Film Review: Dear Mr. Watterson

Frazz cartoonist Jef Mallett at his drawing board-1

Burnishing a Comic’s Lasting Legacy

Everyone has their own distinct memory about the moment they found and read their first “Calvin and Hobbes” comic strip. Some found it in the newspaper when it was first printed in 1985, others inherited books from their parents. I opened my first text after ordering from my school’s scholastic catalog and then proceeded to purchase every anthology in existence. One opening testimony muses that he’s “never met anyone who doesn’t like Calvin and Hobbes.” In the documentary Dear Mr. Watterson, directed by Joel Allan Schroeder, this sentiment is both clear and occasionally overstated.

Somewhat necessarily, the director describes his own deep delight in Bill Watterson’s legendary strips, the comical and philosophical stories of a troublemaker 6-year-old, Calvin, and his pet stuffed tiger, Hobbes. Schroeder inserts himself sporadically throughout to discuss his own revelation finding Calvin, recalling his bedroom plastered with Sunday newspaper clippings, displaying his favorite panels and describing their intimate value. He is simply another fan, and the documentary, which he also wrote and edited, is more than anything a love letter to Bill Watterson’s imagination within four panels (sometimes many more) and the lasting legacy of his notorious private life.

For those familiar with the strip, Dear Mr. Watterson is a small pleasure. For those unfortunate few who aren’t, the opening and closing talking heads are inspiring before they quickly become redundant. Interviews with fans and other comic artists- including some nice insight from actor Seth Green– share similar notes of praise. Schroeder even travels to Chagrin Falls, Ohio, Watterson’s alleged hometown, to uncover some of his artistic, middle-America influence. But the film finds its feet when it begins to examine the cultural footprint of the blonde-haired boy with a wild imagination and a talking tiger (We, and Calvin, know he’s real) for a best friend. It’s visible from the immense artistry, seen in Calvin’s alter ego Spaceman Spiff, in the backyard’s killer snow goons, and in the creative, cosmic landscapes that sometimes overtake his school. It’s also visible in many comic strips today.

a young Calvin & Hobbes fan

Among the many enthusiastic fans, museum curators, authors, and critics interviewed, it’s the current cartoonists themselves that appear most inspired by Watterson’s prophetic sense of comedy and critique. Some of the best scenes are in the drawing room, watching four panels come to life with ink and a steady hand, seeing shades of Watterson in others’ approach and characters. The dialogue then shifts into the state of newspapers and the rapid shrinking of the funny pages, which could have been its own separate documentary. It’s something Watterson opined about in a speech he called “The Cheapening of Comics” at the Festival of Cartoon Art. It took place in 1989.

That foresight is part of Watterson’s mystique. Early on he is dubbed the “sasquatch of cartoonists,” someone who avoided the public life as much as he could and still does to this day. Most famously, or infamously to diehard fans, he has declined any commercialization of his product, which undoubtedly would have netted him millions of dollars. Instead of fuzzy Hobbes’ lining the shelves, he kept his two characters on the page, refusing to merchandize like Charles Schultz did with Metlife and countless others.

“Comics are about control,” says Stephan Pastis, the creator of “Pearls Before Swine,” and, he implies, marketing changes that. The craft is solitary by nature. Commodification meant an end to Watterson’s own secluded lifestyle and when he printed his last panel in 1995, he foreshadowed an end to the glory days of comic strips as a whole. His final drawing was of Calvin and Hobbes sledding into an abyss of white with the caption, “Let’s go exploring.”

It was at once an end and a new beginning: a new age to the comics, a new chapter in Watterson’s life, a new reader discovering Calvin for the first time. The metaphors are aplenty and its relevance continues to pervade into the 21st century. Schroeder brings the panels to life in close detail with digital, colorful renderings. At one point, he films himself gasping and mesmerized, looking at Watterson’s original drawings. It’s a misstep only because “Calvin and Hobbes” is a comic you’d rather be reading than watching someone else do it for you.

3/5

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