Even today, 18 years after its author stopped , you'll meet people who will talk about how much they miss the comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes.” That's the point behind the documentary “Dear Mr. Watterson,” which is playing at the Magic Lantern Theater. Following is the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:
Sometime in the late 1980s, when I was making one of my occasional trips south to visit my family in San Diego, my father showed me his favorite cartoon strip. It wasn’t like my dad even to read the comics that the San Diego Union published, much less take the trouble to clip a collection of daily strips that ended up being as thick as my wrist. So I was curious to see what had so excited him.
That was my introduction to Bill Watterson’s “Calvin and Hobbes,” which would become – during its decade-long run that ended in 1995 – one of the most popular and influential cartoon strips in history. At its high point, “Calvin & Hobbes” could be found in more than 2,400 newspapers worldwide.
Then Watterson quit. He simply walked away – from the strip, from the hundreds of millions he could have made in licensing fees, from the media and from his fans. Other than a short, two-paragraph press release, Watterson’s only real statement came in his final Sunday strip, which has 6-year-old Calvin and his best-pal-tiger Hobbes heading out with a sled on a sunny, snowy day. “It’s a magical world, Hobbes old buddy,” Calvin says. “Let’s go exploring.”
Which, apparently, is what Watterson did himself, though this is just a guess. For all we know, Watterson is sitting at home in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, in front of his television, stuffing himself with Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs.
And if you go to watch Joel Allen Schroeder’s new documentary “Dear Mr. Watterson” – which is playing at the Magic Lantern Theater – you won’t learn much more. That’s because, for reasons that he says were intentional, Schroeder didn’t even try to interview Watterson. Instead, he envisioned his film as a virtual love letter. And to that end he fills it with lots of interviews: with fellow cartoonists such as “Bloom County” creator Berkeley Breathed and “Pearls Before Swine” creator Stephan Pastis, with the head of the syndicate that distributed Watterson’s strip, with the director of the library that houses Watterson’s original artwork and with regular fans, including himself.
Give Schroeder credit. He makes an effort to explore a number of questions, and he actually offers up some plausible answers. Because of this he has managed to construct a film that is more than a mere exercise in hero worship. For example, Schroeder details how Watterson fought and won battles both with the syndicate over licensing – he thought selling Calvin and Hobbes merchandise would cheapen the strip – and with newspaper editors, who sought to shoe-horn Watterson’s work into a more fungible format.
Still, at times, “Dear Mr. Watterson” feels as if it has a hole in its middle. Schroeder attempts to fill that hole with the interviews, with shots of Watterson’s hometown of Chagrin Falls and with flashes of Watterson’s strips – but little more than flashes. In one irritating sequence, Schroeder shows himself poring over Watterson’s originals, but the camera lingers on him instead of where it should have been: on that little boy and his stuffed tiger.
Even my dad knew better than that. Instead of trying to explain why he liked Calvin and Hobbes so much, he simply let me discover Watterson’s magic by myself.