I have loved Calvin & Hobbes since the first time I read it. I had to be about 10 or 11 years old. I was one of those kids who always grabbed the newspaper on the way to school just to read the “funnies” (and movie reviews of course, but that surprises no one). I mean, one of my earliest pieces here on Nerd-Base was a piece profiling a bit of fan service to the strip. As I stated in that article, almost two years ago now, “I’d think of putting out a challenge for people to find a more truthful and honest representation of childhood, but I know it’d be futile. There isn’t one.”, and I still hold firm on that belief. However, after seeing the film, Dear Mr. Watterson last night, I know for certain that I’m not the only one.
Dear Mr. Watterson started as an idea from a fan, Joel Allen Schroeder. As an uber-fan of the strip, Joel made a decision to take what he learned from his film classes and apply them to what would become not a search for the infamously reclusive Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin & Hobbes, but instead a love letter to him and his creation. An exploration into the hearts and minds of some of the biggest names in the industry to understand the impact that this comic had and will likely continue to have. He started almost 6 years ago on his own dime and a group of volunteers travelling the country. He soon, of course ran out of money and started the first Kickstarter for the film back in December of 2009 just to help cover some of the travel costs. An expression of love came from the fans of Calvin & Hobbes and the campaign made double its goal.
There’s something magical about Calvin & Hobbes. I knew it as a kid, and it is even more clear now in my thirties. Bill Watterson managed to find a combination of beautiful artwork, well-crafted writing, and wondrous characterization that all came together in near-perfect harmony.
The comic strip continues to delight and surprise me to this day, but what really blows my mind is that the strip has, without exaggeration, found a way to invade the hearts and souls of readers of all kinds from around the world. I had been making videos for several years before I recognized the impact that my films could have on an audience. That realization is what turned filmmaking from a hobby into a career for me. I’m incredibly intrigued by the capacity for one man to have such a wide and truly meaningful human impact.
– Joel Allen Schroeder
Thanks to the success of this, Schroeder and crew were able to go on to interview the likes of Bloom County‘s Berkeley Breathed, Robot Chicken‘s Seth Green, Foxtrot‘s Bill Amend, Non Sequitur‘s Wiley Miller, and a host of others, including Nevin Martell, himself the creator of a tribute to Watterson’s legacy, the book Looking for Calvin & Hobbes and who has an interesting little impact on the film (make sure to stay until after the credits). There’s also some fantastic comments and history from Jenny Robb of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Art Library and Museum, Andrew Farago of the Cartoon Art Museum, Joe Wos from Toonseum, and Charles Solomon, a cartoon historian who I, personally, could likely listen to for days just to soak up a portion of his knowledge.
The film starts simply enough, with a quote from Bill:
“For all their seeming simplicity, the expressive possibilities of comics rival those of any other art form.” — BILL WATTERSON
Followed up with a bit of exposition introducing Joel and a cute little interjection from his parents talking about how they weren’t comfortable with him reading Calvin & Hobbes at first seeing as Calvin seemed to be such an ill-behaved little boy.
From there the film goes on to focus on specific aspects of impact that Calvin & Hobbes had on its audience. How it appealed to EVERYONE. Berkeley Breathed, who arguably had the 2nd biggest comic at the time, Bloom County, goes on to remark that one of the magical things about Watterson was that you didn’t need to understand the time, history, politics or pop-culture of the time. All that was required of you to enjoy Calvin and Hobbes was that you simply be alive. His comic was so pure and sincere, it explored the simplicity of childhood, the fantastical worlds of the imagination, the subtle philosophies of art and existentialism….yeah, it got deep. But not so much so that it didn’t touch something in everyone. There was almost a universal truth to Calvin’s musings that anyone of any day or age could understand and enjoy.
That’s all without mentioning the art! The art of Calvin & Hobbes was not only beautiful, with it’s watercolored backgrounds in the thankfully large Sunday pieces, but the linework was simple yet sophisticated. His grasp on subtlety was sublime. His ability to communicate movement and action was beyond most of what had come before….and this was just for a newspaper comic strip? He raised the bar, much to the chagrin of his peers.
One of the most amazing aspects of all this was that despite his success, Watterson retained the integrity of his work and refused to allow it to be sullied or cheapened by licensing it out and marketing it. The film explores this noting that he could have made MILLIONS had he just allowed the “powers that be” to make something as simple as a plush Hobbes. Not to mention the t-shirts, lunch boxes, posters, etc etc etc (It should be noted that those stickers you see on pick-up-trucks of Calvin peeing on things are unlicensed bootlegged manipulation of the character. This is also mentioned in the film). But no, Bill essentially told them that a stuffed Hobbes doll sitting on someone’s shelf would take away from the magic of the comic. The question of “Is Hobbes real or just stuffed?” would be answered by glancing at your shelf. THAT is dedication to your craft. The definition of artistic integrity.
The film explores this integrity in respect to the comic being so personal to Watterson as well. Highlighting strips that could essentially be boiled down to Watterson drawing out an open letter to all the people badgering him to sell out. He’s done many of these “open-letter” type strips. Some of the most popular of which confronting the arguments of High and Low Art, how ridiculous the concepts are and how they apply to his own work and life.
For a newspaper comic that only ran a mere 10 years (mere by comparison to so many), Calvin & Hobbes will be one of the few that will always be remembered. Children are still reading the books in libraries and book stores, magically drawn to them without their parents, fans themselves, even having to push them towards it. This film explains the “why” of that pretty well.
One last note, in the film it’s discussed that although most people can remember and love many “episodes” of the comic, they will undoubtedly always have two specific favorites that they remember most clearly. One being any of them that touched them in some way, the other being the last. Everyone who was a fan of Calvin & Hobbes remembers that last strip, the day it ended and the beautiful, touching way it did so.
As an added “bonus” of sorts, I found a copy of the letter Bill Watterson wrote to the newspaper editors informing them of “the end”.
In closing, just watch this film. It comes out in theaters on November 15th, 2013 at select theaters in New York and Los Angeles with other dates to be announced. It will either awaken or re-ignite your love of comics.