Image from a "Calvin & Hobbes" comic.
"Coming at a new work requires a certain amount of patience and energy, and there’s always the risk of disappointment. You can’t really blame people for preferring more of what they already know and like. The trade-off, of course, is that predictability is boring. Repetition is the death of magic." -- Bill Watterson in Mental Floss on why he killed "Calvin and Hobbes"
Like a sped-up flower in a nature film, "Calvin and Hobbes" appeared, blossomed, and ended in just over ten years: from November 1985 to December 1995. In the final strip, Calvin looked at the newly fallen snow and declared, “It’s a magical world, Hobbes, ol’ buddy.” But since “Calvin and Hobbes” left the comics page, readers have had to find that magic somewhere else.
Joel Allen Schroeder’s documentary “Dear Mr. Watterson” explores how "Calvin and Hobbes" continues to influence comic strip artists and comic strip fans almost two decades after the duo tobogganed out of our lives.
It was the most popular and highly praised comic strip to appear in the newspapers since "Peanuts" debuted in 1950. It ran in more than 2,400 papers and collections of the strip have sold over 30-million copies. The National Cartoonists' Society gave Watterson its Reuben Award for outstanding cartoonist of the year twice. Watterson left an enormous hole in the comics page when he retired, a hole no strip has filled.
Schroeder grew up with “Calvin and Hobbes,” and has clearly never gotten over the loss.
("Dear Mr. Watterson" filmmaker Joel Schroeder in his Kickstarter campaign video)
Schroeder visits Watterson’s home town and the archives at Ohio State University, where the original strips are preserved—an experience comparable to one of the faithful making a pilgrimage to see a sacred relic.
In “Dear Mr. Watterson,” Schroeder talks with fans, experts, and some of today’s top cartoonists: Berkeley Breathed, Stephan Pastis, Jef Mallett, Bill Amend, and Hilary Price.
Absent from the film is Watterson himself, who is the J.D. Salinger of the comics, refusing to make public appearances or give interviews — behavior that seemed eccentric, if not downright un-American in the era of the Kardashians.
At a time when merchandising and hype often count for more than substance, "Calvin and Hobbes" achieved its popularity solely through the printed page. Watterson refuses to license his characters for films, T-shirts, stuffed toys or other products, turning down literally tens of millions of dollars.
Some good strips have appeared in recent years, notably “Zits,” “Mutts,” “Get Fuzzy,” and "Frazz." But too many artists have concentrated on political screeds, niche marketing, recycled gags and licensing, rather than good drawing, originality and accurate reflections of life in 21st century America. Perhaps it was inevitable that “Calvin and Hobbes,” like Arthur’s Camelot, could exist for only a brief time.
“Dear Mr. Watterson” is Schroeder’s first film, so it’s not surprising it has its weak spots. It’s a little long, and it suffers from multiple endings—a problem that vexes many experienced filmmakers these days. But it’s a loving tribute to the lost land of magic that existed in the imaginations of an 8-year-old boy and singularly talented cartoonist.
After watching the film, viewers will go home, thumb through their old copies of “Something Under the Bed is Drooling” or “Yukon Ho,” and continue sharing Schroeder’s reverie on that lost magic.
Full disclosure: The expert in "Dear Mr. Watterson" who talks about Watterson’s influence and complains about Garfield products becoming a "national blight" is Off-Ramp commentator Charles Solomon. Joel Schroeder is married to Lynne Slattery, KPCC Major Gifts Manager.
(Note from Off-Ramp host John Rabe: I've replaced the audio that accompanies this story. I mistakenly recorded the cuts from the documentary out-of-phase, so if you were wondering where the sound went, that was it. Sorry for the inconvenience.)