If you're a fan of Bill Watterson's Calvin & Hobbes comic strip, you could probably name a dozen things that make it such a fascinating, funny, and enduring piece of popular art almost 20 years after Watterson decided to call it quits. Maybe it's Calvin's boundless imagination and capacity for mischief, his hilarious yet soulful relationship with Hobbes, the duo's forays into deep and probing philosophical issues, or the exuberance, creativity, and beauty of Watterson's artwork. But something that is rarely acknowledged is the fact that, despite its massive popularity, there has never been a Calvin & Hobbes animated series, nor has there ever been Calvin & Hobbes dolls, toys, or any other officially licensed or endorsed Calvin & Hobbes products (in case you didn't know, all those decals of Calvin peeing on any number of logos are pirated). That's because Watterson's deep love and respect for his characters, comics, and the freedom they represent led him to make the unbelievably principled stance of turning down possibly hundreds of millions of dollars in licensing fees in order to keep his creations as pure (and within his control) as possible.
The documentary Dear Mr. Watterson, which started last year as a Kickstarter campaign, explores what makes Calvin & Hobbes so special, beloved, and influential, and why its creator was willing to take on newspapers and the comics industry not only to serve his creation, but comics in general as a worthy and important artform. Watch my ReThink Review of Dear Mr. Watterson below (transcript following).
As a kid, every morning started with reading the funnies, with four comic strips having an especially strong impact on me. First was Garfield, probably for its simplicity that even a young child could grasp. Next was Peanuts, which I mostly read in anthologies from the library, which was notable for its rich and often melancholy take on the inner lives of children, as well as Snoopy's weird world. When I got older, it was Bloom County, which was wordier, smarter, and skewered politics and pop culture. And last, but certainly not least, was Calvin & Hobbes, which is ostensibly about an imaginative, troublemaking six-year-old boy named Calvin and his stuffed tiger and best friend, Hobbes. Though if you've ever read the strip, you know it's about way more than that, and its creator, Bill Watterson, is much more than your average comic artist, both of which are explored in the documentary Dear Mr. Watterson.
Directed by Joel Allen Schroeder, a lifelong fan who bears more than a passing resemblance to a grown-up real-life Calvin, the film follows Schroeder as he attempts to learn more about the creator of the beloved strip, which many consider the last great comic strip and one of the greatest of all time. So Schroeder makes a pilgrimage to Watterson's hometown of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, whose streams and forested surroundings bear a striking resemblance to the woods where Calvin and Hobbes would play, explore, and discuss their philosophies.
Unfortunately, Schroeder had no access to Watterson himself, who is famously reclusive, wrote and drew every strip by himself, and has all but vanished after ending the strip in 1995 after a ten-year run. But the film is chock full of interviews with fans of Calvin & Hobbes, comic strip historians and archivists, people who worked at the syndicate that distributed Calvin & Hobbes, and many of Watterson's peers, including Bloom County creator Berkeley Breathed, as well as the creators of Foxtrot, Non Sequitur, and Stone Soup. Through them, we learn a bit about Watterson's background in cartoons, why people love Calvin & Hobbes so much, and why the strip was so groundbreaking, innovative, and influential for so many comic artists.
But perhaps the most interesting part of the documentary is its examination of how comics have changed over the year and the battles Watterson fought to keep his strip big, boundaryless, and creative by refusing the restraints of a standard Sunday strip, evoking the golden age of comics where a strip often had an entire page to work with. Even more impressive is Watterson's incredibly principled refusal to allow his syndicate to ever license Calvin & Hobbes or its characters for use in toys, merchandising, advertising, or animation, which would've earned Watterson tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars and made Calvin & Hobbes as sadly ubiquitous as Garfield or the Peanuts characters.
However, while it was nice hearing so many people attest to Watterson's dedication to comics as an art form and how protective he was of the world and characters he created, it wasn't new information to me. That's because, in 1995, I sat on the floor of an airport bookstore during a layover and read The Calvin & Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book cover to cover, which starts with a mindblowing essay by Watterson about the importance and beauty of comics as a form of artistic expression, how licensing and shrinking the comics debases them both morally and artistically, as well as his influences, process, and several other topics. The rest of the book shows some of Watterson's favorite Calvin & Hobbes strips, with Watterson describing his inspirations for them, why they were interesting moments in the strip's development, and why certain experiments and concepts went wrong.
I reread the 10th anniversary book after seeing the movie, and it has more to say about Watterson and his strip than Dear Mr. Watterson does, which is not so much a knock on the movie as it is a testament to the power of hearing someone as intelligent as Watterson describe his thoughts and his work in his own words, and I really can't recommend it enough. But more casual fans of Calvin & Hobbes will learn a lot from Dear Mr. Watterson, while serious fans will surely enjoy seeing Calvin, Hobbes, and the genius who created them getting the respect and admiration the three of them so richly deserve.