As befitting their philosophically influenced names, the young Calvin and his tiger sidekick Hobbes grabbed readers by showing intelligence and awareness beyond their years while still being entrenched in a universe of boundless childhood imagination. Marked by their infectious personalities, Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes has endeared to hordes of devoted fans, including Dear Mr. Watterson director Joel Allen Schroeder. An exploration into the comic strip’s enduring legacy is a seemingly limited premise to sustain a feature-length running time, but while Schroeder’s doc begins by spending far too much time talking up the comic’s quality, it gradually finds a groove as an incisive portrait of an insecure industry.
Schroeder mixes his own memories with those of other Calvin and Hobbes super fans in an extended intro that strains to individualize each respective story. The filmmaker’s tendency to allow his talking heads to detail their own history with the strip produces sequences that quickly become repetitive, an effect acerbated by each interviewee’s overall sameness in their opinion. A consistent talking point is the comic’s universal appeal, that anyone could find something relatable within Calvin, but Schroder nearly betrays his own setup by almost personalizing the material for himself; a personal context is welcome, but at times it comes across as if Schroeder believes he’s the only one Watterson intended to draw and write for.
Threatening to rest on subjective representation, the doc’s second half shrewdly turns into an outline of the changing face of the syndicated comic strip. Gathering a host of current comic artists and writers, the film makes a compelling case by positing Calvin and Hobbes as the last strip to achieve a staggering level of public awareness, as its final year in 1995 came on the heels of a declining market in newspaper comics. Of course, the situation is only worsened by the diminishing newspaper industry in general, where comics sections have only gotten smaller.
The film convincingly argues Calvin and Hobbes’s legacy is even emboldened by Watterson’s reclusive nature, where he’s achieved a Thomas Pynchon-level of spotlight avoidance, as well as his refusal to license his characters. To the film’s benefit, Schroeder doesn’t subsequently turn the film into a hunt for the artist, instead sitting with other cartoonists who have (regretfully, it seems) dealt with licensing issues to understand Watterson’s reasoning.
Before the film falls back into the repetition that marked its first half, Schroeder briefly but acutely addresses a double standard linked to a comic strip’s aesthetic: When free from the context of being placed in a comics section and presented in, say, a framed portrait, the “low art form,” as it’s argued, is then able to rise above the suspect label. Indeed, the quality of Calvin and Hobbes has always been present regardless of context.