berke breathed, bill amend, bloom county, calvin and hobbes, cartoon museum, comic strip, dan piraro, dear mr. watterson, documentary, george lucas, jef mallett, joel allen schroeder, keith knight, lee salem, merchadising, nevin martell, outland, star wars, stephan pastis, sunday newspaper, yukon ho!
I am often chastised for my nostalgic nature. I find great comfort in the past, but I try to keep myself firmly planted in the present. This is hard when I live in the town where I went to college, met my wife and now raise my family. As my children get older, I expose them to things from my own youth that I hold dear to me. Recently, we waded through all six episodes of the Star Wars films (yes, even the shitty first three for which I am not nostalgic). Not too far back, at a time when my kids were beginning to read and really understand context, my wife and I showed them the few Calvin and Hobbes books that we had laying around the house. My oldest quickly delved into them with intense interest, curious about the pictures of young Calvin exploring alien planets, battling rogue snowmen, dealing with his arch nemesis Suzy and dealing with his parents’ self-perceived ridiculous rules. And I was happy about this because I can still remember how much joy those same comics brought me from the age of 10-20 when they were in the newspaper everyday.
Clearly, director Joel Allen Schroeder has similar thoughts about Calvin and Hobbes. He created this film clearly as a love letter to the comic strip. This admiration is something that is obviously shared by many folks in the film, but the sheer number of them from the comic strip community that also share the love of Calvin and Hobbes pretty much cements its legacy as one of the most (if not the most) beloved strip of all-time. When you get heavy hitters like Berke Breathed (of Bloom County fame) singing your highest praises, you know you did something right.
This film could have easily devolved into some ridiculous search for or pilgrimage to find Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes’ creator, who is notoriously reclusive (although not in a J.D. Salinger sort of way) and is palpably absent from the film. Dear Mr. Watterson makes a great effort to point out that that Watterson never wanted any notoriety for himself when the strip hit it big. He always wanted the focus to be on the characters, the situations he depicted and the strip itself. Any fame gained with regards to the success of the strip was never important to him. He went to great lengths to ensure, with the surprising help of his publisher, to never merchandize the strip. Watterson is the anti-George Lucas who frankly focused more on the merchandise for his films than the films themselves (anyone who has seen Episodes 1-3 know precisely what I’m talking about).
There are no Hobbes stuffed animals, no Calvin-themed lunchboxes, Halloween costumes, pajamas or action figures despite MANY overtures to do this exact thing. Watterson felt not only was his integrity on the line, but the integrity of the strip and the characters. Now, we’ve all seen the ridiculous stickers that people have on their cars with Calvin urinating on everything from the NASCAR driver numbers to politician’s faces. This is likely another factor as to why Calvin and Hobbes has been so widely revered since it was first published – there was no chance for it to oversaturate its fan base. You could count on another strip every day from Watterson and that’s all you needed. Every day anyone who got the newspaper received a new gift from him in the form a new strip, and people were excited about that.
“I’m not so interested in the man himself, but why his simple comic strip about a boy and his tiger could somehow have such meaning and such a personal impact on so many people.” This was Schroeder‘s quest and with the help of fans, cartoonists, publishers and historians, he reached it. While there is something different that attracted each person to Calvin and Hobbes, the one universal thought with regards to unconditional love and reverence for the strip is the lasting impact it has had on them and those around them.
This is a fantastic tribute to a wonderful comic strip that continues to endure despite not being in papers for the last 18 years. You can feel Schroeder‘s admiration for Watterson and his characters throughout the film and it’s very warming. His ability to deftly weave interviews into his narrative without the commentary getting stale is quite an achievement. This is a documentary that will make you want to read Calvin and Hobbes even if you’ve never seen even a single image from any of the strips. Schroeder‘s approach is so heartfelt that it is infectious. For those of us who do love Calvin and Hobbes, it begs the question of us right now – why in the hell aren’t you reading one of the books at this very minute? I know after I finished the film, I immediately picked up Yukon Ho! and had a nice walk down memory lane.
Here is the trailer: