Mention "Calvin and Hobbes" in the offices of the Post-Gazette, and everyone rushes up to air his or her favorite. Maria Sciullo's favorite has a local connection. In it, Calvin, the 6-year-old mad genius who quotes Karl Marx and whose best friend is a stuffed tiger named Hobbes, says, "I wonder where we go when we die." Hobbes offers, "Pittsburgh?" To which Calvin replies, "You mean if we're good or if we're bad?"
Perhaps that's how Pittsburgh looked to Chagrin Falls, Ohio, native Bill Watterson, the creative genius behind the syndicated comic strip that ran in hundreds of newspapers from Nov. 18, 1985 to Dec. 31, 1995, when strip No. 3,150 signed off with Calvin and Hobbes on a sled and Calvin saying, "It's a magical world, ol' buddy … Let's go exploring."
Watterson, who always kept a low profile despite the mega-popularity of the strips, went into deep cover since that final strip. According to a rare interview (via e-mail) granted Jake Rossen for the magazine mental_floss (December 2013), he remains happily in seclusion. The pursuit of others to create toys and movies from his characters holds no interest for him — it seems to be an affront, actually. He put an end to an apocryphal story that had him setting fire to a plush version of Hobbes that was sent to him by the toy company Dakin, in an attempt to get him to relent and allow them to license his characters.
"Not exactly," he wrote to mental_floss. "It was my only my head that burst into flames."
One revelation from the article, at least for me, was that after years of rebuffing his syndicate's attempts to branch out with commercial entities tied to his comic strip, the Universal Press Syndicate gave up — even though they had the rights to his properties. The story relates that Watterson's contract was rewritten in 1991 to reduce the years he would have to continue and giving him the strip's domestic copyrights. That's when he took a nine-month sabbatical — think of how "Calvin and Hobbes"-deprived we all felt back then — and came back demanding more color space on Sunday, which most newspapers gave him.
Watterson, 55, would seem to be a man with pride but no nostalgia for the work he produced over a decade, even though many of us were head over heels for that rectangular box in our daily newspaper that synthesized our thoughts through the prism of a smart-alecky kid and his imaginary friend. Watterson borrowed from "Peanuts' " Snoopy by giving Calvin alter egos such as Spaceman Spiff, but the beautifully drawn illustrations and spot-on slices of life were from the creator's own fresh perspective. It could be wicked one day or sentimental the next, but always felt as if he was unveiling some universal truth and couching it as coming from the mind of a child.
I don't know about you, but there have been "Calvin and Hobbes" strips hanging on my refrigerator for years at a time. One involved Calvin going to the gallows and having a noose tied around his neck, and in the final panel his father is seen trying to tie a tie on his squirmy son. In my family, that was a keeper.
Although compilation books of the comic strip continue to sell, Watterson has no plans for any new ventures involving "Calvin and Hobbes." For instance, "The visual sophistication of Pixar blows me away, but I have no interest in animating 'Calvin and Hobbes,' " he said.
These days, he spends his time painting, but not for public consumption. He told mental_floss, "It's all catch and release — just fish that aren't really worth the trouble to clean and cook. But my second problem is that 'Calvin and Hobbes' created a level of attention and expectation that I don't know how to process."
In the magazine, there's is one old black and white image of the cartoonist, who dared mental_floss to come up with a phone of him that was less than 30 years old. They couldn't do it.
If being a recluse works for him, that's great. But more's the pity for those of would love to once again go exploring the magic world with Bill Watterson.