Is there anyone who doesn’t like Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes? I say “like” and not “liked” in the past tense, because the irrepressible Calvin and his faithful stuffed tiger Hobbes feel as present and lovable now as when Watterson discontinued the comic strip in 1995. If you don’t like Calvin and Hobbes, you probably haven’t read it. Or maybe you don’t have a soul. Either way, the legacy of Calvin and Hobbes, a strip that ended seemingly at its prime and that endures despite its creator’s vehement refusal of licensing and merchandizing, is a powerful one. Mr. Watterson himself has avoided the spotlight ever since, becoming, as one fellow cartoonist calls him, “the Sasquatch of cartoonists.” Dear Mr. Watterson, a new film by Joel Allen Schroeder, traces the big footprints left behind by Watterson not to corner the cartoonist personally, but rather to muse upon the magical hold his characters still claim upon those who read him long ago as well as new generations of readers. It’s a legacy that saddens with the thought of memories gone by, but also gladdens with the hope that there will always be the childlike glories of wonder and imagination.
Schroeder’s film odyssey started out like that of most Calvin and Hobbes’ fans, with dailies and Sunday strips taped or tacked around his bedroom. In late 2007, Schroeder began interviewing fans of the comic in search of some sense of its cultural impact. A Kickstarter campaign for the film attracted 2,083 backers from around the world, who helped Schoeder raise more than 200% of his original goal. Literally backed by thousands of Calvin fans, Dear Mr. Watterson soon expanded into an analysis not just of Watterson’s work, but also of its place in the larger comics industry as interviewed cartoonists such as Berkeley Breathed of Bloom County, Stephan Pastis of Pearls Before Swine, Jef Mallett of Frazz, and Dave Kellett of Sheldon. Alas, Watterson never speaks on camera, but the strips themselves speak loudly enough.
Dear Mr. Watterson goes back to the roots of Watterson’s life in the small town of Chagrin Falls, Ohio. Looking at the natural landscape as well as the homes and businesses of Watterson’s hometown, you quickly recognize that this is the place where Calvin was born. The endless woods Calvin and Hobbes would prowl in search of adventure as well as the townscapes the gargantuan Godzilla-like Calvin would terrorize in his imagination echo with Watterson’s voice, but viewers must be satisfied with the words of people who knew Watterson while he lived there or those who share secondhand the almost mythic tales of his presence. Mike Dillinger’s motion graphics and John Michael Bister’s stop motion animation bring the old strips to cinematic life, with the “blooming” of the Sunday strips’ watercolors especially remarkable when seen in the film.
Schroeder excels when he allows everyday fans to share their memories of Calvin and Hobbes. When people share personal stories of reading collections of Calvin and Hobbes as consolation after the death of a loved one, you recognize that there’s a lot more going on here than merely funny pictures and words on a page. “For all their seeming simplicity,” Watterson once said, “the expressive possibilities of comics rival those of any other art form.” Schroeder starts the film with that quote and then proves Watterson’s words wonderfully true. As heart-warming and memory invoking as those fan stories are, it’s the testimonies by fellow cartoonists that really opened my eyes. Pretty much every cartoonist since the 1990s credits Calvin and Hobbes as a major influence for the quality of its thought and feeling as much as the quality of the drawing itself. As Breathed puts it, Watterson was “making it harder for the rest of us” to produce good work.
Breathed also brings up the sad reality that Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes may not just be a great comic, but also the last of the great comics, ending a line begun by George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, Walt Kelly’s Pogo, and Charles Schulz’s Peanuts. With the death of the American newspaper industry comes, inevitably, the death of the American newspaper comic page. It’s shocking to think that Watterson’s beloved strip might never have become as iconic as it did if it had hit the scene today. Breathed sees the current comics world as “digitized” and “atomized” where individual voices remain scattered throughout the internet instead of collected together on a shared comics page, where people could “gather” in reading before gathering around the water cooler to talk about today’s joke. There may never be another Calvin and Hobbes—not because the talent isn’t there, but because the culture no longer can sustain one.
But at least we’ll always have the Calvin and Hobbes of yesterday. In addition to its humor, quality drawing, and thoughtfulness, the thing that separated the strip and its maker was the refusal to license and merchandize the work. Watterson himself, in a controversial speech, called this phenomenon “the cheapening of comics.” As artists such as Schulz with Peanuts and Jim Davis with Garfield engorged themselves with merchandizing and licensing fees, Watterson turned down what’s estimated to be $300 to $400 million dollars just to maintain the integrity and purity of the work. (Jean Schulz, Charles’ widow, appears on screen to defend Peanuts’ honor.) Watterson made himself a few enemies with that speech—cartoonists who didn’t like being branded sell-outs for profitable business practices—but he also made a legion of enduring fans who respected Watterson’s choices that made it possible for them to maintain the “Calvin” in their imaginations without interference from a cartoon Calvin on the big and/or small screen.
I’d like to think that Bill Watterson’s been working on new comics, perhaps even new Calvin and Hobbes comics, since signing off on December 31, 1995. Imagine 18 years of Watterson waiting to be discovered. But part of me also wants him to follow the credo of the final panel of that final strip (shown above): “…Let’s go exploring!” Perhaps Watterson’s been exploring new ways of discovery of self and world ever since. Whether he chooses to share his findings with the rest of us is entirely up to him, just as that same choice is entirely up to us. We have no right to ask any more of Bill Watterson than what he’s already given us. Dear Mr. Watterson doesn’t ask any more of Bill Watterson or Calvin and Hobbes either. Instead, it asks us to consider what made that little boy and stuffed tiger’s world so magical and how we can keep that magic alive today against all the odds.
[Image: Bill Watterson. The final panel of the final Calvin and Hobbes Sunday strip, December 31, 1995. “Let’s Go Explore!” © Bill Watterson.]
[Many thanks to the makers of Dear Mr. Watterson for providing me with access to a preview of their film, which is now appearing in select theaters and will be available on demand on November 15, 2013.]