Boy Meets Tiger

‘Dear Mr. Watterson’ Celebrates the Glory of Calvin and Hobbes on Film

A new documentary, ‘Dear Mr. Watterson,’ explores the undimmed greatness of the long-gone comic strip through interviews with fans and other cartoonists.

I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like Calvin and Hobbes and I hope I never do. It would be like meeting someone who didn’t like music, or ice cream. And what would we have to talk about?

Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes comic strip began its syndicated run in American newspapers in 1985 and continued for a decade. The last strip ran on Sunday, January 1, 1996. In that ten-year span, the strip came as close to perfection as a comic strip can, ranking with Krazy Kat, Pogo, Peanuts, and Doonesbury, with nods (for the drawing) to the various strips of Alex Raymond and Milton Caniff.

Dear Mr. Watterson, Joel Allen Schroeder’s mash note documentary (and his first film), is a lovely tribute to the strip, assembling fans and Watterson’s fellow cartoonists (also fans) to talk about what the strip meant to them. It contains no shocking revelations, no strange (or strained) interpretations. Rather, it’s like an on-screen fan club, only with girls allowed—sorry, Calvin. There’s also no appearance by Watterson, a man who likes his privacy, but hats off to Schroeder for respecting that.

Lest this sound rather tame, let me hasten to say that it’s a surprisingly pleasurable film. It would have been worth it just to see shots of Calvin, his parents, Susie, Miss Wormwood, Rosalyn the baby sitter, and all the products of Calvin’s overactive imagination—the dinosaurs, the space aliens, the malignant snowmen—but listening to Watterson’s fans speak about how much they loved the strip was a reunion of sorts, a sweet reminder of how much fun it was to get up every morning and scan the funnies to see what a boy and his tiger were up to. It’s been almost two decades since we last had that pleasure, and as cartoon historian Charles Solomon says, the demise of this strip left a hole in the comics that’s never been filled. Or ever will be. And Bill Watterson is still missing in action.

There are surely many cartoonists as funny as Watterson, but I’d argue that almost no one has ever drawn a comic as well as he did. Even in the incredibly shrinking scale of modern newspaper comics (three years ago Calvin and Hobbes wound up on a commemorative postage stamp, and size-wise, that’s a sadly logical leap), Watterson worked miracles, especially on Sunday. He had to fight for half a page but you like to think that he got it not just because his strip was so popular but because someone recognized that he deserved it.

Sunday was when the dinosaurs came out in force, and the intergalactic landscapes zoomed over by Spaceman Spiff, another of Calvin’s several roles. When Calvin was forced to play house with Susie, Watterson drew the entire comic in the style of one of the comic soaps like Mary Worth or Rex Morgan, M.D. Best of all were those occasions when Calvin imagined himself an eagle or a songbird—if Watterson hadn’t gone into cartooning, he could have made his fortune as a naturalist painter.

The draughtsmanship and the inking in those Sunday strips is loose but precise, laid in with an impressionist’s knowledge of just how much drawing is necessary to convey a tree, a brook, or a red wagon barreling down a hillside. As Berkeley Breathed (Bloom County) says in the film, “The guy’s making it harder for the rest of his. He’s setting this impossible standard.”

Tell me about it. A few years ago I was working on a memoir about my childhood and at one point decided to incorporate drawings in the text. Calvin and Hobbes had always been one of my touchstones when writing, because the strip, while it never gets very dark, never sweetens the idea of childhood. The anarchy, the disconnect between the adult world and the world of the child, the idea that fantasy—especially fantasy manufactured by children themselves and not that borrowed from books, television, or movies—is more real to a child than the lamp posts and sidewalks of his own neighborhood. All these elements thrive in Watterson’s world, and I hoped, if I was lucky, to capture a bit of that.

So for a couple of months I drew some of the events I’d written about, assiduously copying Watterson’s style, particularly his knack for landscapes. I learned a lot, and I’d love to say I put what I learned to some use. But all I learned was just how good Watterson was and the pointlessness of trying to match his inimitable accomplishment—it was of a piece, complete in itself: you couldn’t just break off a chunk or borrow here and there. And my estimation of that accomplishment grew and grew the more I put pen to paper. In the end I abandoned the idea of art in my book, but my appreciation of Watterson and his creation had deepened immeasurably. If you put a gun to my head, I can do a pretty fair imitation of Krazy Kat, but if you ask me to copy Calvin and Hobbes, you might as well just go ahead and shoot me.

I miss that kid and his tiger like I miss being six years old. Dear Mr. Schroeder, thank you for bringing it all back home.