Of American newspaper comic strips, few great ones have been so short-lived, and yet so enduring in the public, than "Calvin and Hobbes" by Bill Watterson. This film explores the strip, its special artistic qualities and its extraordinary lasting appeal decades after its conclusion. Furthermore, the film explores the impact of Bill Watterson, a cartoonist with high artistic ideals and firm principles who defied the business conventions of a declining medium. Although he forwent a merchandising fortune for his strip, various associates and colleagues speak about how Watterson created a legacy that would be an inspiration for years to come.Written by
Kenneth Chisholm (firstname.lastname@example.org)
A warm documentary concerning a very warm subject matter
I discovered the Calvin and Hobbes comics around fourth grade, and by fifth grade, I owned every compilation book of the classic strip you could buy. I used to lug them to school, one of two at a time, and anxiously await silent reading time. While the other kids were perusing the often dull, airless endeavors that was children's fiction, I felt superior turning the bright, colorful pages of Calvin and Hobbes. One of the many reasons the strip registered with me was that each page housed an adventure you, yourself, felt like you were embarking on. I credit it and Jeff Smith's graphic novel Bone for getting me through elementary school.
Joel Allen Schroeder's Dear Mr. Watterson is an adventure all its own. A love-letter, a token of appreciation, a showcase, and a necessary film for the iconic comic strip that has gone on to live in a life confined to the pages of a book and old newspaper rather than all thinkable merchandize on cluttered store shelves. From the beginning of the film, it is recognized that Calvin and Hobbes is significant for many reasons but one is that writer and illustrator Bill Watterson has refused to license the material for fear of cheapening the name and the image.
This is an unheard of move where in the same world we have enough Garfield and Peanuts products to make your head spin. Look at those two popular strips and compare them to Calvin and Hobbes. The only difference is that the aforementioned comic strips have gone on to take other forms of life, from t-shirts, to toys, to advertising figures for different products, while the latter has stayed true to itself since the beginning. You've never seen it on anything besides book/newspaper pages and that's how it will hopefully stay.
For those unaware (there are some but very, very few, I presume), Calvin and Hobbes was a comic strip that ran for several years about an imaginative young boy named Calvin and his stuffed tiger named Hobbes and all the adventures they'd go on as a duo. They were inseparable, mainly because the comic portrayed Calvin as an odd young boy who was just going to be odd and not care what anyone thought about him. Hobbes, his loyal companion through it all, seemed to be the only one who "got" Calvin, and as a young boy, that's the best thing you could ask for.
Schroeder has an adventure of his own in this film. He travels to Chagrin Falls, Ohio, the hometown of the strip's creator Bill Watterson, to try and develop and understanding of the man's motivations for creating the comic. We see Chagrin Falls of a place that time hasn't seemed to affect, as the town's appearance, architecture, and development looks as if it has remained unchanged since its inception. Schroeder evens finds himself as the library, paging through the enormous collections of newspapers dating back to 1977, where Bill Watterson's earliest illustrations can be found.
The first half devotes itself to reminding us of the beauty and simplicity of the comic strip, while the second half tells us about Watterson's reclusiveness, the idea of licensing a product's name, and the future of comics as we know them. One of the best pieces of insight comes from a man named Stephen Pastis, who states that licensing effectively cheapens material that had the impact to utilize licensing in the first place. He explains how it's as if you become really close to a cousin and then, after years of a bond, he says something like, "oh yeah, I sell life insurance" (referencing MetLife's advertising campaign that utilized the Peanuts character). He continues by theorizing that Watterson's refusal to license stems from the idea of keeping control of one's original product. Film is a collaborative effort, as is an album, a book, and many other forms of media. A comic strip is your own personal thoughts, ideas, stories, and images captured on a piece of paper, and as soon as you give that simplicity up to cheap knick-knacks you lose all forms of control with the product and what's left is a once-respected product now overblown. Watterson's bold decision of not licensing the strip, without a doubt costing him millions of dollars in revenue, is definitely one of the reasons of the strip's long term success in an age where comics are overlooked and undervalued.
Schroeder shows us a typical Sunday paper, where the comics are a challenge to find, usually tampered or edited for space, printed and color-aligned poorly, and, above all, uninspired. The spacial limitations and poor treatment of comics in Sunday newspapers today holds back and greatly limits potential Bill Watterson's of the digital age, and nobody seems to really care.
The fact that Watterson has made the admirable decision of sacrificing temporary profits for lasting artistic purity and maintained a reclusive figure for much of his life is unfathomable in the world we inhabit today. However, take a look at what he inspired. The Calvin and Hobbes comic speaks for itself in an unconventional way, utilizing the characters, events, and situations in life children can relate to and an imaginative quality that doesn't disintegrate when one becomes older. Dear Mr. Watterson beautifully shows the impact and legacy the strip has come to behold, and articulates wholesomeness and innocence the beautiful way the strip itself did.
Directed by: Joel Allen Schroeder.
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