Dear Mr. Watterson Deceptively Deeper Than a Mere Fan Letter
- Friday, November 15, 2013
Release Date: November 15, 2013 in select theaters and OnDemand
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 89 minutes
Director: Joel Allen Schroeder
Cast: Joel Allen Schroeder, Berkeley Breathed, Seth Green, Stephan Pastis, Bill Amend, Lee Salem, Jan Eliot
"I've never met anyone who doesn't like Calvin & Hobbes," says one of the interviewees in Joel Allen Schroeder's documentary Dear Mr. Watterson: An Exploration of Calvin & Hobbes. This sentiment is rare among comic strips, especially for comic strips that ran their last issue 18 years ago, and whose characters have never been licensed or merchandised.
Consider, for example, one of the questions posed by the film: what would be the harm if there existed today stuffed Hobbes dolls that children could own, dolls over which Bill Watterson could have had complete creative control to ensure they looked and felt just right? How would that be a bad thing? Children would love them, and the fact they exist (ala a plush Snoopy) would continue to create thousands of up-and-coming potential readers of Calvin & Hobbes! Win-win, no?
Well... no. Quite possibly no. One of Schroeder's interviewees makes a salient point here that while it took him a long time to agree with stances Watterson took such as not licensing these characters, he now understands it. That Hobbes plush, while harmless and helpful, suddenly by its very existence removes the mystique and innocence of the Hobbes character that Watterson intentionally intoned in his strip: namely, is Hobbes real, or is he a toy? If you have the toy sitting there in front of you, the answer is clear. Without it, the world of the strip can continue to exist in our collective imagination however we wish it to. And that, maybe more than anything, actually contributes to the making of more potential readers in a way a commercial product never could.
And it is this unbelievable, sacrificial, insightful brilliance (no, I don't think I'm overstating it) of Bill Watterson that, with the added hindsight of these past 18 years, makes Dear Mr. Watterson such a worthwhile watch for viewers of all ages.
Consider that the title of the documentary reads as a love letter or even a request for Watterson to please-please-please come back to us in our hour of societal need, but the direction the film takes doesn't quite go to either of these expected places. Neither are the varied and several interviewees all that important or memorable on their own (we have the syndicate rep who worked and butted heads with Watterson, the fellow cartoonists like Berkeley Breathed and Bill Amend, the legions of fans whose lives or career tracks were forever changed by a comic strip), but the things they say are the collective payoff. Where is the negativity? There's so little of it you may be tempted to cite Schroeder & Co. for too much self-satisfaction, ala Hobbes giving himself a tongue-bath. For what is a documentary without at least some cricitism of its subject? While we are reminded of the way Watterson could rub industry insiders the wrong way with his idealism and speech-making (one example is Beetle Bailey creator Mort Walker, who found a 1989 talk Watterson gave disrespectful to career cartoonists like himself), what we have here is more of a proof-was-in-the-pudding retrospective, as in, 50 million Calvin & Hobbes fans - and more every day even after all this time - can't be wrong.
And yet, "wrong" is itself an interesting subject in Dear Mr. Watterson. For starters, Schroeder admits that while he can't remember a time where Calvin & Hobbes wasn't part of his life, he does suspect his well-meaning mother may have held back his introduction to the material. "I had a feeling," explains his mom, sheepishly, "that that little boy was a bad little boy..." It's clear that Mom no longer feels the same way today, but other interviewees definitely still have opinions on several of the topics that Watterson himself considered "wrong," such as: comics somehow being a lower form of art than, say, painting or writing; the commercialization of art; the loss of control; the loss of peace of mind.
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