Film Review: Dear Mr. Watterson

Documentary about cartoonist Bill Watterson and <i>Calvin and Hobbes</i> starts off shakily but comes together as a well-rounded portrait by some impressive young talents.

This paean to Bill Watterson and his beloved and much-honored comic strip Calvin and Hobbes raises your hackles at the start, as USC film-school grad Joel Allen Schroeder, who spent six years making this debut feature, concedes, "I don't claim to be an expert on comics. I'm not even close." So then what gives you the right to act like a journalist or essayist and make a documentary about comics? He interviews his own parents, for God's sake, and takes us to his childhood bedroom. For the first several minutes, one can't help but think of this as both a fan's egocentrism and a high-order hagiography—and if this review were in some other kind of magazine, I'd describe the documentary as being a much more intimate act than "a big wet kiss."

But then as Schroeder ventures into the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at Ohio State University, the depository of Watterson's original art, or the Cuyahoga County Public Library in Watterson's home town of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, housing examples of the cartoonist's evolving yet somehow already fully formed work in his high-school yearbook and the local newspaper, the movie begins to change from solipsistic to sophisticated. Schroeder brings on Lee Salem, president of the formidable Universal Uclick newspaper syndicate; curators of comics museums and archives; authors and historians; actor, animation producer and Calvin and Hobbes fan Seth Green; and, most impressively, a parade of cartoonists including Stephan Pastis (Pearls Before Swine), Wiley Miller (Non Sequitur), Jan Eliot (Stone Soup), Bill Amend (FoxTrot), Dan Piraro (Bizarro), and even the retired and idiosyncratic Berkeley Breathed (Bloom County and other strips). Granted, all but the last two have their work syndicated by Universal Uclick, but then, it's hard to find comic strips that aren't.

These professionals, like the filmmaker, also swoon over Watterson, whose 1985-1995 comic strip chronicled the absurdist, philosophically funny adventures of an eccentric young boy and his best friend, a droll tiger that's a stuffed doll to everyone else but real to Calvin. Yet at least when it's Watterson's peers doing the swooning, that makes their rapture a little less gooey and a lot more articulate than the fan who, in one of the earliest moments the filmmaker chose to put in, says of first seeing the comic strip, "And I was like, whoa." The cartoonists speak specifically of Watterson’s brushwork, his concise writing, the way he drew nature. Recalls Breathed, "My initial impression…was the guy's making it harder for the rest of us because he's setting this ridiculous standard of excellence that hadn't been seen since the Pogo years," referring to Walt Kelly's famed comic strip, which from all indications heavily influenced Calvin and Hobbes.

Breathed's comment is one of the rare bits of historical perspective to surface until very late in the documentary, and to anyone who rightly considers the comic strip a vital art form, the praise heaped on Calvin and Hobbes misses an important point. Watterson's strip was but the latest in a line that seamlessly melded fantasy and reality and explored the boundaries of the medium, and to not put Calvin and Hobbes immediately in context with the likes of Windsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland, George Herriman's Krazy Kat and Charles Schulz's Peanuts creates an initial misimpression overstating its importance. That's what happens when a fan and not an objective journalist is at the reins. 

Fortunately, Schroeder doesn't avoid a balanced discussion about Watterson's elusiveness, particularly ever since the cartoonist retired a strip that was appearing in an astonishing 2,400 newspapers worldwide. The Los Angeles Times glibly but accurately referred to Watterson as "the J.D. Salinger of the cartoon world," and Piraro half-jokes, "There's like three people on the planet who have ever seen him. He won't talk to anybody. He's the Sasquatch of cartoonists—people have seen his footprint but no one's ever gotten a picture of him."

Nevin Martell, who wrote a book about Watterson, describes how two schools of looking at the man are both correct: those who respect the purity of his artist stand not to embrace celebrity and merchandising, and those who find him remarkably selfish and infuriating in refusing, in the abstract, to let a child hug a Hobbes plush doll. "He walked away from literally tens of millions of dollars in merchandising," someone here says. And, well, yeah, he could afford to—it's easy to talk integrity and chastise other cartoonists, as Watterson did at a 1989 industry speech the documentary describes, from a multimillionaire's perch, and the idea that Schulz or the legendary Percy Crosby (Skippy) were unethical sellouts is fanatical. Salem, who worked with Watterson directly, negotiating with him over the artist's more extreme stances, provides some of the most valuable insights, saying, "I think he realized pretty quickly on that he had done something special. And [he quickly became] a little unnerved and taken aback by it."

No one says great artists have to be likeable or care about their audience as anything other than as a passive receptacle of their art, and despite the documentary's fannishness, the film ultimately gives what seems as rounded a portrait of Watterson as one can get with such an obdurate subject. Schroeder almost undoes all this with a self-indulgent bit of blowhardery just before the end-credits, but a grace note after them helps rescue things.

Whatever one might say about this documentary's excesses, it's the work of some talented filmmakers: The directing, editing, cinematography, music and visual effects all impress. If Watterson's art helped inspire their talent and others', that'd be a fine legacy in and of itself.