Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Dear Mr. Watterson: About that No Hobbes Doll Thing

Bill Watterson is sort of like the Salinger of syndicated comic strips.  Despite the popularity of Calvin & Hobbes, he has shunned the media spotlight and steadfastly refused to license merchandise (even including stuffed Hobbes dolls). Yet, years after he inked his final panel, people still feel like they share a deep personal relationship with his characters. Director-editor Joel Allen Schroeder proclaims his love for the comic characters and invites others to do the same in the tribute-documentary, Dear Mr. Watterson (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

There will probably never be a Calvin & Hobbes Christmas special, so devotees of the Christopher Robin-like boy and his probably imaginary tiger will have to settle for Schroeder’s doc.  Do not hold your breath waiting for the titular Mr. Watterson to sit down and remember when, either.  Instead, Schroeder talks to a number of fans and fair number of Watterson’s fannish-sounding fellow cartoonists. 

While that is all very good, it is not exactly earthshaking stuff.  More interesting are the behind-the-scenes reminiscences of Watterson’s professional colleagues at his newspaper syndicate and his book publisher.  What emerges is a portrait of an art form bordering on e-driven extinction. Sadly, viewers get a sense C&H was not the peak of daily comic strips, but the last great hurrah.

It is too bad Watterson’s participation was such an “as if,” because he rather sounds like someone with something to say.  He is still remembered for a blistering and some say prescient address to a professional cartoonists’ assembly warning of the consequences of the commercialization of comic strips and the erosion of creators’ control.  Bloom County cartoonist Berkley Breathed sort of fondly discusses the pointed letters Watterson once set him, not so gently calling him out for his Opus plush toys and other merchandising.

One of the open questions of Dear is whether the now defunct C&H strip will retain its cultural currency without the TV specials and various toys to drive awareness for younger readers.  Schroeder and his talking heads are sure it will, because it is just so darn good, but clearly they are speaking out of optimism and affection.

Dear is a gentle film that celebrates the wholesome values and artistic integrity of Calvin & Hobbes, which is refreshing, but not particularly cinematic.  At times, it almost plays like the DVD extra to a non-existent C&A animated feature.  Pleasant and well intentioned (but almost terminally nice), Dear Mr. Watterson is mostly recommended for Calvin & Hobbes diehards and those who harbor daily cartooning ambitions when it opens this Friday (11/15) in New York at the Cinema Village.