The Winner and New Champion

December 04, 1988; Page 1H
By John J. Archibald of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch staff

THE PEOPLE have spoken: The new favorite in the Post-Dispatch comics poll is ''Calvin and Hobbes.''

In four previous elections, covering nearly a decade, the readers' choice was Mort Walker's ''Beetle Bailey,'' but this time the perennial Army goof-off was overtaken by a feature that had been appearing in the Post-Dispatch less than a year and a half when the ballots were cast in September.

''Beetle Bailey'' was second.

''Calvin and Hobbes,'' created by Bill Watterson, is the story of a 6-year-old boy, Calvin, with a prodigiously colorful imagination that, among other things, causes his stuffed tiger, Hobbes, to become his 6-foot-tall, practical-joking buddy when nobody else is around.

The winner is not a comic designed for children, although it ranked No. 1 among voters 13-17 as well as adults. The charm of ''Calvin and Hobbes'' is that it reminds readers of the way they once coped with a world in which everyone else towered over them in height and authority.

Some of the voters' comments:

'''Calvin and Hobbes' lets me relive my own childhood . . . I call my dad on the phone and we laugh together.''

''I love Calvin - he's the little boy I would like to have been.''

''I read 'Calvin and Hobbes' and reread it to make sure I haven't missed the marvelous expressions on the tiger's face.''

''I love 'Calvin and Hobbes.' They make me laugh out loud. Bill Watterson is a genius.''

''I am a reasonably intelligent attorney who reads the comics every day. 'Calvin and Hobbes' and 'Bloom County' are the two best things that ever happened to the Post-Dispatch.''

Calvin's outlandish escapes from reality are characteristic. Occasionally, for instance, he becomes an astronaut, hurtling through space in a boy-sized rocket ship. . .

''We join the fearless Spaceman Spiff, interplanetary explorer extraordinaire, out at the farthest reaches of the galaxy. . . . He fires his hyper-jets and blasts into the fifth dimension! Into a world beyond human comprehension. Into a world where TIME HAS NO MEANING!'' (The last panel shows Calvin, the narrator, in a schoolroom, thinking, ''Man, this class lasts forever!'')

In another episode, Spaceman Spiff is pursued by ''a disgusting scum being'' when he spots his hovering ship and bolts for the ladder. A monstrous claw overtakes him, however, and Spiff cries: ''The awful scum being is upon him! It's all over!'' (The ''claw'' becomes the hand of his teacher, saying, ''I told you three times recess was over! Now get inside!'')

Watterson, 30, has no children. He and his wife, Melissa, and three cats live ''somewhere in the Southwest,'' according to the company that distributes the strip, Universal Press Syndicate. They formerly lived near Cleveland.

''I don't have kids and I know that Calvin does some things that a 6-year-old probably doesn't do,'' Watterson said in an earlier interview. ''Six is just an approximate age. Basically, Calvin does what I'd like him to do, and a little of what I remember doing - or wishing I could do - when I was a kid.''

Watterson majored in political science at Kenyon College in Ohio, and ''Calvin and Hobbes'' is the first comic strip he submitted for publication. He admits that he snitched the names from Protestant reformer John Calvin and philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

Jake Morrissey has been Watterson's editor at Universal Press since the strip was created three years ago. The strip appears in more than 450 newspapers.

''There isn't much that I have to do anymore,'' Morrissey said. ''In the first year or two, Bill would send us rough ideas of what he was going to do and sometimes we'd provide some guidance.

''Last summer, though, we decided to let him go on his own. Bill is a mature individual now. Once in a while, he'll explore an idea with us and we'll discuss it.''

A total of 9,174 ballots were submitted by Post-Dispatch readers, with an estimated 24,000 individuals participating. As many as five people could vote on each ballot and participants were asked to list their five favorite comics. Any mention on this list, regardless of whether it was ranked No. 1 or No. 5, was assigned equal value.

While ''Beetle Bailey'' slipped from the No. 1 position, it retained its lead in an important category: Comics read regularly by anyone in the household. Of the families that responded, 88 percent included at least one Beetle buff.

Longtime favorites dominated this category, as expected. ''Hi and Lois'' was second, followed by ''Blondie,'' ''Family Circus,'' ''Peanuts'' and ''Hagar.'' The new kid on the block, Calvin, was 22nd.

As with any innovative comic feature, ''Calvin and Hobbes'' doesn't please everybody.

''We get our share of complaints about Calvin's language,'' Morrissey said. ''One day, in an attempt to disgust his classmate Susie, he told her his thermos was full of phlegm. A number of readers let us know they didn't appreciate such words at breakfast.

''There were some protests more recently when Calvin suggested that Hobbes' tail was 'like a necktie for your butt.' ''

Otherwise, Calvin and Hobbes cause little commotion and many laughs, usually at the expense of Calvin's parents. Such as the time when, in the midst of one of his noisy indoor romps chasing Hobbes, Calvin's mother yelled, ''Quit charging around the house!''

When she heard the inevitable crash of breaking lamp and furniture, his mother cried, ''What did I just TELL you?!?'' And from the scene of the wreck, Calvin said: ''Beats me. Weren't you listening, either?''

SKETCH (COLOR) of Calvin and Hobbes. CHART-TABLE (COLOR). FAVORITE COMICS. Gives current ranking of comics and the 1984 and 1987 ranking.