Author goes in search of 'Calvin and Hobbes'

Author details mission of writing about reclusive cartoonist Bill Watterson


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When Nevin Martell set out to write a biography about "Calvin and Hobbes" creator Bill Watterson, he knew from the start that the artist might not make himself available.

That, as it turns out, was putting it mildly.

Mr. Watterson's daily comic strip about a rambunctious 6-year-old whose best friend is his beloved toy tiger ran from 1985-95. It was a huge success throughout the world in its original run and continues to earn fans through paperback collections.

You can walk into any bookstore in this country and find collections of "Calvin and Hobbes" strips, but its creator reportedly has not made a public appearance since giving the commencement speech at Kenyon College, his alma mater, in 1990.

"No one expected Bill Watterson would really vanish," said Joe Wos, director of Pittsburgh's ToonSeum. "He's our Howard Hughes of the comic world."

Mr. Martell, who will present "Finding Watterson's Lost Art" at 5:30 p.m. Saturday at the ToonSeum, Downtown, certainly tried tracking him down. His best-seller, "Looking for Calvin and Hobbes: The Unconventional Story of Bill Watterson and His Revolutionary Comic Strip," chronicles Mr. Martell's yearlong quest to "find the man who doesn't want to be found."


'Finding Watterson's Lost Art'
  • Where: ToonSeum, 945 Liberty Ave., Downtown.
  • When: Saturday, 5:30-7 p.m.
  • Who: Nevin Martell, author of the book "Looking for Calvin and Hobbes: The Unconventional Story of Bill Watterson and His Revolutionary Comic Strip." Mr. Martell, 35, is the Washington, D.C.-based author of "Dave Matthews Band: Music for the People" and "Beck: The Art of Mutation." He writes on music as a contributing editor at Filter magazine and is developing documentaries and nonfiction television projects.
  • Admission: ToonSeum admission includes lecture; $4 adults, $3 students and children ages 5-17, children under 5 and ToonSeum members, free.
  • Information: 412-232-0199; www.toonseum.org.

His motives were very un-TMZ: He really wanted to meet his idol. "I recognize that that great love came across a little too richly in the book," Mr. Martell said, laughing.

An old college friend of Mr. Watterson's told Mr. Martell that the artist felt anything beyond the art -- from disclosing personal information about the artist to diluting the artistry through product endorsement -- was pointless.

In interviews with many of Mr. Watterson's contemporaries in the art, humor and cartooning world, it became clear that they all loved Mr. Watterson's deceptively simple yet cleverly philosophic work, too.

"Looking for Calvin and Hobbes" traces Mr. Watterson's path from small-town boy in Chagrin Falls, Ohio (where he is rumored to reside today with his wife and family), to designer of car and grocery ads for a weekly shopper newspaper, to failed editorial cartoonist, to success with his iconic strip.

Although the strip was still winning readers in 1995, Mr. Watterson, weary of fighting with the publication syndicate because he refused to agree to merchandise "Calvin and Hobbes," announced the final panel would run on New Year's Eve.

We are left with his work but scant little of the man behind it, which is precisely how Mr. Watterson, 51, wants it. He attended Kenyon between 1976-80 in Gambier, Ohio, majoring in political science and working for the school paper as a humor columnist and political cartoonist, also dabbling in a comic strip, "Mewkis and Fester," about a couple of college roommates.

He was hired out of college by the Cincinnati Post as a political cartoonist; the six-month stint was a disaster.

The book quotes an interview with the 1980s magazine Honk! in which Mr. Watterson described the frustration of working for an editor who wanted something very specific from the cartoonist, and that "something" wasn't what Mr. Watterson had in mind:

"I would turn out rough idea after rough idea, and he would veto eighty percent of them. As a result, I lost all my self-confidence, and his intervention was really unhealthy, I think, as far as letting me experiment and make mistakes and become a stronger cartoonist for it."

