Thanks to Charlie Moss and Nooga.com for this feature on Dear Mr. Watterson, the Calvin & Hobbes documentary showing Sunday at the Legs. Follow this link, or read it here.
If you go
What: “Dear Mr. Watterson” screening
When: Sunday, Nov. 17, 8 p.m.
Where: Barking Legs Theater, 1307 Dodds Ave.
How much: $7
I used to read the newspaper comics daily. “The funnies,” as they are often called, were one of my favorite parts of the paper, largely thanks to Bill Watterson’s “Calvin and Hobbes” strip. And then on New Year’s Eve 1995, Watterson stopped producing it. For me and many other fans, it was a sad day. And in response, I stopped reading the funnies altogether.
I discovered “Calvin and Hobbes” when I was a teenager. I think I was 15 or so. For someone who took himself so seriously at that age and considered himself to be so much older than he actually was, Calvin’s world helped remind me what it was like to be a kid and the importance of imagination.
Sunday night, MES will screen “Dear Mr. Watterson,” a documentary about the effect Watterson’s beloved comic strip has had on its fans in the 18 years since Watterson retired.
The film’s director, Joel Allen Schroeder, grew up reading “Calvin and Hobbes” in Appleton, Wisc. A passion project for him, the documentary was funded through Kickstarter by “Calvin and Hobbes” fans around the world.
“I think what people relate to varies from reader to reader a little bit, but essentially, there’s just so much depth and humanity in the characters of ‘Calvin and Hobbes,'” Schroeder said via email. “On the surface, Calvin might seem like a brat who is always causing trouble, but under the surface, he’s inquisitive and adventurous and is simply trying to navigate through his childhood. Hobbes is the most loyal friend you could ever have, and we can always appreciate his perspective on the human condition.”
Another aspect of the strip that really drew people in was Watterson’s artwork. For Schroeder and many others, including myself, it was impossible to read the newspaper comics and not notice the visuals of “Calvin and Hobbes.” That’s what first drew the director to the strip.
“His world was so endless, and I was always eager to see what he and Hobbes were up to next,” Schroeder said.
These days, a lot of the conversation in pop culture revolves around quality versus quantity; how long do we allow these characters to remain before they grow stale? Countless TV shows have started off great, only to limp on after seven or eight seasons, ultimately disappointing the fans who yearn for the quality that no longer remains. And let’s not forget the movie franchises that keep going despite horrific storytelling (“Iron Man 3,” I’m looking at you) because there’s money to be made. Watterson, as fans of the strip know, was never like that. In fact, he was vehemently against licensing his characters or continuing the strip for longer than he felt necessary. He wanted to maintain the comic strip’s artistic value—no merchandising, no licensing, no remakes or reboots or reimaginings, which is something that seems to rarely happen these days.
Schroeder thinks that Watterson’s respect for the comic strip medium is why “Calvin and Hobbes” endures.
“Without his interest in the art over money, he wouldn’t have been so driven to make as good of a comic strip as he did, and he might have gotten distracted with overseeing and approving the hundreds of ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ products that you’d now be able to find for a few bucks on eBay,” he said. “The monetary incentive meant he likely would have continued to write and draw the strip for more years, and there may have been a point where the strip stopped feeling fresh and original or where he needed assistants to keep it going. Considering that the choices that Bill Watterson made in terms of licensing and walking away from the comics when he did have led to his legacy and the legacy of ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ being so strong.”
I still have my collection of “Calvin and Hobbes” books, including “The Authoritative ‘Calvin and Hobbes'” and “The ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ Lazy Sunday Book.” Flipping back through them after all of these years brings back a lot of memories of my own childhood. The character of Calvin never reminded me of myself, though I could definitely relate to him; and at times, I wanted to be him, even as a teenager—that’s part of the magic of Watterson’s creation. But now when I read the comic, I find myself relating more to Calvin’s parents, with Calvin reminding me more of my older son Noah. It’s a neat change in perspective for me, one that is a testament to the many layers in Watterson’s writing.
Wrapping up our email exchange, I asked Schroeder about his favorite “Calvin and Hobbes” strip.
“I can’t possibly really pick a favorite strip, but if I must single out one, it would be the final strip from Dec. 31, 1995. Watterson ended ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ in such a wonderful and perfect way: ‘It’s a magical world, Hobbes, ol’ buddy … Let’s go exploring!”” he said.
For those of us who grew up reading “Calvin and Hobbes,” those lines reflected what it meant to be a kid. And as adults, they inspire us to seek out new experiences, to continue to be curious and to allow ourselves to grow.
Yes. Let’s go exploring.
Charlie Moss writes about local history and popular culture, including music, movies and comics. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.