DEAR MR. WATTERSON Is the Feel-Good Documentary of the Year

I didn’t read comics as a kid. At all. Ever. Then, one year, someone gave my brother a copy of The Indispensable Calvin and Hobbes. I remember picking it up, idly, when I was bored, and getting hooked. The transmogrifier, the red wagon rides, the school scenes… Calvin was something I saw within myself, and something I wanted to be, and something that showed me a whole universe of possibilities waiting for me.

Dear Mr. Watterson, a documentary by Joel Allen Schroeder, plumbs the depths of the influence Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes, has had on readers, comic writers, and comic book publishers. Watterson does not appear in the documentary. He is famously unfriendly to the media. Instead, Schroeder mostly uses talking head interviews with fans and industry professionals to explore what Calvin and Hobbes meant and what the man behind it had to tell us. He also visits Watterson’s hometown and the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library at The Ohio State University, repository of all of the original artwork for Calvin and Hobbes.

The one thing that didn’t work was the director’s personal connection to the material. The title Dear Mr. Watterson seems to refer to the book Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary, which is made up of a boy’s letters to his favorite author. The letters are deeply personal, focusing on his changed life after his parents’ divorce. Nothing that deep comes from Schroeder’s experiences or narration. When he is looking through the archive, his voiceover asks how we would choose which strips to look at (apparently “all of them” wasn’t an option), but he doesn’t tell which he chose or why. He shows us his childhood bedroom, formerly covered in Calvin and Hobbes strips clipped from the paper, but they aren’t there anymore, and it feels a little pointless and half-baked. I believe that he really loves Calvin and Hobbes. I’m just not sure what his story adds to the film.

Watterson’s achievement was extraordinary. Calvin and Hobbes ran daily for ten years, and it was pretty close to perfect. It was read by millions of people, and it meant something to them. Spending 90 minutes contemplating this accomplishment is a pretty feel-good experience. My heart was literally warmed. The movie opens with a montage of fans, most of them about my age, talking about what the strip meant to them, each framed within a comic panel. It’s a pretty straightforward (and effective) bid for the viewers to jump into the strip and remember what piece of themselves they found in Calvin.  

Some of the best parts of the movie feature comic experts—writers, curators, executives—talking about Watterson’s influences and impact. Peanuts, Pogo, and Krazy Kat are cited as his biggest influences, but it’s also enlightening to see a panel of Little Nemo in Slumberland laid out in the exact same formula as some of Watterson’s greatest Sunday strips—long dream sequence, one final panel with a return to reality. His colleagues talk a lot about his writing and art style—those beautiful watercolors, but Watterson’s mark on the business side is even more interesting.

At a time when comic space in newspapers was dwindling, Watterson demanded, and received, a full half page for his Sunday strips. If a newspaper wouldn’t give him the space, they couldn’t have Calvin and Hobbes. His best, most inventive work came after he broke free of Sunday’s standard 16 panel template. His 1989 speech on “The Cheapening of Comics” is cited as driving Jeff Smith’s decision to publish Bones independently. And of course, much time is spent on Watterson’s refusal to license his characters for anything, ever. Hearing different perspectives on the decision and his possible reasoning actually made me change my mind a little. Yeah, it takes some serious principles to leave an estimated $300 million in licensing fees on the table, but is his artistic integrity actually any purer because I can’t buy my son a Hobbes doll? A couple weeks ago GeekTyrant posted a seriously delightful fan-made animated clip of Calvin and Hobbes dancing. Don’t bother looking for it, because it doesn’t exist on the Internet anymore. Who was that hurting?

No matter. Mr. Watterson may have wanted to avoid crass commercialization, but this movie seems almost specifically calibrated to sell copies of his books. I was tempted to pause the movie to search for my brother’s old copies. I wondered how soon I could start reading them with my son. My husband watched the last 30 minutes with me and asked how much The Complete Calvin and Hobbes was selling for. Not because the documentary is devised as a marketing tool, it’s clearly not. But what it does is remind you of the feeling of wonder and promise the strip conjured and make you want to seek that out again. 

Dear Mr. Watterson opens in New York and on VOD tomorrow, November 15. A Los Angeles and national theatrical release will follow.

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