If you’re a fan of Calvin and Hobbes, director Joel Allen Schroeder’s documentary Dear Mr. Watterson is more or less pure joy. If you’re not a fan of the cartoon by Bill Watterson about a young boy with an unparalleled imagination and his stuffed tiger, I don’t even know what’s wrong with you, but you should get it sorted out.
The title is a good sign of what this movie is: a love letter. Thankfully, Schroeder makes the trip to Watterson’s hometown in Ohio, but isn’t interested in tracking down the man, who rivals Thomas Pynchon in reclusiveness.
“He’s the Sasquatch of cartoonists,” says Dan Piraro, the Bizarro cartoonist.
Instead, Schroeder wants to understand why Calvin and Hobbes has the effect it does on people, one that starts in childhood and stays with them forever.
To do so, he interviews comics, historians, museum curators, fans such as the actor Seth Green and a giant list of fellow cartoonists. All of them border on reverential. From the high level of Watterson’s artwork to discussions of the commentary and philosophy of the strips, these interviews help shed light on what makes Calvin and Hobbes so endearing and enduring.
From its debut in 1985, Calvin and Hobbes enjoyed huge success before Watterson called it quits a decade later. He took home the Harvey award – given for achievement in comic books – for best syndicated comic strip seven years in a row. The 18 Calvin and Hobbes book collections published in the U.S. have sold approximately 45 million copies, and Watterson has surely made a very comfortable living off those sales. But he could have been infinitely richer if he ever agreed to license the characters.
“Has there ever been a character that is more built for licensing that Hobbes?” asks Stephan Pastis, the Pearls Before Swine cartoonist.
Watterson has said that he only ever wanted Calvin and Hobbes to be a comic and nothing else.
Schroeder’s film makes a convincing case that the fact that the characters have never been licensed has a lot to do with why it is still so precious to so many people.
As Pastis says about all the licensing of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts characters, it’s hard to see anything wrong with a Snoopy doll for kids to hold and go to bed with. But when Charlie Brown and the gang are selling insurance for MetLife, it cheapens them.
Schroeder is a big fan of Calvin and Hobbes, and fans want to talk about every aspect of the thing they love: Watterson’s influences, the question of whether comics qualify as art, the demands of success, Watterson’s impact on later cartoonists and the issue of comics pages shrinking in newspapers.
Some of these topics could have been explored more deeply or critically. The section on Watterson’s influence, for example, could be an entire documentary unto itself. Seeing how elements of Pogo and Krazy Kat inform Calvin and Hobbes is the kind of manna fans will want to keep eating up.
By the time the credits roll, you’ll want to dig out your Calvin and Hobbes books and grab a buddy, real or imaginary, and go exploring.