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“Dear Mr. Watterson” pays tribute to art over money
PRINCIPLES ARE FUNNY THINGS. WE WANT TO BE PRINcipled and disciplined. The truth of who we are should be unwavering. But then, sometimes, our principles can put us at odds with others, even those that have done many things to support and nurture us.
There is a conversation to be had about what we owe to those around us, what we owe to ourselves, and what to do when those things are at odds. This argument between our principles and our responsibilities is one that everyone has at one time or another.
Bill Watterson certainly did. He talked about it in-between the lines of what is likely the best comic strip of all time. For many Americans, “Calvin and Hobbes” is the comic strip to end all comic strips. The characters, the stories, the artwork, the humor—all hold a distinct and powerful presence in the hearts of people, people that spent their childhood searching through the daily newspaper for that back page, the one somewhere in the middle, the one that shared space with the horoscopes and the jumble, the one that opened our minds to the tiny world of Calvin and his tiger best friend.
“Dear Mr. Watterson,” which was screened by MES last month and is available on iTunes, is a film about nostalgia and deep love. Contrary to what the name suggests, it’s not really about Bill Watterson, the creator of strip, but instead those that read the comics and were influenced by the subtle beauty found in four small boxes neatly drawn in black and white.
Fans of the strip gush about their collections, about their experiences, about growing up with it in their lives. Many of them don’t know anything about the man behind pen. This isn’t necessarily because of a lack of interest; instead, it’s because Watterson is notoriously shy, avoiding press and interviews whenever he can. He’s referred to as “the Bigfoot of cartoonists.” As such, much of what we learn comes from interviews with his publisher and other cartoonists, most of whom find him as elusive as fans do.
Watterson would occasionally correspond with Berkley Breathed, another cartoonist who found a lot of success with his strips “Bloom County” and “Opus.” Their correspondence was done in cartoons, which are wonderful, and largely dealt with an argument the two had over licensing of their characters. But by and large, Watterson lived in his house in Ohio, drew his strips, and talked to no one.
The argument over licensing is where the heart of the film lies. There is a reason that we don’t see Calvin on lunchboxes or hear Hobbes counting the ways that car insurance might save you money. That reason is Bill Watterson. While giants in the cartooning industry sold the rights to their characters and covered the globe with Snoopy and Garfield, Watterson simply said no. The interviewees all wax philosophical about Watterson’s reason, be it control or simple boredom with the idea.
However, none of them have a great answer. For the most part, Watterson himself answered the question in his 10th Anniversary Collection of “Calvin and Hobbes” strips: He felt that the characters only worked in the world that he created for them. Had he allowed them to be sold, they would stop being as special. It’s a legitimate artistic decision, one that is understandable and logical.
However, Watterson also left an enormous amount of money on the table as well as something of a hole in the hearts of his fans. His publishers certainly cared about the money—they invested in Calvin and Hobbes, hoping for a return in the Garfield range. By some estimates, “Calvin and Hobbes” merchandise would have outsold Garfield handily. Watterson’s publisher could have easily gone around him—that was their right. And yet, they didn’t. That seems to me to be quite an anomaly. For once, the rights and principles of the artist were respected. That’s nothing short of miraculous.
“Dear Mr. Watterson” is a film for die-hard “Calvin and Hobbes” fans. Long discussions about merchandising and licensing threaten to dry the film out for the casual viewer. But there is enough nostalgia, enough love, and enough beauty to make the film worth watching. Anyone that has read the strip knows how entertaining it was. “Calvin and Hobbes” sort of transcends the art form. Cartoonists in the film all acknowledge that Bill Watterson raised the bar for everyone else. Comic strips have moved on now, away from dying newspapers to find a home online. But that medium is very different. The film makes the case that there will never be another “Calvin and Hobbes.” Unfortunately, I believe them. Luckily for us, Bill Watterson gave us plenty to read and remember.