Forget the merchandise

There are no licensed "Calvin and Hobbes" T-shirts, mugs, videogames, Christmas special DVDs or even stuffed tiger toys out there, although illegal products can be found online.

Although Mr. Wos said he appreciated Mr. Watterson's "sticking to his values," he wondered if selective merchandising was so awful. Children cuddle plush Snoopy dog toys because they love the character, he said, and the bonds can be powerful.

"Anything that allows us to have a stronger connection to the character is ultimately a good thing," said Mr. Wos.

Early on, Mr. Watterson did authorize the production of several calendars and a T-shirt. And this July, you can buy a 44-cent U.S. postage stamp featuring Calvin and Hobbes.

Characteristically, Calvin and Hobbes are making grotesque faces on the stamp. It's part of an ongoing series honoring 100 years of comic strips in America, said Terry McCaffrey, manager of stamp development for the U.S. Postal Service.

" 'Calvin and Hobbes' came to the forefront" of the citizen's stamp advisory committee, he said. "It was an extremely popular choice."

Contacting Mr. Watterson through his agent, he said, they were surprised when he turned them down.

"His concern was he didn't want any product created around it. We said, 'We can certainly take that off the table, we just want to commemorate your great work on a postage stamp.'

"And he agreed to that."

The appeal of "Calvin and Hobbes" is that it's a smart, introspective strip that isn't afraid to tell booger jokes. Calvin is self-centered, as 6-year-olds are wont to be, but he isn't completely uncaring.

Hobbes, who appears to everyone else as just a toy, is a living, breathing voice of reason for Calvin. Best friends, they go exploring, they plummet down snowy hillsides on a sled, they ponder The Meaning of Life.

This once prompted the following exchange: "I wonder where we go when we die?"

"Pittsburgh?"

"You mean if we're good or if we're bad?"

Only 3,160 strips were produced, and all but fewer than 100 of the original panels are archived at The Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum.

"What is remarkable is that so much of the Watterson 'Calvin and Hobbes' material is kept together. When we look at other comic strips that have a big following, a big impact, by and large that work has been dispersed, and it's not possible to study it as a whole," said Lucy Shelton Caswell, an OSU professor and curator.

Always hopeful

Writing the book was a labor of love for Mr. Martell but also a source of great frustration.

"I remained pretty hopeful through the process [of actually talking to Mr. Watterson] because the process was so organic," Mr. Martell said. "At the end of every conversation with someone I interviewed -- and I talked to people who had gone on record as never having talked before -- everyone happily opened up their Rolodex and gave me someone else to talk to."

Mr. Martell interviewed Mr. Watterson's agent, Lee Salem, several times. It wasn't until Mr. Salem mentioned he would soon be seeing the cartoonist personally and would mention Mr. Martell once more that the search ended.

Mr. Watterson said flatly -- no.

"That was when all the hope just deflated out of me," Mr. Martell said.

Mr. Martell did land an interview with the cartoonist's mother, Kathryn Watterson, and "that ended up being one hell of a consolation prize. It gave me some closure, and I hope it gave readers closure, too."

Her recollections of Mr. Watterson's childhood and how some of it was reflected in Calvin's perceptions of the world make up the final chapter of the book.

Visitors to the ToonSeum Saturday can expect a glimpse at the Watterson process, Mr. Martell said.

"It's a visual presentation of Bill Watterson's early work before he started doing 'Calvin and Hobbes.' A lot has never been seen before ... it's just a way for interested fans to see the evolution of the artist."

For all the world knows, Mr. Watterson might be writing the further adventures of "Calvin and Hobbes," but like Calvin's dreams of exploring strange new worlds as his alter ego, Spaceman Spiff, that's probably just another flight of fancy.

"My understanding is that he's been painting, but you're not going to find any of his paintings," Mr. Wos said. "They're for his enjoyment."


Maria Sciullo can be reached at msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478. First Published January 20, 2010 5:00 AM


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