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"I believe that many artistic folks reach a certain point of exhaustion," says Harry Knowles, creator of the pop-culture news-and-gossip site Aint-it-cool-news.com. "I believe that Bill Watterson, towards the end of his run on Calvin and Hobbes, felt that he didn't want to see the strip turn into a series of repetitive themes, regurgitating the same material endlessly . . . as we've seen happen with so many long-running strips."

Mallett agrees. "Bill thought, 'I can quit while it's working.' If that's the case, I respect the hell out of him. It's the hardest job I've ever had. And, Watterson, oh my God! His standards were so high. Just because he was preternaturally talented, I don't think that made the job easier."

Near the end of his call to arms at Ohio State, Watterson put forth a plan for dealing with the elements of cartooning that so frustrated him. "Each syndicate could put out a weekly comic book of all its strips," he said. "The syndicates could again take over the printing, and the comics could be sold to papers as a preprinted insert. If I had any business savvy at all myself, I'd lump the whole business tomorrow and self-publish."

Did he even consider using his power to push for something like this? Was the need to draw cartoons like a ghost itch after an amputation? Or did he find that the simple, quiet life suited him? It would be tempting to live a life of leisure in a town like Chagrin Falls, especially when you can still cash residual checks.

An industry source who wishes to remain anonymous says Watterson paints oil-on-canvas landscapes, but sets fire to each as soon as it's finished. Supposedly, he was told that the first 500 paintings an artist creates are just practice.

Harry Knowles has heard whispers of a return. "There were these rumors . . . ages ago, about Bill single-handedly animating a feature-length Calvin and Hobbes film. I was addicted to the concept of this happening. Ultimately, Bill will do as he wishes. I hope his muse strikes soon and that he cares to share the results with us all."

Lee Salem, possibly the first person Watterson would call were he planning a comeback, is guarded, but curiously optimistic. "I don't think the door is locked, the key thrown away. There is a creative spark in Watterson that may need an outlet."

There may be no better moment for his return. Last Sunday, the Washington Post debuted a new strip by Berkeley Breathed. Called Opus (after the penguin star of Bloom County and Outland), the strip fills an entire half-page. Newspapers, it seems, are in the mood to concede to artists.

Alan Shearer, who is managing the PR for Breathed's return, promises the strip to be "the best work of art on the comic's pages. It will bring back the excitement people once had for Sunday comics. Every editor will struggle, but will find a way to give Opus the space it requires." (The Plain Dealer did.)

Now comic strip fans will see whether the penguin can hold his own against those bottom-line newspaper execs. And then, whether Watterson is intrigued enough to battle the forces of evil once again.

"I hate to think that all my current experiences will someday become stories with no point."

-- Calvin, from It's a Magical World.

If you've never been to Chagrin Falls, you really should make the trip. Everyone there is blond and blue-eyed, prosperous-looking in a genteelly restrained way. If you were going to disappear somewhere, you could do worse.

Sadly, they can smell outsiders. The bartender at Rick's Café was less than forthcoming when I asked about the town's mystery man. "I know nossink," she said, channeling Sergeant Schultz, the sides of her mouth turning up in a sly grin. At the Popcorn Shop, the owner simply pointed to a picture on the wall, the winner of this year's coloring contest -- a crayon sketch of Calvin running out of the store.

Then I found the Fireside Book Shop, one of those quaint little bookstores which can only exist in small towns. A blending of smells -- expensive perfume, glue from old hardback novels, and pipe tobacco -- greeted me at the door. In a little den in the back, three older men sat, talking quietly. The one in the middle was skinny and wore a bushy mustache. My heart skipped a beat. The only picture I had seen of Watterson was old, but the face was so similar . . .

I approached the men and told them I was in town looking for Bill Watterson. Did he ever come in here?

The three exchanged surprised glances. Then the one closest to me sprang up and led me by my arm toward the front of the store. Keeping himself between me and the back room, he introduced himself as the manager. He didn't know what Watterson looked like, he said; nobody did. It was possible that Watterson came there, but he couldn't say for sure. But his eyes were at variance with his words. A strange twinkle suggested that he was keeping a secret.

