At one point in Joel Allen Schroeder’s 90-minute documentary about “Calvin and Hobbes,” we catch a glimpse of the form letter that the comic strip’s reclusive creator, Bill Watterson, sends to fans. In a way, it feels as if Schroeder’s Dear Mr. Watterson is the fan letter to end all fan letters, a way to blast through Watterson’s defenses and guarantee a personal response.
Dear Mr. Watterson is an unabashed love letter, chronicling not only the director’s own relationship to “Calvin and Hobbes” but also the myriad ways in which Watterson revolutionized his medium. Interviews with both contemporary cartoonists such as Berkeley Breathed (“Bloom County”), and with cartoonists Watterson influenced, such as Stephan Pastis (“Pearls Before Swine”), reveal the deep reservoir of admiration Watterson’s peers have for him. (Watterson himself does not appear.)
“Calvin and Hobbes,” chronicling the adventures of an imaginative young boy and his stuffed tiger, ran from 1985 to 1995. When Watterson pulled the plug, “Calvin and Hobbes” was syndicated around the world and translated into dozens of languages. Tens of millions of copies of the strip’s various collections have been sold. With the onset of the Internet age and the atomization of media, it is unlikely that any future strip will have the impact of Watterson’s creation.
Schroeder spends a decent amount of time on the business aspects of “Calvin and Hobbes,” notably Watterson’s refusal to allow the characters to be licensed in any way, shape, or form. (Those car stickers you see of a Calvin lookalike urinating on various logos are knockoffs; Watterson doesn’t see a dime from them.) The stance came at a high cost—one person with the outfit that syndicated the strip suggests that Watterson left something between $300 and $400 million on the table—but the creator stuck to his guns.
The work is all we have to remember “Calvin and Hobbes” by. There has been no overwhelming proliferation of crap cluttering the shelves at Walmart, no cottage industry reminding us daily of the existence of this monumental work. And yet, despite worries that memories of the strip might fade, “Calvin and Hobbes” endures: children continue to pick up collections at local libraries despite the fact that it has been more than 15 years since the last comic was published.
Dear Mr. Watterson at times feels a bit shallow. While Schroeder touches on many different topics, he rarely drills down deeply into any of them. He hints at some of the struggles between Watterson and his syndicate but doesn’t get into the details. Some of the artists he interviews discuss the ways in which Watterson’s groundbreaking visual style shattered expectations of what a Sunday strip could be. But Schroeder doesn’t get into why Watterson had to fight for his work or how his strip changed the medium.
But this isn’t an exposé, and you shouldn’t go into it expecting deep examinations of “Calvin and Hobbes’s” philosophical underpinnings—of which there are many. This is an appreciation steeped in nostalgia, something for fans of the strip to sit back and simply enjoy.