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Thank You Mr. Watterson

               In the world of newspaper comic strips only Charles M. Schulz himself has had more of an influence than Bill Watterson, something asserted more than once in Dear Mr. Watterson the debut documentary of filmmaker Joel Allen Schroeder exploring the career, impact, and legacy of Watterson and his famed creation Calvin and Hobbes.
                Having been born in the early 90’s, I was too young to read Calvin and Hobbes in newspapers (1985-1995) but like many worldwide before and since, I was introduced to the strip through the book collections. Those eighteen collections are now the only sources for ten years of work due to Watterson’s famous refusal to license the strip something else the documentary dives into.
                The film follows Schroeder a massive Calvin and Hobbes fan from Wisconsin exploring the history and impact of Watterson and his strip. He visits Watterson’s hometown of Chagrin Falls, Ohio where the cartoonists’ inspiration is seen in the geography itself (particularly the town centre reflecting the artwork on the back of The Essential Calvin and Hobbes) and in library archives of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at Ohio State University manages to find samples of Watterson’s early work as a political cartoonist, original prints of strips, and samples of older comics that influenced the look and style of Calvin and Hobbes such as Pogo, Krazy Kat, Little Nemo, and of course Peanuts. The journey and discoveries are interspersed with interviews with fans worldwide including Nevin Martell (author of Looking for Calvin and Hobbes), Jean Schulz, actor Seth Green, and cartoon editor and Watterson’s friend Lee Salem as well as other cartoonists influenced by his work including Berkeley Breathed (Bloom County, Outland, Opus), Stephan Pastis (Pearls Before Swine), Jef Mallett (Frazz), and Bill Amend (Fox Trot).
                The documentary touches but doesn’t dwell on Watterson’s notorious reclusiveness (since the strip ended in 1995 he’s been unseen by the public, cherishing his privacy), but focuses more on the effect he left on the world, how he revolutionized the Sunday strip and set a standard for quality artwork in newspaper comics. He longed to bring back the quality newspaper comics had in their heyday, the 1940s and 50s when weekend strips often covered a whole page of print and there was great freedom in panel variability, something lost by the 1980s when newspapers were choosing to shrink the Sundays to as little as a corner of a page. Watterson defied these conventions using the Sundays to better showcase the artistic range a comic strip can have, constructing panel shapes, sizes, and numbers the way he saw fit. The film goes into extensive detail of Watterson’s refusal to license. With the strip as popular as it was it was only natural for the syndicate to want to make a profit. Merchandising had of course contributed to the success of strips such as Peanuts and Garfield. But Watterson felt that merchandising would take away from the strip itself and furthermore he was an artist above all else preferring to be in complete control of his world and characters.
Overall the documentary is marvelous. There are only a couple missteps: the strip itself could have been more delved into and Pastis goes on a bit long on merchandising, for example, but overall it is exactly what you’d expect from a documentary on the subject. The project began as a campaign on Kickstarter, perhaps a symbol of the success such websites can have. It is also admirable that Schroeder doesn’t attempt to track down Watterson as others have tried in the past. True Calvin and Hobbes fans respect the privacy Watterson desires. More than anything though, the film stands as a testament to the great power the strip has had both during its run in papers and as new fans begin reading today, its lasting influence and legacy in terms of artwork and style on cartoonists since (Breathed states “my initial impression when I saw it was, the guy’s making it harder for the rest of us”), and the magic of childhood nostalgia and imagination. To me and many others Calvin and Hobbes is something personal that speaks to us. It is the perfect blend of spectacular artwork, genius humour, compelling philosophy, and touching sentimentality and no other comic strip will ever achieve that.
This is what Dear Mr. Watterson leaves us with, in addition to being a wonderful love letter to the fans it makes those fans want to go back and reread that ten year body of work and experience Calvin and Hobbes again as if it were the first time.

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