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Santa Rosa cartoonist Stephan Pastis found himself at the center of the comics universe Saturday. Pastis, who draws the popular newspaper comic "Pearls Before Swine" revealed late Friday that three of last week's strips were drawn in collaboration with reclusive "Calvin and Hobbes" cartoonist Bill Watterson.

The news that the celebrated Watterson had returned, if only for three days, to newspaper comics pages for the first time since 1995, and that almost no one knew about it until it had already happened, has stunned fans of Pastis, Watterson and comics in general.

"It was by far the most amazing and humbling experience I've had as a cartoonist," said Pastis, who was in the Washington, D.C., area for an appearance at the Library of Congress on Saturday. "I don't know how I could ever top this."

"Calvin and Hobbes" followed the adventures of a young boy named Calvin and his anthropomorphic and sardonic stuffed tiger Hobbes. Hailed for its artwork, humor and experimentation with forms and ideas, it debuted in November 1985 and became an instant hit. But Watterson shocked his legions of fans by ending it after only a decade — and he pretty much disappeared from public view along with his strip.

"I'm still kind of blown away by the whole thing," said Pastis. "I mean we're talking about Bill Watterson. The Bill Watterson."

Pastis, whose "Pearls Before Swine" was first published in 2000 and runs in The Press Democrat and more than 750 newspapers around the world, has gotten more than 2 million hits each on his blog and Facebook posts about the collaboration. An exclusive story quoting Watterson ran on the front page of the Washington Post. It has rocketed all over the Internet, on social media and been posted by Rolling Stone and CNN.

The love comes in large part due to Watterson's status as a revered cartoonist who, until he retired it in 1995, drew one of the most beloved and critically acclaimed comics ever. The Cleveland-based artist's famous reclusiveness — there are almost no photographs of him, and he refuses to be videotaped, making few public appearances — has only enhanced his legend.

In fact, until Pastis contacted his idol in April, he had never seen or spoken to him. Now, he's not only met him, he's collaborated with him on characters he created.

"It was like Babe Ruth asking me to go play baseball with him," Pastis said.

Watterson's "Pearls Before Swine" panels, ostensibly drawn by a young girl who Pastis created, named Libby, were part of a brief narrative where the girl mocks Pastis' artistic skills. Self-deprecation is a frequent theme in "Pearls Before Swine," which stars several talking animals as well as a cartoon representation of Pastis himself.

In the three strips, Libby tells the cartoon Pastis she can draw "Pearls" better than he can, and shows off her range in the Watterson-drawn panels featuring crocodiles, a zebra, UFOs and a trio of buxom women swooning over a muscle-bound version of the cartoon Pastis.

Pastis, who agreed to keep the collaboration secret until after the strips appeared in newspapers, was on a book tour when he first made an attempt to meet Watterson.

While the meeting never happened, Pastis was encouraged by mutual friend and fellow cartoonist Nick Galifianakis to email Watterson anyway.

Pastis said his first thought was not to bother Watterson, but then he wrote a comic strip that mentioned "Calvin and Hobbes" and decided to send a copy of it to Watterson with a note saying how much his work had influenced his own.

"He wrote me back and I couldn't believe it," said Pastis. "It's the only thing I've ever done that impressed even my hard-to-impress wife."

But the real shocker was in the text of the email Watterson sent. Turns out, the master was a fan of the student's too.

"Talk about being blown away," Pastis said.

Watterson told the Washington Post what he said in his email reply to Pastis, that he'd been a longtime fan of "Pearls Before Swine."

"Several years ago, when Stephan did one of his strips that mocked his own drawing ability and mentioned my strip in comparison, I thought it might be funny for me to ghost 'Pearls' sometime, just to flip it all on its head," he said to Post reporter Michael Cavna. "It was just a silly idea, and I didn't know Stephan, so I never pursued it, and years went by."

And then he got the email from Pastis in which he suggested a collaboration.

"To say I was surprised is an understatement," Pastis said. "He's quoted saying how gracious I was to let him use my strip. I don't think there's a cartoonist in the world who wouldn't have said 'yes' to him."

Pastis said he talked to Watterson exclusively via email. Once they decided on an storyline, it took them about a week to finish the three strips.

"It was so much fun, but I felt so unworthy," said Pastis, who finally met Watterson in person on his current trip to D.C. "You really have to remind yourself that you don't suck and that he actually wants to work with you."

Bringing further mystique to the collaboration was how little new work the public has seen from Watterson since he retired "Calvin and Hobbes." That work has consisted of basically two projects — a poster for a documentary film on comic strips and a painting of a character created by Richard Thompson in his now-retired strip "Cul de Sac," which was auctioned off to raise money to help Thompson in his battle with Parkinson's disease.

Watterson is donating the originals from his stint on "Pearls Before Swine" to raise funds for Parkinson's research in honor of Thompson, a longtime friend and colleague.

As for Pastis, who unlike his comics-page alter-ego still is happily married to Staci, he plans to spend his summer in Santa Rosa. The father of Tom and Julia will be working on the fourth book in his best-selling series of young adult novels called "Timmy Failure." The third in the series, "Timmy Failure: We Meet Again" will be released in October.

But, he said, the excitement of the past few weeks will be difficult to match, especially as he's now met two of his idols and influences, the first being "Peanuts" creator and longtime Santa Rosan Charles Schulz.

"I'm going to just enjoy this ride," he said. "Because you know, I think it might be all downhill from here."

<i>For links to the strips, as well as to Pastis' blog, see the left-hand column of this article.

You can reach Staff Writer Elizabeth M. Cosin at 521-5276 or elizabeth.cosin@pressdemocrat.com.</i>