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Note: This post contains spoilers.
As a fan of Calvin and Hobbes, I anticipated watching Dear Mr. Watterson (2013) for several reasons: to learn more about the strip, to learn more about comics overall, and, mostly, to hear something from Mr. Watterson himself.
Well, two out of three ain’t bad.
Dear Mr. Watterson is one fan’s exploration of the phenomenon that is Calvin and Hobbes, a syndicated comic strip about a boy and his stuffed tiger that ran from 1985 to 1995. Calvin sees Hobbes as a real tiger, and the two engage in imaginary adventures and share deep observations about life and the world around them. The strips sometimes offered philosophical depths unachievable through words alone.
Director Joel Allen Schroeder is that fan who in part serves as our guide through the film, as he visits archives and interviews fans, artists, archivists, and other experts about the strip and its amazing popularity. While the sequence showing a bedroom with unadorned walls that used to display the comics could have been omitted, the range of interviews and their commentary on the subject is deep and insightful. The experts talk about the comic’s popularity, the comic’s artistry, and the comic’s overall impact on other artists and on fans as well.
One extended sequence centers on the absence of licensed merchandise relating to the strip. Watterson refused the licensing of the strip’s characters at a time when most strips’ characters appear on, well, everything: cups, lunchboxes, ceramic, figurines, T-shirts, you name it. Just think of Peanuts; Snoopy even sells insurance. Can you imagine Calvin or Hobbes selling anything?
That licensing could have amounted to an amazing fortune for Watterson and his publisher. The only licensed “products” available are the books, which seems fitting as the documentary suggests a different kind of return for the strip — its enduring popularity among new generations of readers.
Another sequence addresses the changing nature of distribution. Part of this distribution was the print edition of newspapers, which saw steep declines during the recent decades. Another part of this distribution is the expansion happening through online comics, such as xkcd and The Oatmeal, among many others. While online enables distribution outside the conglomerate syndicates, it also creates the difficulty in standing out among all the offerings. Calvin and Hobbes appeared at just the right time in the papers, it seems.
The key strength of Schroeder’s documentary is the interviews, though it is odd to hear them talk about Watterson without hearing from Watterson himself. Animated sequences bring further visual interest to the comics themselves, and the music is appropriately light throughout. And while I understand Schroeder’s technique of building the documentary around his own position as fan, the solid interviews already here would have carried the subject well enough on their own.