Joel Allen Schroeder’s documentary Dear Mr. Watterson begins with the filmmaker trying to remember the first time he saw Bill Watterson’s comic strip Calvin And Hobbes, and ultimately being unable to recall any point in his life when he wasn’t already a fan. Schroeder admits up top that he didn’t read comic books as a kid, and hasn’t kept up with what’s going on in the world of newspaper comic strips. Dear Mr. Watterson is a movie about Calvin And Hobbes, by a documentarian who’s never known a world without the strip, and who doesn’t exhibit much curiosity about any comic that isn’t Calvin And Hobbes. Schroeder means to speak for the millions of people who grew up with Watterson’s work and fell in love with it as kids, but who haven’t given half a thought to comics as a medium since grade school.
In Schroeder’s defense, if he’s going to put all of his energies into loving one comic, Calvin And Hobbes is a pretty great choice. When it launched in November 1985, it was already the best-looking, funniest, and most sweetly philosophical comic on the newspaper page, and when it ended in December 1995, Watterson’s daily adventure of a rascally, imaginative little kid and his stuffed tiger was the most popular item in the funnies. And Watterson had a major impact on the medium during that decade. He rattled some of the old guard with his refusal to license his characters for toys and cartoons. He aggravated newspaper publishers and editors when he started making demands about the size and shape of his Sunday strip. And he inspired his contemporaries (as well as the cartoonists who came after him) to take more chances with their art and layouts.
Also to Schroeder’s credit, he lets people who know a lot more than he does carry much of the film. Watterson himself doesn’t do interviews anymore—with the very rare exception—but Schroeder talks to Nevin Martell, who did a lot of research into Watterson for his book Looking For Calvin And Hobbes, and Schroeder follows Martell’s lead in visiting Watterson’s hometown of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, where he gets to look at some of the cartoonist’s rare early work, and to see some of the buildings and landscapes that later filled out the strip’s backgrounds. He also talks to scholars, syndicate executives, and cartoonists, who trace a line from Krazy Kat through Peanuts and Pogo to Calvin And Hobbes. Dear Mr. Watterson hits all the right points regarding its subject, including digging into the proliferation of bootleg Calvin And Hobbes merchandise and fan-made homages, and hearing from some professionals and fans who still feel let down at how Watterson has kept so much of himself (and his characters) away from his public.
But too much of Dear Mr. Watterson is taken up by Schroeder and an array of non-professional C&H-lovers offering vague praise, with little to no real analysis—aesthetic, historical, or cultural. This documentary is meant more for casual comics readers than connoisseurs, so the remedial quality of the film is somewhat understandable. But when Bloom County’s Berkeley Breathed shows some of the letters Watterson wrote him criticizing his merchandising plans, or Jean Schulz defends how extensively her late husband Charles licensed Peanuts, or Pearls Before Swine’s Stephan Pastis describes how cartoonists’ work suffers when they have to answer a dozen extra phone calls a day from pencil-pushers with a financial stake in their strips, or curators of cartoon museums contextualize Watterson’s work, it’s hard not to wish that these more in-the-know folks were in charge of this movie. Good intentions or not, there’s something to be said for people who know what they’re talking about.