Heartfelt Calvin & Hobbes Documentary Will Make You Feel Like a Kid Again
What's your favorite Calvin & Hobbes comic? You have one. Everyone has one: the Snow Goons, or the Transmogrifier, or Spaceman Spiff, or careening through the woods on that little red wagon. People love Calvin & Hobbes with unique ferocity. So it's no surprise that the documentary Dear Mr. Watterson, available in select theaters and video-on-demand on November 15, is above all a love letter to Bill Watterson's beloved cartoon about a boy and his tiger.
Calvin & Hobbes Documentary
Rooted in filmmaker Joel Allen Schroeder's lifelong adoration of the strip, Dear Mr. Watterson explores the influence Watterson and had not only on dozens of cartoonists, but a generation-spanning legion of fans and readers. Calvin & Hobbes has always found an audience where no other books could: problem students and reluctant readers, families in mourning, alienated kids who felt more at home in their own imaginations than beside their peers.
Bill Watterson himself doesn't appear in the documentary, but he doesn't really need to. Watterson is notoriously reclusive, the Sasquatch of Cartoonists, in the words of the film. Schroeder's Watterson is a negative image, defined by the impact he's had on both fans and other artists. From Fox Trot's Bill Amend to Berkeley Breathed of Opus and Bloom County, cartoonist after cartoonist speaks to Watterson's legacy as one of the last of the truly great comic-strip draftsmen in the tradition of Windsor McCay and George Harriman.
Watterson's career also offers Schroeder a vehicle to explore the evolution and current state of comic strips. Calvin & Hobbes, for all its timelessness bereft of pop culture signifiers, it's as relevant now as it was 20 years ago, has always been something of an anachronism. Watterson was one of the last really great innovators of newspaper comics, the only member of his or any subsequent generation who could ever have stonewalled the shrinking of the funny pages, insisting on Calvin & Hobbes' glorious half-page Sunday strips in defiance of the traditional syndicate grid.
Photo courtesy DMW Press
As a cultural artifact, Calvin & Hobbes is inseparable from its medium. Its tremendous impact was a product of its quality, but also of its ubiquity, everyone read Calvin & Hobbes. The field of today's comic strips extends further than it did in 1985, but it's also become more diffuse and curated by individual readers' tastes and frames of reference. It's harder to happen across something like Calvin & Hobbes, to open the Sunday paper and stumble headfirst into the vivid adventures of a kid and his stuffed tiger.
But Calvin & Hobbes has neither waned along with newspapers, nor carved out a digital home alongside strips like Doonesbury. In a medium where strips often outlive their creators, passed to new teams or extended through decades of reruns, Watterson made the rare choice to give Calvin & Hobbes a definite and distinct ending. Calvin & Hobbes is unusually finite in other ways as well. In an era when cartoonists' income is tied increasingly closely to licensed products, Calvin & Hobbes remains a rare outlier: In accordance with Watterson's wishes, his syndicate has never licensed a single Calvin & Hobbes product.
This last choice is among the most controversial of Watterson's career, and one that's set him at odds with many of his contemporaries. It's also emblematic of his approach to comics, as a man whose body of work represents an eloquent and compelling case for the comic strip as high art, and man who rejected the commercial licensing embraced by cartoonists like Charles Schulz and Jim Davis that's propelled more and more of the comics economy. Calvin & Hobbes is, fundamentally and exclusively, a comic strip; despite frequent homage and a cottage industry of bootleg products, the characters have never existed officially independent of Watterson's pen.
That Calvin & Hobbes continues to endure, still a favorite even among a generation of kids who never saw it syndicated, is testament to the timelessness of Watterson's work. We grow up, we grow old; newspaper clippings yellow and fade; but somewhere, always, Calvin will be six years old, sledding down a hill with Hobbes at his back. That, ultimately, is the theme of Dear Mr. Watterson: Calvin & Hobbes' enduring legacy as the strip that speaks to the kids we were, and always will be.