew the newspaper wasn't pleased with his work. At the end of six months he was unemployed. The Post "knew they were getting a college kid" and didn't give him "time to grow," Watterson said. He admits, though, that "my political commentary was never very incisive."

"I moved back home after another six months in Cincinnati." Because his real interest had always been comic strips, Watterson began drawing strips. His parents, he said, were "very supportive."

For the next five years, he drew editorial cartoons for a chain of suburban newspapers and did advertising layout work for a shopper, work he could do "pretty much blindfolded and it left my weekends free." He submitted strips to syndicates without success.

"I thought the syndicates were looking for something special and not telling anyone," he said. He tried a strip that spoofed science fiction, but science fiction wasn't popular then. He tried an animal strip. He tried a people strip, about a college kid looking for a job.

"In all of them, I can see flaws," Watterson said. By his own assessment, his early strips lacked energy, definition and character development. They did have their good points. Elements of the science fiction strip, Spaceman Spiff, for example, have reappeared as segments of Calvin and Hobbes.

Calvin was the younger brother of a character in an earlier strip. "I don't really remember when he started," Watterson said, but Calvin 's tendency to fantasize was already present. A syndicate suggested that he develop a strip around Calvin and his toy tiger who comes to life only when he's alone with Calvin .

"As soon as I did that, it was like everything clicked."

It may have clicked for Watterson, but it didn't with the original syndicate. They rejected it. So did another.

The Universal Press Syndicate asked to see more. In spring 1985, Universal bought "Calvin and Hobbes."

"It was almost five years exactly from the time I got fired." (And yes, the Cincinnati Post runs Calvin and Hobbes.)

Watterson says he wasn't anything like Calvin as a child. Calvin, in the words of Hobbes (the philosopher, not the tiger) tends to be nasty, brutish and short, but almost always hilarious. Watterson doesn't recall doing anything truly outrageous. And he never had a toy tiger. He did have a teddy bear "but I never gave it a whole lot of personality."

While he derives some inspiration from "remembering some of the stupid things" he and his brother did as kids, Watterson couldn't come up with an example any more horrifying than "making faces in the back of the car."

"There is an autobiographical element" to the strip, he said. "Any writer can't help but have it." But clearly, the misadventures of Calvin and Hobbes are imagined rather than recollected.

"Calvin is very frenetic. The thing I like about him is that he's very curious, and everything in the world is new to him. Hobbes is a little more sedate and thoughtful. He has a sense of consequences."

Watterson has a sense of consequences himself.

He is apprehensive about the possibility of spending more time on business and less on his strip. "They're beginning to talk about licensing," Watterson said. The prospects are almost limitless. Calvin T-shirts, stuffed Hobbeses, Calvin and Hobbes lunch boxes, pencil cases, notebooks, drinking mugs, posters, toys, greeting cards, games, etc.

"Licensing, for me, is a tough question. There is a lot of money to be made," Watterson says, invoking the names of Peanuts and Garfield. Licensing can transform a six-figure income into a seven-figure income. "I don't have a problem with licensing per se, but I think there could be a danger to the integrity of the strip." Say, for example, that somebody wanted to transform Calvin and Hobbes into an animated cartoon. Unless the quality of animation were top-notch, Watterson would oppose such a venture.

Meanwhile, thanks solely to the strip, "we're hoping to buy a bigger house." Melissa is an artist, and their current dwelling has no room for a second studio for her. "We both have family here (in Ohio)," so they may not move far. Then again, they may. "I, for one, would love to get out of these winters.

"As long as there's a post office, I can live anywhere."