He said he used to give Watterson's mother C&H; books for him to sign, which the shop sold to collectors on pilgrimage. Three years ago, Watterson abruptly refused to do any more.

I thanked the man and left.

I'll never be certain if that was Watterson sitting in the bookstore, but I like to think it was. In a way, a possible sighting seems a more appropriate encounter than an interview. He's withdrawn so completely, he exists only in rumor for all but his family and neighbors.

Some say he's finished, burned out, washed up. Others think that he might just be waiting for the perfect opportunity -- that maybe, when he's not painting landscapes of Ohio with his father, he's working on a strip again.

Perhaps Watterson doesn't understand how much he's missed, or that he's influenced so many of today's artists. Yet this too may be the result of his self-imposed isolation.

Mallett tried for a couple of years to contact his hero, to no avail. "Watterson has told the people at Universal Press Syndicate not to forward any fan mail," Mallett says he was told. "We just want to say thanks. He deserves to know."

Hi! My name is Michael. You can call me Mike for short. I am a big fan of your books. I read the ad in the paper. I was pretty sad, but I got over it. Oh, I was wondering if I could take over but I would need instructions to draw the characters. If you say yes, Calvin and Hobbes will continue but it will be a little different. If you say No than you don't even know what will happen. Bye!

PS Please give me an answer and please write back.

-- from a letter sent to Watterson after he'd announced his retirement, posted on ucomics.com.

Write Your Comment show comments (4)
  1. I sure miss the further adventures of Calvin and Hobbes.
    Peace,
    Rose

  2. I don't really know what I feel about the world without Calvin and Hobbes. I still have the last print of the Sunday paper from my hometown of Pittsburgh,PA carefully sealed and put away for, I still don't know what reason. I still have and read every book that was published,and I still get laughs out of them all. I guess you could say Calvin is my hero, the philosophies, the quarky and sometimes dark humor that's sharp as a knife has been lost to everyday comics. I am very glad that I was old enough to understand the humor and joy that Calvin and Hobbes brought to my life, and especially the way that I'll look at my children someday, when Calvin is right there in front of me. Thank You Mr. Watterson for giving me the pleasure of being able to read your comics they are greatly missed. P.S. For political reasons I think Calvin and Hobbes would be having a field day in today's world. Thanks again.

  3. Just a quick story to lighten the mood here. Mr. Watterson has done mankind a tremendous honor. To brighten our day when the mean people of the world control the brightness, the happiness we need to feel day to day. For more than ten years, Bill made everyone feel and realize that it's alright to get excited, it's alright to wonder and be amazed, it's alright to be a little person. Bill, my father gave me little bits of your normality and abnormality every two weeks or so as I studied to be a radio repair person in the United States Marines back in 1985. Sometimes we laughed so hard, we fell out of our bunks! I was so happy (as my fellow Marines were) to see that even though every cloud didn't have a silver lining, your comic strips might as well have been printed with gold ink. I am a fan since the beginning, and I will be a fan no matter what you decide to do with your life. It's your LIFE. Just know this, the world needs Calvin & Hobbes just as much as you need them. You are the one we all miss, we love you and your creative mind. We'll leave the light on for you, even if that means we'll be burning corn in our gas tanks and burning sugar cane to read your laughter by. I hope you are able to read this, just so you know that no matter what, we (the fans) will always cherish what a silly little boy and his stuffed tiger gave us for so many years and that still lives in us today: the power of believing in yourself, and the sense to laugh when the world just wants to make you cry.

  4. This article makes Watterson sound like a hermit, but I respect him. Not only did he make the best comic in the world, but he stood up for his principles the entire time--he fought to keep his comic they way it SHOULD be and never gave in until the end.

    Even his "going into hiding" makes sense. Calvin and Hobbes ended before the syndicates could force it to commercialize, and Watterson disappeared before he, too, became a celebrity. He's an artist, not a movie star, and it should stay that way. I respect his anonymity.

    It's really too bad that we can't express our appreciation, but perhaps it's better this way. The guy deserves a break, and after all he's done, I, for one, am willing to let him have it. Calvin and Hobbes was wonderful while it lasted, but I'm glad it didn't stick around until its "dead corpse was propped up, pretending to be alive" (paraphrasing Watterson).