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Q and A with 'Calvin and Hobbes' creator

10 years after his retirement, cartoonist looks back on work

With the publishing of the three-volume book set "The Complete Calvin and Hobbes," and with repeats of the classic comic strip back in daily newspapers (including the Deseret Morning News) . . . through December, anyway . . . notoriously reclusive cartoonist Bill Watterson took questions from fans around the country for what is his only interview.

Question: Are the adventures of Calvin and Hobbes similar to your own childhood, or is the strip a way for you to create stories you never experienced as a kid? — Mark Mulvey, Port Murray, N.J.

Answer: I'd say the fictional and nonfictional aspects were pretty densely interwoven. While Calvin definitely reflects certain aspects of my personality, I never had imaginary animal friends, I generally stayed out of trouble, I did fairly well in school, etc., so the strip is not literally autobiographical. Often I used the strip to talk about things that interested me as an adult, and of course, a lot of Calvin's adventures were drawn simply because I thought the idea was funny. In any given strip, the amount of invention varied. Keep in mind that comic strips are typically written in a certain amount of panic, and I made it all up as I went along. I just wrote what I thought about.

Question: What do you think of the comics section since your retirement nearly 10 years ago? — Charles Brubaker, Martin, Tenn.

Answer: It took a while, but now I read the comics almost like a normal person. This is not a great age of newspaper comics, but there are a few strips I enjoy. Things could be better, things could be worse.

Question: How would Calvin the 6-year-old be different today in 2005 versus 1985? 1995? — Meghan Bolton, Columbia, Md.

Answer: I usually tried to keep the strip relatively unanchored in time. Calvin's toys, for example, were mostly a wagon and a cardboard box, rather than anything up to date. I suppose a 2005 Calvin would be different, not because it's a different era, but because I think about some different things at this point in my life.

Question: So many of Calvin and Hobbes strips had some kind of moral/theological element that I wonder what your religious upbringing was and if it influenced that. (For instance, the 'Love the sinner, hate the sin?" strip as well as many Santa-related Christmas strips.) I'm guessing you were raised Catholic? — Suzanne Kaufmann, Charlottesville, Va.

Answer: Actually, I've never attended any church.

Question: Many young cartoonists are using the Internet to display their work instead of, or in concert with, print media because there are few barriers to entry and the medium provides the freedom to experiment with form, content and color. Given your concerns over the state of newspaper comics, what do you think of this development? — Ben Gamboa, Whittier, Calif.

Answer: To be honest, I don't keep up with this. The Internet may well provide a new outlet for cartoonists, but I imagine it's very hard to stand out from the sea of garbage, attract a large audience or make money. Newspapers are still the major leagues for comic strips . . . but I wouldn't care to bet how long they'll stay that way.

Question: Did you ever have a real-life situation that you sorted out through depiction of a similar incident between Calvin and Hobbes? If so, can you describe the situation and the impact your strip had on it? i.e., did the people in your life realize they had made it into your strip? — Kodi Tillery, Kansas City, Kan.

Answer: I tried not to use my life that directly; whenever I started to cross that line, it felt exploitive. Real-life issues gave me a subject to work with, but then I made up the stories. Inconvenient facts were deleted, details were moved around, and wholly fictitious parts were added, all to fit the needs of the strip. My family certainly recognized the context of a lot of strips, but I tried to keep the true parts as just the starting point.

Question: You have been very persistent in not becoming a public figure, and I respect that a great deal. Is there anything you would wish to tell the fans who do not understand your wishes and why it is important to you not to claim the spotlight? — Alan Taylor, Lubbock, Texas

Answer: My impression is that those who don't get it, don't care to get it.

Question: What attributes do you wish were seen more commonly among children? — Matthew Atkinson, Oklahoma City, Okla.

Answer: Good parents!

Question: You've often cited Herriman, Kelly, Schulz, etc., as comic strip inspirations. But who inspires you most in the fields of painting and printmaking? — Timothy Hulsizer, Keene, N.H.

Answer: At the moment, I'm looking mostly at artists from the 1600s, but I study any artist who tackles the particular issues I'm working with. Titian one day, de Kooning another. It wasn't my intention, but over the years, I've pieced together a modest understanding of art history that way.

Question: What led you to resist merchandising Calvin and Hobbes? — Nick Samoyedny, Tarrytown, NY

Answer: For starters, I clearly miscalculated how popular it would be to show Calvin urinating on a Ford logo . . . Actually, I wasn't against all merchandising when I started the strip, but each product I considered seemed to violate the spirit of the strip, contradict its message, and take me away from the work I loved. If my syndicate had let it go at that, the decision would have taken maybe 30 seconds of my life.

Question: Displayed not only through characteristics of Calvin and Hobbes, but also through your unique style of art, storytelling, and layout, you seem to stress the individual. You spoke to outcasts or people who did not seem to fit the "norms" of society (myself included) and no doubt made it feel OK for people to be different. Was that your intention when starting Calvin and Hobbes and how do you feel about individualism and originality? — Jonathan Fang, Riverside, CA

Answer: I guess one thing I like about Calvin is that whether he fits in with the wider world or not is almost beside the point, because he can't help but be himself. Of course, when I started Calvin and Hobbes, my intention was simply to have a job cartooning. I had very few big ideas of where my work was going until it got there, but looking back, I think the strip generally shows my values on these subjects.

Question: Was there anything you wanted to include but couldn't because of the syndicate, the editor, or the public? If so, what and how did you deal with the situation? — Meghan Bolton, Columbia, MD

Answer: That was never a problem. I wasn't trying to push those kinds of boundaries.

Question: Most cartoonists say they prefer the spontaneity and energy of their initial pencil sketches to their finished ink drawings. Do you have any thoughts on this as it seems that in your work it is the ink drawings that have the great spontaneous energy? — Jyrki Vainio, Lahti, Finland

Answer: My pencil sketches were just minuscule notations of who was talking, so I have no particular reverence for them. In my case, the finished pictures captured more of the visual impact I was after. In fact, I did as little preparatory pencil work for the finished strip as possible, so the inking would be a real drawing encounter, and not a sterile tracing of pencil lines. Ink is a wonderful medium all on its own.

Question: Is there anything about the strip you would change if you could go back? (NOT that it needs change! I think it is perfect the way it is.) — Dara Card, Orem, Utah

Answer: Well, let's just say that when I read the strip now, I see the work of a much younger man.

Question: What books do you keep reading over and over again? — K.T. Misener, Ontario, Canada

Answer: Hmm. Suddenly I feel very shallow.