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If you love Calvin and Hobbes, Joel Allen Schroeder’s Dear Mr. Watterson feels like the cinematic equivalent of a support group – a collection of anecdotes and tributes from fellow fans about what Bill Watterson’s iconic comic strip meant to them. And that, by itself, is a frequently wonderful thing.
But the documentary’s look at the legacy of one of the few pop landmarks that didn’t succumb to mass-merchandising ubiquity also highlights a few important truths about the differences in shared culture between then and now. And perhaps most crucially, Dear Mr. Watterson makes an enormously important point that even fan boys and girls sometimes forget about their favorite properties – namely, that popular entertainment can be as profound, and resonant, as any form of art that doesn’t revolve around a kid dreamer and his stuffed-tiger best friend.
Schroeder points out that Calvin and Hobbes was, effectively, the last true pop-culture milestone to sort of explode before the Internet made communal experiences and “event” viewing an everyday – and therefore more fleeting – occurrence. By the time the strip ended in 1995, Watterson’s creation was seen in newspapers worldwide, but without the fluid exchange of content that we now engage in on an hourly basis through Internet links, email or social media. And amazingly, it captured the hearts and the imagination – and held them – without Watterson ever selling a T-shirt or a stuff animal with the characters’ likenesses, or agreeing to an animated television special to bring them “to life.”
Watterson’s disinterest in commoditizing Calvin and Hobbes doesn’t make the strip better than others. But the absence of materials underscores how affecting the work was all by itself. More than entertainment, it was a freak flag for daydreamers, a chronicle of youthful misadventure, and occasionally, a forum for more serious contemplation, articulated with a poetic, identifiable simplicity. In the context of current phenomena – think The Avengers, Twilight, Miley Cyrus’ VMA performance – that longevity, that true impact, is nothing short of miraculous. The finale of Breaking Bad was obsessed over for weeks leading up to its unveiling, but in a matter of days, even its biggest fans stopped talking about it. Calvin and Hobbes, meanwhile, is still being discussed, still being quoted, and still being cited as a source of inspiration.
More immediately significant to sites like, say, Comic Book Resources, is what the film has to say about pop art. Lichtenstein stole panels from comic books, blew them up and they became brilliant works. Andy Warhol screen-printed pictures of a Campbell’s soup can and they were celebrated as genius. With the exception of a handful of titles, comic books and, even more so, comic strips, are seldom mentioned among great works of literature or art. But Calvin and Hobbes deserves to be.
Notwithstanding his ornate dinosaur designs, or his Sunday-morning pastorals, Watterson’s brush strokes were artful, even when depicting Calvin tormenting poor Susie, or squaring off against his parents. While the cartoonist’s style certainly didn’t emerge from a vacuum, it inspired countless others, both directly and subliminally, prompting comic strip art to aspire to more, to refine classic silhouettes into detailed profiles, and proved that a format effectively designed for disposability could produce lasting, indelible imagery.
Watterson didn’t reserve his artistry just for the physical act of drawing the strip, either. Examining environmentalism, philosophy, education and more, Calvin and Hobbes became a canvas with more layers than those Watterson applied with his brush. More than that, though, it took up a meaningful space in the lives of its readers – entertaining them, distracting them from the challenges of the real world, inspiring their ambition, or even just making them feel not quite so alone. Art is fundamentally an expression of human feeling, of experience, projected onto some sort of canvas (meaning an audio recording, celluloid, physical performance and, of course, the printed page), and the greatest art finds a way – or multiple ways — to connect with its audience, enhance their lives, and give both a meaning neither expected, or likely intended.
Ultimately, the value of Dear Mr. Watterson as a documentary may rely on each viewer’s relationship to Calvin and Hobbes, or perhaps to the kind of fandom that its director and interviewees celebrate. But Calvin and Hobbes is just their particular obsession – the thing that empowered them, made them feel whole, reassured them – as there are countless others that may empower you, or others. It could be the craziest comic book you’ve ever read that reminds you people have idiosyncratic imaginations that need to be nurtured. It could be the schmaltziest pop song that taps into your deep and profound sadness about a relationship with another person. Or it could be, yeah, a comic strip joking about dog-eaten homework that gives you just a momentary respite from your own weighty responsibilities.
But without needing a full-fledged documentary to put in bold print what you already know about what resonates to you, that art is your support group. Even if it means something different to everyone else, or literally nothing to anyone else, all that’s important is what that particular piece of art means to you. All of which is why Dear Mr. Watterson says something extremely important even if you’re not a fan of Calvin and Hobbes – because it evidences the impact of the popular arts as a whole, without demanding that you agree upon the significance of its subject in particular.
Dear Mr. Watterson premieres today in theaters and On Demand.