Oh, God, now they’re going to come for me; this may be the last communication I ever send. But it will have been worth it, if only to find the real truth, whatever that turns out to be.
This is my story. I just hope it can serve as a guide, and a warning, to those who may follow me.
Some of you may be too young to remember the name Bill Watterson, but he’s the man who created Calvin & Hobbes. Bill is one of the Cleveland area’s most famous residents, but he’s also one of its most elusive. As an article published in the Cleveland Scene details, he not only withdrew from the comic pages in 1995, but also from public life shortly thereafter. He resides in or around Chagrin Falls, which coincidentally was the subject of a song by The Tragically Hip, and not so coincidentally is the small town through which a giant Calvin is rampaging on the back cover of the first Calvin & Hobbes collection. The striped-awning shop in his hand is the Popcorn Shop, a great little small-town store that sits right next to the falls themselves.
It is something of a coincidence that it was next to the actual falls, on a platform right next to (and somewhat below) the Popcorn Shop, where I officially proposed to Kat on her 29th birthday. That has little to do with the story, but I thought I’d share it anyway.
Back to my tale—I just hope I can finish before it’s too late.
A while back, our local paper started carrying a comic called Frazz by Jef Mallett. Immediately, I was struck by how much the illustration style looked like Bill Watterson’s. The main character (Frazz) looks an awful lot like a Calvin in his early twenties. He works as the janitor in an elementary school, and is closer to the students than most of the staff, as you’d expect from an older Calvin. Frazz is a musician in his off hours, and there have been whole strips devoted to Frazz singing some lyrically complex song, just like the lengthy poems found in Calvin strips and treasuries. He’s also an avid biker, as is his girlfriend, Miss Plainwell, who is a very Susie Derkins type of girl. Frazz likes to play practical jokes on people, often jokes that involve a truly surreal sense of humor. One of the students with whom Frazz spends a lot of time is Caulfield. Catcher in the Rye reference? Yes. It isn’t the only one. The pacing, style of humor—it all has a very Wattersonian feel to it.
At some point, it was revealed that “Frazz” is a derivative of the character’s last name, when he was addressed as “Mr. Frazier.” That’s when I started to get really suspicious. So far as I’m aware, Calvin’s last name was never given in the strip. So it was entirely possible that we were reading about the exploits of one Calvin Frazier. When a later strip revealed his first name to be Edwin, I wondered if it was just to throw us off the track. Or, perhaps, his real name is Calvin Edwin Frazier, and for some reason he’d started going by the middle name. (Could he be in hiding from fans?)
Then came The Sign. The moment when I couldn’t rationalize away my suspicions any more.
In a Sunday strip, Frazz is talking with one of the girls at the school. She mentions that she plans to be famous one day, and when Frazz points out that she doesn’t even like to be called on in class, she says she wants to be famous, not well-known; that she wants to be well-known for her work but not be a public figure. “Like J.D. Salinger or Bill Watterson,” says Frazz. “Never heard of them,” she responds, for the punchline.
At that, I threw down the paper, turned to Kat, and said, “All right, now he’s just toying with us.”
There is one major objection that gets raised: there is Frazz merchandise available through the uComics site. “Ah HA!” you cry, “that can’t be Watterson. He was famously antithetical to merchandising of any kind whatsover.” That’s true, and look where it got him: as the Scene article points out, the most common sightings of Calvin these days are those completely unauthorized stickers of him urinating on logos, usually Ford but sometimes others; race car drivers come in for this treatment a lot, too. (And take a look at the illustrations in that article. One is the naughty sticker, two are Watterson drawings, and two are credited to “Jef Mallett.”)
My theory is that this time around, Watterson is trying limited merchandising as an experiment. No stuffed Frazz dolls, of course, but some mouse pads and coffee mugs on which you can emblazon your favorite strip. Would a syndicate go along with this? Oh, God yes. If I were running a comic syndicate and Bill Watterson came to me with a proposal to pull a Richard Bachman, I’d not only fall to the ground and kiss his feet, I’d hire an actor to play the pseudonymic persona full time and have all the mailed strips routed through that actor’s place of residence, just to erase as many tracks as possible.
It’s possible that I’m reading patterns into the noise, I admit. I certainly may be projecting my longing for a return to the early days of Calvin & Hobbes (which I liked much better than the last couple of years) onto the situation, hoping for the return of a personal hero, even if in disguise. This whole Mallett/Watterson thing may well be my own personal Lot 49. If there really is a Jef Mallett, it’s my hope that he’d be flattered by my theory, not insulted.
But if you never hear from me again, it’s because I’ve said too much and the syndicate had me silenced, stuffed into a trio of tiny boxes and buried in the back pages of a newspaper.