Monday, November 25, 2013

Movie Review: Dear Mr. Watterson

Dear Mr. Watterson
Directed by: Joel Allen Schroeder.

I was probably the perfect age to fall in love with Calvin & Hobbes – which remains my favorite comic strip. Bill Watterson created them in 1985 – and I would have been four at that time, and ended their run in 1995, when I would have been 14. I cannot quite remember when during that time I “discovered” Calvin & Hobbes, but I did, and read them every day in our local paper – and had quite a few of their books as well. The new documentary Dear Mr. Watterson was made by Joel Allen Schroeder – who is roughly my age – and the purpose of the documentary is to examine what made Calvin & Hobbes so special – and why nearly 20 years after it stopped running new strips, it is still one of the most beloved comics of all time. The film doesn’t have an interview with Watterson himself – he’s almost like the JD Salinger of comics, in that he never gives interviews, he values his privacy, and refused to license the rights of his creation – which cost him tens of millions of dollars – and he seems just fine with that. Just think of the TV specials, plush toys and fast good giveaways over the years that the characters from Peanuts or Garfield have appeared in, and you’ll get the idea of just what Watterson could have done with his creation if he wanted to. But he didn’t. For him, Calvin & Hobbes is precisely what he always intended it to be – a comic strip, and nothing else.

Calvin & Hobbes has endured for several reasons – some related to Watterson, and some not. It has endured in part because it did have a limited run – most successful comics run for far longer than 10 years, but because Watterson cut it off when he did, the comic itself never grew stale – never repeated itself too much. It was still at the top of its game when it ended. His decision not to license it also helped – we never grew tired of his characters from seeing them in countless TV specials or trying to sell us insurance, and having their face plastered on every piece of merchandise conceivable. But Watterson’s comic strip also came along at precisely the right time, and ended at the right time as well. As many of the comic strip artists in the film point out, the medium – like everything else in traditional media – has changed drastically in recent years. More and more people do not get a daily paper any more – they get their news online. So people do not discover comics in the same way  – you actually have to go out and find them yourself, which means fewer and fewer people actually do.

Calvin & Hobbes has also survived because it is, quite simply, a brilliant comic strip. Teachers and parents recommend it to their kids – who love it just as much as those teachers and parents did when they were kids. There is a timeless quality to Calvin & Hobbes, and it is instantly relatable to any kid out there. It means something more to them that just making them laugh – which it still does. The strip, perhaps more than anything other piece of art in any medium I can think of, captures precisely what it is like to be a kid – that fantasy world they go off into, that confuses adults, but seems perfectly normal to children.

The film Dear Mr. Watterson is an average documentary. Schroeder admits he doesn’t really have any expertise when it comes to comics strips – he’s just a fan of Calvin and Hobbes and wanted to explore what it meant to people, and why it has had the impact it did. It doesn’t really matter that he doesn’t have expertise – many of the people he interviews does. You can hear it in the way almost everyone speaks about Calvin & Hobbes and Bill Watterson – a mixture of awe, envy, jealously, and even a little bitterness. His fellow artist all admit that they loved Calvin & Hobbes – they also wish they could do something like as good as it was. They can also be defensive about their own decision to license their characters. One artist makes the point – a valid one, I think – that it wasn’t just artistic purity that drove Watterson to not license his characters- but stubbornness, and control issues. As soon as you let other people into our creation – to make toys or TV shows or whatever else, you give up a certain amount of control. It’s now not just you deciding things – but a whole group of people. People who are drawn to this sort of work are not the most naturally social people in the world – they spend all day at a desk by themselves, drawing and writing their strips. They have complete freedom and control. As soon as you license it, you lose that complete control.

No matter the reason why Calvin & Hobbes has endured, it has endured – and it deserves to. The film is like many recent documentaries – a film made by a fan, for other fans. Perhaps a deeper film could be made about Watterson and Calvin & Hobbes – but you would almost certainly need his participation to make that film, and I don’t see that happening any time too soon. Perhaps the best reason to see the film is remind you why you loved Calvin & Hobbes so much in the first place. Since watching the film, I’ve gone back through the one collection of it that I still own (the one that survived) – and when that wasn’t enough, I went to the library and checked out a few more. The library books have taken a beating – they are dog eared, have rips and have been taped back together. They have been well loved by many – which is fitting. If for no other reason, I’m happy I saw Dear Mr. Watterson because it has inspired me to spend a few more hours with my old friends Calvin & Hobbes.

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