The Work Speaks for Itself, by Josh Long
Though it only first appeared in 1985, Calvin and Hobbes has become one of the most loved comic strips of all time. Anyone who reads the funny papers comes to it eventually, even though the strip’s creator, Bill Watterson, retired it almost 20 years ago. It’s almost unusual for a comic strip to have this much longevity or this kind of universal appeal, especially considering the relatively short run, and the fact that Watterson refused any licensing deals for his characters. In Dear Mr. Watterson, director Joel Allen Schroeder explores the impact of these beloved characters, and the ideals of the man behind them.
Schroeder makes a point of showing us that he has always been a huge fan of Calvin and Hobbes. Obviously he’s not the only one, and numerous talking heads (from unknowns, presumably friends of the director, all the way up to celebrities like Seth Green) describe how much they love and have loved the comic strip. It makes a great case for the strip’s appeal, but the film spends more time than necessary with these stories. At some point, everyone uses the same descriptions – magical, transcendent, youthful, insightful. They’re all one hundred percent true. But after hearing people repeat similar praises over and over again, they begin to lose their meaning. Even the director himself inserts his own experience of Calvin and Hobbes more than necessary.
The more interesting parts of the documentary are those dealing with the history of the strip, and with the cartoonist himself. Watterson is a notorious hermit, who has repeatedly denied interviews, photographs, and autographs. To the film’s credit, it quickly subverts any expectation that this will be the moment that Watterson comes out of his shell for the public. It tells us that films and TV have sought him out before, and this is not that type of film. It wants to focus on his legacy.
A slew of well-known cartoonists chime in for their views on what Calvin and Hobbes was, how they felt when they first saw it, and sometimes their personal relationships with Watterson. The creators of Foxtrot, Opus, Pearls Before Swine, Non Sequitur and many others lend the film a necessary credibility. It becomes clear that Calvin and Hobbes was a force within the world of comics, as well as with the casual fans.
Some of the most interesting subject matter in Dear Mr. Watterson deals with Watterson’s approach to licensing. His attitude towards the licensing was (and is) much more the exception than the rule. Considering the vast amount of money to be made (one employee of the publishing syndicate estimates over 300 million dollars), it’s amazing that Watterson stuck to his guns and never gave in, not even for a so much as a stuffed animal. He wanted it to be a comic strip, and nothing else, regardless of what he might gain from compromising those principles.
The film doesn’t dig much deeper, but it does at least raise interesting questions about ownership. Watterson is praised for these principles, but at their heart, they’re the same that we hate George Lucas over. They both have stuck to personal ownership of their art, to do with it as they see fit, regardless of what the fans want. Is it ok in with Calvin and Hobbes because Watterson has tried to keep his work pure from commercialism? Or should we say, as many have with Lucas, that his art belongs to the fans now, and they should be able to appreciate it as they please?
If Schroeder had wanted to speak to Watterson, even if it was just to thank him, it’s abundantly clear that his wishes would be impossible. Instead, he created a film that does its best to explain what it is that Calvin and Hobbes meant to him, and many others. This may just be the best way that a devoted fan could write his hero a thank you note.