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."
Batiuk, from Medina, is the creator of Funky Winkerbean and collaborator on Crankshaft (the latter topped The Plain Dealer's recent comics poll). Like most of his peers, Batiuk refers to the late '80s as the "Golden Era" of comic strips. The Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes, and Bloom County were still around, and Doonesbury was still razor-sharp. But then the suits got involved.
"There were influences that led to comics becoming 'gag a day,'" says Batiuk. "Newspapers and syndicates caved to concerns about size."
The early '90s were a tumultuous time for newspapers. The recession ate into advertising revenues, and the rising popularity of cable-TV news sources hurt readership. Perhaps most significant for cartoonists, however, was the increase in the cost of paper. "It fluctuates, like gasoline," explains Mallett. "When prices go up, they cut back [on the number of pages]. When the price goes down, they enjoy profit, instead of rebuilding the content they lost."
It didn't take publishers long to realize that they could fit all the comics into two pages instead of three, if the strips were shrunk. The syndicates didn't put up much fight -- better to have their strips squished than cut completely. But artists felt the squeeze.
"As comic strips are printed smaller and smaller, the drawing and dialogue have to get simpler and simpler," Watterson said in an address at the Festival of Cartoon Art at Ohio State in October 1989. (The title of the diatribe: "The Cheapening of Comics.") "Cartoons are just words and pictures, and you can only eliminate so much of either before a cartoon is deprived of its ability to entertain."
But as disheartening as the space crunch was, it was nothing compared to the pressure to expand.
"I don't need to compromise my principles, because they don't have the slightest bearing on what happens to me anyway."
-- Calvin, from Attack of the Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Snow Goons.
Remember all those Garfields people stuck to their windows in the '90s? They were but a small part of the Garfield empire. Creator Jim Davis has licensing agreements with 550 manufacturers in 111 countries, cranking out everything from coffee mugs to pajamas to battery-operated musical "Christmas fountains." The obese feline has pimped for such companies as Dairy Queen, Wendy's, Pizza Hut, Russell Stover, Campbell's, McDonald's, Kellogg's, and General Mills.
Small wonder that Davis was inducted into the Licensing Hall of Fame in 1998.
"No doubt we have an industry," says Kim Campbell of Paws Inc., the company Garfield built. "What's so wrong with that? Jim understands some people look down on [licensing]. It doesn't bother him. Jim feels an obligation to make us chuckle, and is happy to strictly entertain. All he really wanted was enough money to buy beer and cigarettes."
Let us pause for a moment and recall that Hobbes is a stuffed tiger. What fan -- kid or adult -- wouldn't want one of his or her very own? The strip was primed and oh, so easy. United Press Syndicate and Watterson stood to make gazillions. But Watterson wasn't interested.
He mentioned this dilemma in his address at Ohio State. "One syndicate developed a comic strip after it had settled on the products; the strip was essentially to be an advertisement for the dolls and TV shows already planned. Lots of heart and integrity in that kind of strip, yes sir.
"Of course," he went on to say, "to be fair to the syndicates, most cartoonists are happy to sell out, too."
"Too bad Mr. Watterson doesn't cheer up," Campbell responds. But she makes a point of saying that she and Davis are big fans of Calvin and Hobbes, and even calls Watterson "a genius."
Jef Mallett has licensed Frazz T-shirts, but is leery of a marketing juggernaut. "I look at Watterson," he says. "He kept his strip pure. Berkeley Breathed became so marketing-heavy with Bloom County and Outland, I think that's what brought the strip[s] down. But I also think it's possible to do it well and not to the detriment of the strip. Look at Peanuts. Let's face it, we're a commercial society. People identify more with what they buy, not read."
The pressure on Watterson must have been enormous, but he steadfastly refused to sell out, even a little bit. "I look at cartoons as an art, as a form of personal expression. That's why I don't hire assistants . . . and why I refuse to dilute or corrupt the strip's message with merchandising," he said in his Festival of Cartoon Art speech. "Characters lose their believability as they start endorsing major companies and lend their faces to bedsheets and boxer shorts."
So as the audience for Calvin and Hobbes grew even larger, the space in newspapers shrank. And as it became the comic strip you just had to read every day, the pressure to license that damned stuffed tiger intensified. At the height of success, Watterson abruptly quit.
"From now on, I'm not doing anything I don't want to do! The world owes me happiness, fulfillment, and success . . . I'm just here to cash in."
-- Calvin, from Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cat.
For Christmas 1995, the papers that published Calvin and Hobbes received a rather cryptic letter from Watterson. "I believe I've done what I can do within the constraints of daily deadlines and small panels," the letter read. "I am eager to work at a more thoughtful pace, with fewer artistic compromises." And that was it. The strip ended on December 31, 1995, with Calvin saying, "It's a magical world, Hobbes, ol' buddy. Let's go exploring!" as the two sledded down a snow-covered hill.
Watterson moved from Arizona, where he was living with his wife, back to Chagrin Falls. He never spoke publicly of his suspiciously early retirement. Everyone has since formed their own opinion.
"There's a high burnout factor in comics," notes Campbell. "He might have thought, 'I've done my best work, and now I should stop.'"
Batiuk responds with a criticism aimed more at the papers than at Watterson: "What you owe is the very best. If you can't do that anymore . . ."
"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.
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.