RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And on this very day, 20 years ago, when it seemed that everyone read their daily newspaper, a new comic strip appeared: Calvin and Hobbes. Calvin was a boy with a fantasy life that barely fit the four lines that contained him; Hobbes was a tiger with a dry wit and a taste for tuna fish. The cartoon was a hit from the beginning, and much of its charm rested on a wisdom: out of the mouths of babes. Lee Salem edited the strip.
Mr. LEE SALEM (Editor, Calvin and Hobbes): One of the single favorites that I have is actually on my wall in the office, and it shows Calvin in bed, obviously with a fever or something, he's got a thermometer in his mouth. You hear the words from a television. He's watching a soap opera, and, you know, `If you leave your spouse and I'll leave mine and we can get married,' and it goes on and on and on, as lurid soap operas sometimes do. And Calvin turns to the reader with a big grin on his face and he says, `Sometimes, I learn more when I stay home from school than when I go.' And I just thought that was so funny. And, amazing, when it ran, we actually got complaints from readers who said, `Well, you know, you're advocating that children stay home and watch adult soap operas.' And somehow, the whole sense of irony was lost in that, but I don't think it was lost on me. I love that strip.
MONTAGNE: You know, I described him as a little boy with his tiger friend, but there's so much more to it than that. So there's one where they're sitting philosophizing, as they often do, on the grass, this time under a tree. Hobbes looking at the sky and saying, `Do you think there's a god?' And they're both gazing and thinking, and then the fourth panel, Calvin thinks about it. And then do you remember what he says?
Mr. SALEM: Yeah. `Yeah, well, someone is out to get me.'
MONTAGNE: Cartoonist Bill Watterson, who, by the way, makes it a rule not to talk about his creations, managed to combine the silly, the fantastic and the profound. In one strip, Calvin is startled when the food on his plate suddenly begins quoting Shakespeare and then stabs itself with the fork while shouting, `To be or not to be!' It was that slightly demented quality that captured editor Lee Salem.
Mr. SALEM: I remember it when I first read it and it all--it literally took my breath away and I circulated it in the office and the response was immediate. It was fresh, it was funny, the art was strong, and here's this archetypal little boy living a life that some of us lived or wanted to live or remembered living.
MONTAGNE: Calvin was preceded into existence by some pretty famous little boys--Charlie Brown, Dennis the Menace. What made him different?
Mr. SALEM: You know, we saw Calvin living in a world he never made, populated by adults and teachers, and he was trying to deal with that and accomplish what he could. I think Calvin has a bit more perhaps Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn in him than Charlie Brown. Hobbes I see almost as the alter ego of Calvin. He's a balancing act that allows Calvin to exist. He provides commentary on some of Calvin's crazy adventures and attitudes.
MONTAGNE: Hobbes goes from being a stuffed tiger, when there's any other person in the room, to the real Hobbes we know and love. Is Hobbes real or not?
Mr. SALEM: He is to me and, obviously he is to Calvin. Whether he is to the other characters or not is an open question. But I think one of the things Bill brought to the art board was this wonderful ability to take a child's imagination and fantasy life and make it real. It really is irrelevant whether Hobbes has an existence as we would define it. For Calvin, he is there. He's a buddy, he's a companion, he's a friend.
MONTAGNE: Lee Salem edited the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes until one day 10 years ago, cartoonist Bill Watterson walked away from the strip. Now there's a "Complete Calvin and Hobbes," a three-volume set. And to get a look at some classic strips and Watterson's own thoughts about his characters, go to npr.org.
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP (Host): And I'm Steve Inskeep.