Dear Mr. Watterson
Dir. Joel Allen Schroeder
There isn’t really anything new to say about Calvin and Hobbes. It existed in newspapers until the last day of 1995; most kids bought collections of the comic strip through Scholastic book orders, which seemed to exist in every American primary and middle school. Bill Watterson — the comic’s creator, author, and illustrator — wrapped up the strip and retired, becoming almost a recluse, though without any of the fussy Salingerish intrigue. He’d finished the project; he went out on a thoughtful, optimistic note that served more or less as the ethos for the whole strip. “It’s a magical world, Hobbes, ol’ buddy,” Calvin says. “Let’s go exploring!”
So what, then, does the new documentary Dear Mr. Watterson hope to add to the comic’s legacy? Director Joel Allen Schroeder explores his own experience with Calvin and Hobbes as well as those of established comics artists and assorted fans. Dear Mr. Watterson is essentially a fan doc; there’s no conflict or narrative, really, though there are acts and chapters. Schroeder’s documentary is up to its teeth in After Effects animations, whether they be splashing strips onto the page component by component or framing a Watterson quote with an illustration. All of these cuts and digital interludes seem only to underscore that there is little to add to whatever Watterson mythology exists — for people actively interested in Calvin and Hobbes, nothing in Dear Mr. Watterson is new or exciting; for the uninitiated, there’s little to entice them to uncover this artifact.
There doesn’t seem to be a way Dear Mr. Watterson could have succeeded, simply because the story of Calvin and Hobbes itself is already so tidy. It remains an ingenious comic strip, deeply imaginative and alluring, capable of planting early subversive tendencies in its readers. For most, it’s an early opportunity to discover an author celebrating the maladroit and outcast. Its creator retired it calmly, explained his motivations, thanked his appreciators and stepped offstage. Watterson doesn’t really do interviews; Schroeder didn’t land one, though Watterson spoke to Jake Rossen for the December issue of Mental Floss. In Rossen’s interview, Watterson seems like he always has: sensible, bright, sincere, and deliberately unflashy.
Schroeder devotes considerable time to the one feature of Watterson’s career that seems slightly controversial: the artist refused to license his characters for commercial gain. Watterson consciously avoided the fate of Charles Schulz’s characters, all of which continue to shill for MetLife. The passages of Dear Mr. Watterson in which we see contemporary cartoonists comment on Watterson’s career are the only ones that offer interesting perspectives on Calvin and Hobbes and its creator. Hearing cartoonists reconcile their own reliance on licensing of their work (plush toys, calendars, mugs — anything on which you’ve ever seen Garfield emblazoned) with Watterson’s recalcitrance makes clear not only how tough a racket comics are these days but also how fraught the issue of licensing is in this particular medium. Schroeder gets Watterson contemporary Berkeley Breathed (he of the otherwise subversive Bloom County) to show his correspondence with Watterson; Watterson would close his letters with an illustration of Breathed pumping out work to mechanically create money for a fat syndicate operative. It’s a useful digression in the film, one that further exposes Watterson as an outlier among his colleagues.
Less interesting or intriguing is the rote keening of artists about the decline of the local newspaper comics page. Watterson himself says, in that Mental Floss interview, “Personally, I like paper and ink better than glowing pixels, but to each his own.” For decades before the internet, the size and format of printed comics was declining in such a way that artists simply had to brook the idea that their work appeared in a form completely alien to the way they created it. Watterson was able to reach such a resounding popularity that he escaped the confines comics artists often work in; he became able to play with form in the way that long-gone strips like Pogo, Krazy Kat, and Little Nemo in Slumberland had once been able to. That contemporary comics artists wail about the plight of their artform while brilliant author and illustrators like Chris Onstad (of Achewood), Kate Beaton (Hark, a Vagrant), and Randall Munroe (xkcd) wild the fuck out (formally) in their online comics seems to bespeak an old-fashionedness that doesn’t land much sympathy.
Dear Mr. Watterson fails mainly because it never reveals why it exists. It doesn’t work as an appreciation, and it won’t bring anyone into the fold. It doesn’t further illuminate the work with which it deals; in fact, it makes its object seem like another fanboy artifact, accessible only to those already smitten with it. Schroeder should know as much; his film becomes redundant early on, and keeps going. He knows as much as anyone that the joy to be found in Calvin and Hobbes is the product of the reader’s organic discovery. If only he could have taken to heart Watterson’s comment in that Rossen interview: “Repetition is the death of magic.”