It takes a while for Dear Mr. Watterson to get moving. For almost 20 minutes the documentary consists of random fans of Calvin and Hobbes (one of whom is Seth Green) talking about how much they love the classic comic strip and how, really, everyone pretty much loves it. If that were the case, the whole film could have been made up of people talking about their favorite Calvin and Hobbes strip and about when they first discovered the mischievous and imaginative little boy and his tiger friend, showing us their collection of books and newspaper clippings and tattoos and pets named after the characters. I initially thought that was exactly all this was going to be anyway. It really gets off to a messy, redundant, self-involved and terribly uninteresting start.
Dear Mr. Watterson is directed by Joel Allen Schroeder, an enormous fan himself. In those first 20 minutes he shows us his childhood room, where he’d once plastered Sunday strips of Calvin and Hobbes on his walls and sloped ceiling, and introduces us to his parents, who disapproved of the comic. And then he gets in his car and takes us on a little trip — I assumed it was to stalk reclusive cartoonist Bill Watterson, who has been retired and generally unseen and unheard from since putting the strip to bed in 1995. It seemed to me like the sort of doc where this happens, having witnessed such awkward fan-driven films like Don’t You Forget About Me, Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston and Paul Williams Still Alive (the latter two being far more successful than the former). But, surprisingly this isn’t another “stalk-umentary.”
Schoeder’s destination is instead Watterson’s hometown, Chagrin Falls, Ohio, where we get a glimpse at some of the cartoonist’s early work in the local newspaper archives and in his high school yearbook. We get to know the man and his life through proper research and interviews with an author who wrote a book about Calvin and Hobbes and a curator at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at Ohio State, where much of Watterson’s original artwork and strips now reside. There are also suddenly comic historians and other cartoonists, such as FoxTrot creator Bill Amend and Bloom County’s Berkeley Breathed, who had a correspondence with Watterson and shares some drawings from these letters. There are people who worked with Watterson through the Universal Press Syndicate. What an improvement from the insignificant talking heads in the beginning.
The doc eventually dives into some general but substantial topics, some of them not specific to the main subject but definitely relevant to his work. There’s the obligatory discussion of whether or not comic strips are a true art form, and Schroeder makes a good case for why it’s actually difficult to qualify a strip by itself. There’s some address of not only today’s issues with the newspaper industry but of a history of problems that concerned and were challenged by Watterson and Calvin and Hobbes. In spite of being a person who stayed out of the public eye, he was apparently quite outspoken and controversial within his field about a number of things he felt were cheapening the medium (see his famous speech from the 1989 Festival of Cartoon Art, which the film highlights with context, including acknowledgement of the criticisms against it at the time from some colleagues).
Of course there is conversation about licensing and merchandising given that if Watterson is noted for anything other than Calvin and Hobbes it’s his refusal to allow for any Calvin and Hobbes products, toys, apparel, etc. to be manufactured. Breathed provides a bit of the other point of view as he holds up a plush Bill the Cat, while Charles Shultz widow Jean Shultz is on hand to explain the origins of the merchandizing of Peanuts characters. During this segment I decided that Schroeder deserves a good deal of credit, not so much for who he has managed to get on screen to talk about these topics, or for constructing this platform to begin with, but because he shows a real appreciation and respect for the interviewees and what they have to say. Pearls Before Swine creator Stephen Pastis, for instance, is given four minutes straight, uninterrupted, to talk on the matter. That’s rare in docs like this, where it’s typically clear that talking heads are edited to serve the filmmaker. Here, Dear Mr. Watterson and Schroeder seem instead to exist to serve those voices.
In the end, the film helps us to understand where Watterson came from, what he managed to do in only ten years with his strip and some of why he needed to get out while he was ahead. And in exploring this focal narrative we get a larger picture of the “funny papers” before, during and after his time, as well. Interestingly, Schroeder not only honors his subject’s privacy physically but he even avoids the temptation to really cover the last 18 years except in terms of the cartoonist’s legacy. It wouldn’t have hurt to note the very few interviews, articles, forewords and art he’s done over that time (coincidentally, he just recently gave his first full interview in 23 years, the full version of which appears exclusively in the latest print issue of Mental_Floss). But in a way this doc isn’t about Watterson so much as it’s about Watterson while he was making Calvin and Hobbes. Or maybe really just about the strip itself.
It’s also primarily in service to the strip’s fans. Not once did I feel like anyone without a diehard level of appreciation for Calvin and Hobbes would get anything out of, let alone enjoy, Dear Mr. Watterson. It’s not a great introduction to the strip and characters, working through the material in some assumption that we’re familiar with it, and while there is some assessment of why the strip is great, little of it is in a way that would necessarily convince someone to seek out one of the many collections available. That’s all fine given that there are plenty of interested fans. The doc nearly doubled its Kickstarter goal as a result of the strip’s popularity, and I’m certain it’s being reviewed by more outlets than usually cover this sort of film because of the subject matter, both for its appeal to the critics and to their readers.
It’s a shame the doc is also too accommodating of and too much in service to those fans seen in the first fifth of the movie, something I presumed was the result of the crowdfunding background (but I see no pledge incentive that leads me to further believe all those fans “won” an appearance in the film by contributing). I get that Schroeder is setting up the fact that Calvin and Hobbes is that popular, even though the non-fans are as fully aware of this as the devout, but he goes a little overboard in that regard. The majority of that section should have been saved for a montage during the closing credits, or better yet for a DVD bonus track. As it is, I have difficulty recommending the film, even for what it does really well, because of that misstep of a first impression. If anything, I’d say people interested in the meatier parts of the film should go for the immediately available digital options, where they can skip ahead with ease.
Dear Mr. Watterson is now playing in New York City, Los Angeles, Santa Fe and Toronto and is also available on iTunes and VHX.