Watterson chronicles love, appeal of Calvin & Hobbes

November 24, 2013

When asked in an interview about 15 years ago why he did not pursue merchandising for his immensely popular Calvin & Hobbes strip, creator Bill Watterson replied, “For starters, I clearly miscalculated how popular it would be to show Calvin urinating on a Ford logo.”

For those who only know of the spiky-haired 6-year-old comic boy as one emblazoned on the back of trucks doing just that (or kneeling graveside next to a giant cross), they missed the entire purpose of Calvin & Hobbes. The mere fact that Watterson (who eschewed blatant merchandising) not only noticed it, but greeted it with a shrug and a chuckle stands as a testament to how truly principled, realistic and good-humored the man who encapsulated so many childhood memories was.

I was browsing the Rehoboth Public Library Book Sale a few weekends ago and ran across two Calvin & Hobbes compilations: “Attack of the Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Snow Goons” and “Something Under the Bed is Drooling.”

I hurriedly snagged both of them (for a steal at $1 a piece), tossed out all my parenting books and replaced them with the learned wisdom of Watterson and his profound odes to being young.

The comic, which began its 10-year newspaper run in 1985, also had an impact on Joel Allen Schroeder, the director of a new documentary titled “Dear Mr. Watterson,” which chronicles his love and attempts to explore not only the universal appeal of the comic and its legacy, but also why, at the height of the comic’s popularity, the ever-reclusive Watterson took a bow and left the stage, only to be heard from in brief interviews in the press ever since.

Schroeder begins the picture by sharing his introduction and adoration of the comic, a technique that has become increasingly more common in documentaries and one I personally find distracting. I wish to see a film about Watterson, not Schroeder, and it reeks of a self-importance that befalls many a filmmaker. But, he is the director, so I was willing to roll with it.

As Schroeder began assembling a number of talking heads, I began to fret that this would become another documentary like “Salinger,” (which also focused on a little-seen writer) and resemble nothing but a celebrity love-fest, featuring a number of famous folks who recall what the work meant to them.

I like Seth Green, but his childhood experience of reading Calvin & Hobbes is not something I was eagerly waiting to hear.

There are some personal stories of interest embedded within: the Israeli man who sought solace in the strips during a tumultuous time of his life; the man who taught himself English to understand the stories in the strips.

But it’s little more than the sum of these anecdotal tales. There are some historians, fellow artists (most notably Berkeley Breathed, whose Bloom County strip was equally as popular at the time) and others who offer some unique perspectives, but without Watterson’s involvement in any way, there’s not much new gleaned from the doc.

The one time things amp up is when Schroeder lets the camera roll on Stephan Pastis, the creator of Pearls Before Swine, who dissects the delicate balance of marketing one’s product. It’s a conundrum that is worthy of exploration, but it ends with Pastis’ speech.

I will forever cling to the memories Calvin & Hobbes has enriched me with, and “Dear Mr. Watterson" was a pleasant enough reminder of the simpler time in which they were both written and first appreciated. I’m sure other fans will feel the same. But if you want more than just a simple trip down others' memory lanes, then you best break out your collections and leaf through them all over again and, in the closing words of the comic's 6-year-old protagonist, “Go explore!”

“Dear Mr. Watterson” is in limited theatrical release, as well as on iTunes and On Demand.