Greetings again from the darkness. Two upfront admissions: First, I am not a comic strip historian. Second, there have been a hand full of comic strips that I have been obsessively “drawn” to, and “Calvin and Hobbes” was definitely one of them. Any fan of C&H would not miss the chance to see a documentary that might provide some insight into the genius behind the imaginative boy and his feline friend. Bill Watterson is now as famous for his life as an extreme recluse as he is for his artistry on the little boy and his feline friend.
Directed by uber fan Joel Allen Schroeder, we are presented with a steady stream of talking heads interrupted periodically by Schroeder’s trips to the Cartoon Museum, Ohio State University library, and Chagrin Falls, Ohio (Watterson’s hometown and the foundation of the Calvin and Hobbes world). Watterson re-created downtown Chagrin Falls when he depicted Calvin as a quasi-Godzilla stomping through town. Many of the talking heads are other cartoonists who remain in awe of Watterson’s works. We get a glimpse into the business side as we hear from an executive at Universal Press Syndicate, Watterson’s publisher. There is also a segment with Jean Schulz, the widow of Charles “Sparky” Schulz, the man behind “Peanuts”.
Since we see so little of the actual published work, we lean heavily on the spoken words of those interviewed … kind of frustrating when the subject is a medium of such visual relevance. Even more frustrating is the lack of insight into Watterson as an artist. Instead, the director rehashes what we already know from following the work. Watterson’s “high art vs. low art” arguments are mentioned, as is his belief that imagination and creativity are crucial to the good life.
By far the most interesting commentary comes from Stephan Pastis, known for his “Pearls Before Swine”. Pastis not only admires Watterson’s legacy but he provides insight into the world of artists who are constantly under the pressure of commercialism, and often find themselves doing business with those they have little in common with. He explains Watterson’s vision and integrity (and clout) in denying licensing rights for Calvin and Hobbes. Leaving hundreds of millions of dollars on the table by refusing to allow Calvin and Hobbes lunch boxes, t-shirts, stuffed animals, etc … clearly shows that Watterson’s vision was not about profit, but rather about artistic purity. The comparison to Snoopy selling insurance makes the point quite directly.
So we walk away with no more insight into Watterson (pictured left), no more insight into Calvin and Hobbes, but a clear understanding of the industry respect that the work and the artist carry. We all share the pure joy of reading and re-reading our favorite panels, not just for the smiles they bring, but also the multiple layers of observation delivered by a boy and his tiger. It’s a reminder to keep your imagination active and never miss a chance to go exploring!
watch the trailer: