Director: Joel Allen Schroeder
Cast: Berkeley Breathed, Seth Green
Watch Dear Mr. Watterson online in the UK: iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
“Bill Watterson is the Bigfoot of cartooning.”
That’s Stephan Pastis, who draws Pearls Before Swine. Last year, Stephan set out to do one thing nobody ever does: meet the creator of Calvin and Hobbes. He failed. Because Bill is as reclusive as it gets. But a blog from Stephan this weekend reveals that after he published this strip and sent it to Bill with a letter, Watterson actually wrote back – and suggested returning to the page, decades after retiring, to draw Pearls Before Swine in secret.
The post has now gone viral. Why? Because people love what Bill Watterson gave the world. A crowd-funded documentary called Dear Mr. Watterson, recently released in the UK on Netflix, is testament to that fact.
As the title suggests, it’s less an exploration of its creator and more a love letter. The astonishing thing? Just how many people are queuing up to write a sentence.
“For all their seeming simplicity, the expressive possibilities of comics rival those of any other art form”, a quote from Bill declares in the movie’s opening frame. That’s as close as we get to an actual comment by him, but the range of contributors more than proves how true it is.
Front and centre is blonde boy Joel Allen Schroeder, who has identified with Calvin ever since he was a lad. He’s enthusiastic about the subject, but he’s not the one who leaves an impression: it’s everyone else who says exactly the same thing. After all, is there anyone who hasn’t heard of Calvin and his stuffed toy tiger? Moreover, is there anyone who doesn’t like him?
That fact puts Watterson’s remarkable creation alongside the work of Charles M. Schulz; a universal piece of art that transcends its supposedly low form of a daily funny. Is it that Calvin is an outsider, bullied by his schoolmates and bored by his teachers? That Hobbes is so wise, a conscience advising Calvin in a way that elevates him above mere imaginary friend status? The eye-catching flights of imagination on which the pair frequently embark?
Watterson’s strip wraps it all together with lovely detail and a surprisingly deep vein of philosophy. “Fun experiences always go roaring by,” observes Calvin as they zoom along on a toboggan.
Everyone from Seth Green to Jenny Robb, curator of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum in Ohio (the holding library for all Calvin and Hobbes artwork), praise Bill’s hyper-aware character, who manages to be subversive but with a purity of imagination that captivates each new reader. In Bill’s absence, other comic artists reveal his influence upon them, from Non Sequitur and Dog Eat Doug to Pearls Before Swine. “I was just trying to meet deadlines,” admits Foxtrot’s creator, “but for Bill, that wasn’t enough.”
Schroeder traces that influence back to the strips that informed Bill, such as Peanuts and Pogo, offering an interesting account of the cartoon industry and Watterson’s place within it. Without Bill contributing, though, there’s something missing. It’s telling that the best scenes are shots of the artwork itself, comparing its black and white print with the original colour. Watterson is happy to let that speak for itself: he’s famously refused calls from Steven Spielberg and countless offers of merchandising to make Hobbes stuffed toys. The inference from the fans penning this love letter is that he wants to retain control over his baby.
“It’s not collaborative,” Stephan Pastis observes of writing a comic. “It’s just you.”
Pearls Before Swine – Stephan Pastis
Stephan’s later collaboration with Bill suggests, though, that isn’t always the case. There is, he discovered, more to Bill than meets the eye, which only emphasises the blank puzzle piece at the heart of Schroeder’s documentary. But if even those who do work with Bill don’t get to meet him (they communicated only via email), does Stephan’s experience excuse this film’s lack of biographical insight?
The common theme in both, aside from Pastis, is that for fans, the lack of access doesn’t matter. The Internet’s reaction to even the idea that Watterson would come out of retirement shows how well loved Bill is, Bigfoot sighting or no.
The documentary’s title hints at its shortcomings, but also nails its subject on the head: Bill isn’t just Mr. Watterson. He’s Dear Mr. Watterson. If you’ve ever been touched by Calvin and Hobbes, this 90-minute piece is a heartwarming tribute to the fact that you’re not the only one.
“He’s like the Sasquatch of comics,” says one artist on screen. “You see his footprint but never see him.”
One thing is clear: it’s a very big footprint.