Film Review – Dear Mr. Watterson
Dear Mr. Watterson
In fifth grade, our “cool” teacher Mr. Horne assigned the class a “Reading Day,” encouraging us to bring in a book of our choice and sit silently while he spent the day catching up on paperwork. I lugged in a stack of Calvin and Hobbes books I’d recently procured through Scholastic and was in heaven. That afternoon, Mr. Horne approached my desk and asked if he could borrow my copy of Something Under The Bed Is Drooling. The other students were in awe and, for one shining moment, I was the cool kid in class.
Dear Mr. Watterson, an unabashed love letter to Calvin and Hobbes and its creator, is chock-full of these kinds of stories. Talking head interviews with fans and fellow artists comprise the bulk of this endearing documentary, and it thankfully avoids cheap tricks such as “searching for Bill Watterson.” Dubbed (by me) the Salinger of comic strip artists, Watterson is nearly as famous for his reclusiveness as he is for his beloved characters. First-time feature director Joel Allen Schroeder respects his wishes to be left alone and innately understands that this just adds to the mystique of it all. Even Watterson’s nearest and dearest (including FoxTrot creator Bill Amend, among others) claim not to have seen him in years and explain he prefers to communicate via letters and drawings.
Everyone seems to take something different away from his artistry, and most credit it for shaping them into the insightful and exploratory adults they’ve seemingly become. Calvin tended to question or buck authority at every turn—revelatory reading for those of the right age and mindset. That’s not to say the strip wasn’t outright silly at times (Calvinball, anyone?), but you can bet there was some sort of commentary lurking just underneath the surface. This is what differentiates Watterson from a great deal of his contemporaries and precisely what makes the strip so timeless. I myself re-visit their adventures every few years and always manage to feel like I’ve caught something new. A wonderful achievement.
A good chunk of the film deals with Watterson’s decision not to merchandise his beloved characters. He turned down millions upon millions of dollars to maintain the purity of the strip, which resulted in a lot of head-butting with managers and misplaced scorn from other artists. And while even the truest of fans can’t claim they don’t want a Saturday morning cartoon special or stuffed Hobbes of their own to snuggle during a thunderstorm, there’s something to be said for stick-to-itiveness. Especially when it comes from a decent place.
This is a film made for fans by fans, so Ziggy lovers beware. There is no room for gimmicks here. (I’m looking at you, Salinger.) The production values are admirable given the budget, and the sincerity on display will make you proud to be a part of this club. So fashion a newspaper hat and seek this one out wherever you can. Let’s go exploring.