The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO


December 15, 2013

Benji Tunnell: 'Dear Mr. Watterson' details impact of comic strip

JOPLIN, Mo. — Regardless of the art form, you can usually find a marker that differentiates the eras -- one artist or work that changes the game for those to come after. Rock had The Beatles, film had Orson Welles, and movie criticism has me.

The comic strip world has had many influential artists, including Charles Schulz and Gary Larson. But the game changer for modern artists can be winnowed down to one man's comic strip about a precocious 6-year-old and his stuffed tiger.

When "Calvin and Hobbes" was introduced in 1985, it became the new benchmark for the funny pages. Bill Watterson's creation had an immediate impact, redefining what could be done with the comic strip form and making the funny pages funny again. "Calvin and Hobbes" became a multigenerational touchstone; a strip that could be enjoyed for its various layers; one that was shared by parents and children alike.

It eschewed pop culture references or political leanings and just allowed the imagination of a child to carry it. Then, as abrupt as its impact was, so seemingly was the decision by Watterson to retire his strip a decade later. Through volumes of books and a love passed on from parent to child, the strip has stood the test of time.

"Dear Mr. Watterson" (available on iTunes) acts as a kind of love letter to the "Calvin and Hobbes" creator and his strip. Rather than trying to track down the Salinger-esque recluse that Watterson has become, writer/director Joel Allen Schroeder instead uses the film to track the influence of Watterson on both casual fans and professionals in the industry.

Through a series of interviews, he examines the impact that "Calvin and Hobbes" has had on a variety of people. The director talks to people who found solace in the strip when dealing with trying times, as well as those who found inspiration in the work.

The movie gives a fairly comprehensive history of both Watterson's creation and his career. It covers Watterson's story, from the introduction of "Calvin" and the struggles the artist had in protecting his characters from tacky licensing to his ongoing battles to redefine what a strip could be.

Watterson wielded such power that he was essentially able to dictate to papers what space his strip would inhabit and how that space would be broken up. It was unheard of, in an era of shrinking comics pages, to see one actually grow, but as Watterson commanded more respect and control, he was able to change the scope of his strip and experiment more with the boundaries of the medium.

By far the most interesting interviews were with those who were either Watterson's peers or those who came into the comics world after he retired. Berkeley Breathed, creator of "Bloom County" and "Outland," discusses his correspondence with Watterson and the letters the two exchanged regarding the merchandising of their characters.

Watterson famously fought the idea of marketing his signature creation, regardless of the money that could have been made. He walked away from what could have amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars for himself and his syndicate, and fought to protect the integrity of his characters. Breathed, on the other hand, sits in front of stuffed Opus and Bill the Cat dolls as he gives his interview, showing the choices he made.

But you can tell that there is a great amount of respect and admiration that Breathed holds for the man and his decision, even if he struggles to understand how anyone could walk away from such a financial windfall.

The film also talks with Bill Amend, creator of "Foxtrot", as well as many other artists who began cartooning during or after the era of "Calvin and Hobbes." Each is upfront about their love of the strip and their respect for the man behind it, and each tells how the work influenced what they would go on to do.

The film does suffer, as many documentaries do lately, with the director interjecting himself into the film. Schroeder seems to have no real qualifications to do the film, other than a passion for the characters and the ability to properly execute a Kickstarter campaign. He comes across as exceedingly dull, and his presence on camera sucks some of the life out of the film. Had he removed himself from the film and allowed it to simply be about its subject, it would have been more compelling and more interesting.

"Dear Mr. Watterson" will not qualify a great documentary. It teeters on the edge of mediocre and good. But its subject is fascinating enough, and has impacted enough lives, to help the film retain relevance.

If you are a "Calvin and Hobbes" fan, this movie helps flesh out the history of the strip and shows some of its impact on the lives of others. If you're not a fan, I'm afraid there's no helping you. Go enjoy "Family Circus."

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