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A day to say goodbye . . . // . . . to "Calvin and Hobbes'

An exuberant 6-year-old boy and his toy stuffed tiger, who comes alive when they are alone, today achieve the American dream _ they are quitting while they are ahead.

And instead of cheers, millions of fans around the world are shedding tears at the end of one of postwar America's most successful and endearing comic strips _ Bill Watterson's "Calvin and Hobbes."

It is hard not to feel sad at losing the company of a boy who tells his toy tiger, "I don't want to pay any dues in life. I want to be a one-in-a-million overnight success. I want the world handed to me on a silver platter."

When Hobbes the tiger replies, "Good luck," and walks away, Calvin says in thickly inked black letters, "SURELY YOU CONCEDE I DESERVE IT."

And it is hard not to feel the loss of a tiger who walks into a trap baited with a tuna fish sandwich because tigers will do anything for tuna fish. Hobbes concedes this as he hangs upside down by one foot. "We're kind of stupid that way," he says.

The strip, which came in unsolicited through the mail to the Universal Press Syndicate in 1985, had 2,400 newspaper subscribers around the world _ just under what "Peanuts" has _ and the 11 books collecting the comic strips have sold 23-million copies.

Lee Salem, editorial director of the syndicate, says, "We check our mail very carefully. You never know if another "Calvin and Hobbes' will come in."

Watterson, who declines interviews and shies from photographers, decided to end his strip with today's panel because he finally found the demands of comic strip panel work too restrictive.

In a letter to newspapers that carry "Calvin and Hobbes," Watterson said, "This was not an easy decision. . . . I believe I've done what I can do within the constraints of daily deadlines and small panels. I am eager to work at a more thoughtful pace."

But there may be some second thoughts, if some hints in a strip last Sunday are to be believed.

In that strip, Watterson has Calvin tell Hobbes, "Change is invigorating. If you don't accept new challenges, you become complacent and lazy. Your life atrophies." He says that while sledding with Hobbes just before the two go over a cliff and crash in the snow below.

Hobbes, his head now stuck in a snow bank, declares, "The problem with new experiences is that they are so rarely the ones you choose."

Salem said Watterson must have been thinking of the challenges ahead.

Although described everywhere as a recluse, even by his own editor _ who will only say Watterson lives somewhere in the Southwest _ the artist is not the Howard Hughes of cartooning.

His thoughts, dreams, aspirations and grievances petty and grand are laid out clearly in The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book, in which he explains how he came to create a cartoon where a boy is named after theologian John Calvin and a tiger is named after the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

He also explains why, unlike most other cartoonists, he refused to license his popular characters: "My strip is about private realities, the magic of imagination and the specialness of certain friendships. Who would believe in the innocence of a little kid and a tiger if they cashed in on their popularity to sell . . . knickknacks that nobody needs."

He added, "I am probably the only cartoonist who resented the popularity of his own strip."

The decision not to allow millions of little "Calvin and Hobbes" dolls to be marketed cost Waterson millions and led to a five-year battle with his syndicate in which Watterson complained that he feared losing his strip to others.

But those problems were resolved, and now Universal says it is looking forward to working with him on other projects.

Watterson is not the first cartoonist to walk away from his success. Last year, Gary Larsen stopped drawing "The Far Side" after suffering a case of what has been described as "cartoonist burnout." And two years ago, Berke Breathed abandoned his Pulitzer Prize-winning "Bloom County."

But some cartoonists feel like nothing can stop them. Charles Schulz has been doing "Peanuts" for 45 years and says, "It is not a stressful job."