Destroying the World
by NOAH DAVIS
Dear Mr. Watterson
dir. Joel Allen Schroeder
Calvin and Hobbes is gone but Calvin and Hobbes has not been forgotten. This is the simple thesis at the heart of Dear Mr. Watterson, a documentary from filmmaker and self-professed Calvin lookalike Joel Allen Schroeder. Starting in 1985, Bill Watterson wrote and illustrated thousands of comic strips featuring a six-year-old boy and his very real stuffed tiger. He stopped on December 31, 1995 but nearly 20 years after Calvin and Hobbes looked out over a fresh snowfall and said "Let's go exploring," the panels remain engrained in pop culture. Schroeder, 34, set out to learn why.
The film begins with a series of seemingly random people offering their thoughts about the effect the strip had on them. A young redheaded woman holds up a copy of "The Lazy Sunday Book," one of the book collections that have sold over 45 million copies in two dozen languages, and sheepishly admits that shoplifting the tome was her "first and only crime." Another man who happens to be a 300-pound black man, offers that "Calvin's the kid you want to be. Even if you're a 300-lb black kid, you still want to be Calvin." Seth Green, wearing a Star Wars shirt written in Japanese and not one of the bootleg Calvin and Hobbes shirts he will later admit to having made with his friends, says, "Calvin and Hobbes is such a subversive comic but it has such a purity to it that most comics don't because it is so joyful and very much in imagination of this kid." Other testimonials alternate between simple recollections that grasp at meaning and Green's overblown praise. These come within the first 10 minutes.
All of which is to say that people like Calvin and Hobbes. They really do. Jenny Robb, curator of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum to which Watterson bequeathed many of his original drawings, has never met anyone who felt negatively about the strip. A father on a bench tells the camera that "it's one of those things that when you find it, you want to share it," and proceeds to explain how he shared it with his son.
For the most part, Dear Mr. Watterson sticks to this format: clips of interview subjects attempting to extrapolate their own personal experiences with the comic into universal truths. Schroeder also talks to contemporary comic strip artists but the idea is the same. While there are bits and pieces of revelation in these recollections, too frequently it's simply people talking about themselves and and their banal thoughts about what a little boy and his tiger told them about What It All Means. It gets trying, quickly.
But these trips down comic memory lane, the periods of nostalgic recollection, aren't entirely bad. On at least one level, Calvin and Hobbes is a comic about nostalgia. Watterson brilliantly wrote and drew the world of an imaginative child but it's universal enough to bring all kinds of adult readers back to their youths. Calvin and Hobbes is praised, correctly, for dealing with deep, philosophical issues but the reserve is true, too; it speaks to the part in all of us that wants to put on a pair of snow pants, make a fort, and fight off the evil snowmen. Nostalgia can be remarkably simple, whether it comes in the form of a comic strip or memories shared with a filmmaker.
Nostalgia also sells. Schroeder spent six years making what he hopes is his masterpiece, raising more than $120,000 over two Kickstarter campaigns. The money, presumably, comes from people who wouldn't be out of place in the film itself. If Robb and others are to believed, that's all of us. This is, admittedly, a somewhat cynical and negative reading of a film that's clearly a personal labor of love (albeit one that cost at least $120,000) for a filmmaker who loves his subject. But Dear Mr. Watterson feels shallow. Schroeder tries hard but most of the film is only satisfying because it is about Calvin and Hobbes and it gives fans, of which I consider myself one, a reason to reminisce. There's value there, but hardly a full-length documentary's worth.
Ironically, the film is at its best when it gets closest to the elusive Mr. Watterson. Schroeder travels to Chagrin Falls, Ohio, the small town outside of Cleveland that Watterson calls home. The filmmaker never attempts to make contact with his subject – the documentary gets its name from the only line in a word document Schroeder has never finished, or even really started, to the writer and illustrator – but the city serves as a proxy. We see live footage of the forest Calvin plays in, the triangle of streets at the center of town Calvin towers over in one strip where he's blown up to Godzilla proportions, and other glimpses into the world we already know on paper. We begin to understand how the man captured the all-encompassing universe of a boy.
We also learn that Watterson was guilty of his own particular brand of nostalgia. At a 1989 comic convention, he gave a speech titled "The Cheapening of the Comics." It's a long, frequently eloquent, always passionate dissection of the state of comics, lamenting the loss of creative control at the hands of the syndicates, the newspapers, and the cartoonists themselves. It's a call to arms, a bold stand by an up-and-coming creator who is frustrated by an industry he loves. Contemporary comic creators in Dear Mr. Watterson tell us that his remarks were appreciated by some members of the industry and disliked by many others. But they were genuinely his views based upon his principled stand, a stance that continues to cost him hundreds of millions of dollars in licensing fees. While some interviewees in the film understand his choice and others don't, they all respect his decision. Watterson, like his main character, chose his own path. So did Schroeder in bringing Dear Mr. Watterson to the screen. You have to suspect the unseen creator of the comic would be proud.
Watterson certainly carved out a place in the world. "I think Calvin and Hobbes are the last great cartoon characters. He nailed that. It's great to be first but it's also great to be last," Berkeley Breathed, creator of Opus, says late in the film. For a variety of reasons – mostly due to Watterson's singular genius but also the destruction of the newspaper industry, the fracturing of the comic community, etc. etc. – we will never see another comic like Calvin and Hobbes. And that's fine. The boy and his tiger will continue to exist in memories and books, waiting to be discovered by future generations. That's a fact. But you have to wonder how much that reality really needs exploring.
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The new EP from Bear's Den is entitled Agape.