Calvin and Hobbes fans of a certain age may recognize themselves in Joel Allen Schroeder, the director and primary narrator of Dear Mr. Watterson, a documentary about the beloved comic strip and its reclusive creator, Bill Watterson. Schroeder is a soft-spoken 30-something who grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and he can’t pinpoint the exact first time he saw troublemaking six-year-old Calvin and his tiger best friend Hobbes (alive to Calvin, a stuffed toy to everyone else). It was probably one of the paperback collections of the strip, possibly from an elementary school book order.
But despite a hazy recollection of how Calvin and Hobbes came into his life, Schroeder, like so many fans of his age, maintains a sense of awe over just how great the strip was during its ten-year run (1985-1995). Dear Mr. Watterson, despite the misleading salutations of its title, is not his attempt to address or track down the strip’s creator, but an “exploration” of its enduring appeal. Schroeder visits Watterson’s hometown, talks with the author of the book Looking for Calvin and Hobbes, and interviews admirers and fellow cartoonists.
The usefulness of these encounters varies. It’s a treat to hear first-hand from Watterson’s contemporaries like Berkeley Breathed (Bloom County) and Bill Amend (Foxtrot), as well as newer cartoonists who follow in his footsteps, talking about what they value in the strip (and in Breathed’s case, an actual relationship with Watterson, albeit one driven mostly by letters and cartoon-based ribbing), and its legacy on the comics page. It’s weirdly fascinating to hear Pearls Before Swine creator Stephan Pastis describe his feelings about Watterson’s anti-merchandising stance in terms that sound both childlike and a little childish: he can’t quite let go of the lingering feeling that he would’ve really liked a Hobbes doll to hold in his hands (though he admits relief that Calvin and Hobbes were never made available to sell insurance, Snoopy-style).
Some of the brief fan interviews are similarly evocative. At their best, they’re like talking to friends about favorite moments from the strip, maybe not particularly insightful, but fun. Still, the tone of the movie sometimes turns embarrassingly earnest in its time-killing wandering: in one scene, the webmaster of a fan site explains the first-ever Calvin and Hobbes strip panel by panel; elsewhere, several different people repeatedly note how Watterson’s town of Chagrin Falls looks like images from the strip. The movie also indulges some pointless minutiae, like Schroeder digging through archives of Watterson’s old political cartoons to observe how his signature (not just his style, but literally how he signs his name) changed in those early years.
In these more archival-focused moments, it’s neat to see Watterson’s early work, as well as other rarities (like pre-color drafts of his Sunday work) and his more familiar strips blown up to big-screen size. But even with these advantages, Dear Mr. Watterson nonetheless labors to make itself visually interesting while avoiding a more intense analysis of Watterson’s style and influence. The non-visual material also suffers because Schroeder must cover lots of history surrounding the strip—the battle against merchandising, Watterson’s relationships with other cartoonists, and his strict privacy—that has already been documented in articles and books. Appropriately so: print seems vastly better suited for telling this story.
Schroeder ostensibly searches for what about Calvin and Hobbes made it so popular then and enduring now, and the roots of his own fandom. Unfortunately, his answers aren’t all that surprising: Watterson is a brilliant practitioner of a medium that, in the late ‘80s, was experiencing a final surge of greatness (via Calvin as well as The Far Side and Bloom County); the comics page hasn’t been the same since. Though it pulls together well-known stories, professional interviews, and vague “personal” material from Schroeder, Dear Mr. Watterson has little in the way of a story arc. Though billed as an “exploration”, it’s more of a respectable yet inessential primer.