Bill Watterson’s legacy was secure the day his magnum opus ended, with a boy and a tiger tearing across a fresh blanket of snow to go exploring one last time. But it was what the cartoonist did after Calvin And Hobbes, with his life and his life’s work, that solidified his reputation as a kind of 20th-century folk hero. Simply put, Watterson went away—stepping out of the spotlight and back into normal anonymity, taking with him the beloved characters he had fought so hard to keep off lunch boxes and T-shirts. To those who’ve always respected that plea for privacy, it’s a pleasure to report that, despite its title, Dear Mr. Watterson is not some Roger & Me-style attempt to score a rare interview with the famously reclusive creator. “I’m not so interested in the man himself,” director Joel Allen Schroeder says aloud toward the beginning, going on explain that his documentary—an unadventurous but affectionate affair, set to jangly indie folk—is about exploring the legacy and enduring appeal of what remains the greatest comic strip of all time. (And no, that’s neither hyperbole nor up for debate.)
Just as it’s impossible to capture in a 600-word review what made Calvin And Hobbes so special, no 100-minute film on the subject can really hope to convey its magic either. But Dear Mr. Watterson does its best, relying on choice excerpts of the work and enthusiastic talking-head interviews. The anecdotes from diehard fans, crammed into comic panels, tend to be more touching than illuminating: Dyed-in-the-wool devotees gush about how Calvin’s adventures got them through the death of a parent or the horrors of middle school, but rarely attempt to articulate how or why. Analysis comes instead from several artists, including Bloom County mastermind Berkeley Breathed, whose own work was influenced by Watterson’s. As a look at the past and future of the comics industry, the film is often involving: Its most valuable strategy may be examining the comics that laid the groundwork for Calvin And Hobbes—including Pogo, Krazy Kat, and that behemoth of popularity, Peanuts—while also demonstrating how many of the medium’s contemporary figureheads learned (or lifted) from Watterson.
Inevitably, the conversation turns to the author’s fervent opposition to licensing, and his successful attempts to prevent his creations from becoming sellable commodities. (Well, officially anyway: Those damn bootleg stickers of Calvin peeing on car logos are inescapable.) Watterson’s stance on this matter has always seemed a grand display of integrity—whatever the opposite of selling out is—so it’s fascinating when Dear Mr. Watterson offers a couple of intelligent rebuttals to his hard-line policy. More of that debate, and of the lively correspondence between Watterson and Breathed, could have taken the film up a notch. Certainly, it would have been preferable to the thin autobiographical elements the director sprinkles throughout. Schroeder, who looks all of 17, drives to Watterson’s hometown of Chagrin Falls, shows preadolescent pictures that confirm his resemblance to Calvin, and cuts to shots of himself fawning over a favorite comic or a piece of original artwork. Because the filmmaker never quite communicates his connection to the strip in specific terms, these scenes feel like filler. Besides that, they labor under the misconception that anyone out there needs a personal window into Calvin And Hobbes fandom. Should any non-converted souls manage to stumble into Dear Mr. Watterson, the onscreen samples should be enough to stoke their curiosity. Art this magical sells itself.