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The mustached man steps out of the Popcorn Shop in Chagrin Falls, clutching a cup of frozen yogurt. His eyes scan passersby. He's looking for that stare of recognition, that sideways glance of familiarity. But no one seems to track him as he walks back toward his car. He climbs in and sets the rest of his frozen dessert onto the passenger seat, next to the oil paints he bought at the art store earlier. A hint of a smile appears. Another successful day of anonymity.

Then the man notices the large 4X4 truck parked in front of him. There it is -- that mocking decal, stuck on the back window. It's Calvin, urinating on a Ford logo, grinning with gleeful malice.

The man's smile disappears. "My boy," he mutters ruefully. "Oh, my boy."

Who knows what Bill Watterson expected out of life once he abruptly stopped drawing Calvin and Hobbes, his wildly successful comic strip, in 1995. Always media-shy, he apparently sought to disappear altogether when he moved back to his hometown of Chagrin Falls. But surely he has seen the sacrilegious sticker -- it seems to be attached to every Chevy in the state.

"We've contemplated legal action," says Lee Salem, vice president and editor at Universal Press Syndicate, which distributed Calvin and Hobbes. But the cost involved in finding those who make and sell the decals would far exceed what Universal could win in damages. "Bill's as frustrated as we are."

Actually, it must be maddening.

"A vulgar counterfeit," says Jef Mallett, a Calvin and Hobbes fan whose own strip, Frazz, resembles Watterson's style. (The illustrations on this page and the facing page are Mallett's.) Slowly, though, the sticker is becoming the only version of Calvin we're familiar with.

Just as Watterson was, Mallett is against rampant licensing of characters so that they appear on everything from calendars to underwear. Unlike Watterson, he believes some selective marketing may actually be helpful. "Because now look what we're left with: Calvin pissing on a Ford logo."

But Watterson apparently has no immediate plans to bring Calvin back. In fact, it seems that he has no immediate plans to do much of anything. He lives a quiet life in Chagrin Falls. He paints landscapes with his father in the woods, but produces nothing for those who once embraced his comic strip. He won't do conventions anymore. He won't sign autographs. And he certainly won't sit for interviews. (He cleared Salem to answer questions for this article, but refused to do so himself.) He is content simply being Ohio's most famous recluse, our own J.D. Salinger.

But if you can offer the world a strip like Calvin and Hobbes, don't you have a responsibility to keep working?

"If you do the job badly enough, sometimes you don't get asked to do it again."

-- Calvin, from Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cat.

After graduating from Kenyon College during the '70s, with a degree in political science, Bill Watterson worked for the Cincinnati Post. Briefly. The editor hired him to compete with the popular political cartoons drawn by Jim Borgman, the artist for the rival Cinci paper, but after a few weeks didn't think he was up to snuff. (Borgman now draws the daily strip Zits.)

The tenacity with which Watterson sought recognition after reaching this first hurdle is in sharp contrast to the quiet life he now covets. In 1980, he began submitting comic strips to the five major syndicates that distribute material to newspapers. For five years, all he received was rejection letters.

Occasionally, there were nibbles. United Features saw potential in one submission. The syndicate didn't really care for the main character, though, preferring the younger brother and his stuffed tiger. Watterson was offered a development contract, on the condition that he re-submit a strip based on these two supporting characters.

But the marketing wizards apparently saw him as a man willing to sell his soul. They asked him to incorporate a character of theirs called Robotman. Robotman's licensing was already under way, they told him, and if there was a place for their character in Watterson's strip, then there was a place for Watterson at United Features.

"Not knowing if Calvin and Hobbes would ever go anywhere, it was difficult to turn down [a] chance at syndication," he told Honk magazine in 1986. "But I really recoiled at the idea of drawing somebody else's character. It's cartooning by committee, and I have a problem with that."

Watterson declined. He crossed his fingers and sent a month's worth of C&H to Universal Press Syndicate, which snatched it up immediately. The rest is comics history. The strip was carried in more than 2,400 newspapers worldwide. By 1995, 13 books had sold 23 million copies. The guy who was fired from his first job became the golden boy of the funny pages. On his own terms.

"To endure five years of rejection to get a job requires either a faith in oneself that borders on delusion, or a love of the work. I love the work," Watterson said in a commencement address at Kenyon College in 1990 -- his last public appearance.

So what the hell happened? Why did he come back home to hide?

"Newspaper editors sometimes seem to resent that they have to run comics. Well, sometimes I resent being in their newspapers."

-- Bill Watterson, from The Calvin and Hobbes 10th Anniversary Book.

Tom Batiuk laughs as he remembers a brief encounter with Watterson. "I think I saw him at a convention early on. He was in a barn, yelling at a syndicate executive."

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).

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