Judgments at 24 Frames per Second: ‘Dear Mr. Watterson’

“Dear Mr. Watterson,” an independently produced documentary directed by Joel Allen Schroeder, examines the unique and enormous success of the comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes.”

The documentary establishes its structure quickly with a brief introductory narration by Schroeder followed by short clips of various ordinary people explaining how they personally were introduced to the famous comic strip about a 6-year-old boy, his stuffed tiger and the limits of his imagination.

While the film does include some famous comic strip creators such as “Stone Soup” creator Jan Eliot and “Frazz” artist Jef Mallett, a hefty portion of the film is dedicated to regular folks and their experiences with “Calvin and Hobbes.”

Throughout its trim 90-minute running time, “Dear Mr. Watterson” explores various aspects of the often reclusive “Calvin and Hobbes” creator Bill Watterson’s life, his bold views on syndication and merchandising, his influences and how he has influenced a whole generation of people.

One of the most curious things about “Calvin and Hobbes” is its continuing influence on popular culture despite being out of newspapers since 1995 and the lack of “Calvin and Hobbes” merchandise.

“Calvin and Hobbes” is compared to another titan of the comic strip, zeitgeist “Peanuts,” in this regard toward the end of the film.

“Peanuts” first ran Oct. 2, 1950. Creator Charles Schulz kept writing the iconic strip until Feb. 13, 2000, for a mammoth run of nearly 50 years and thousands of individual strips.

By contrast, “Calvin and Hobbes” ran for only 10 years, yet both strips share an iconography perhaps rivaled only by Jim Davis’ “Garfield” in pop culture.

The film attempts to answer the question of why “Calvin and Hobbes” continues to hold such a grip on our collective attention by examining Watterson’s views not only on merchandising but on comic strips as an art form.

Watterson’s work is portrayed in the film to be universally praised by comic strip creators and the general public alike. Jenny Robb, curator of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, is quoted in the film.

“I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t like ‘Calvin and Hobbes,’” she said.

The laud for “Calvin and Hobbes” stems from, as the film explores, the exceptional drawing (relative to the climate of newspaper comic strips in the 1980s) and the lofty heights achieved by Watterson’s writing.

While “Calvin and Hobbes” can be funny, the philosophical and societal commentary made by Calvin in some of the strips can be equally thought-provoking.

A strip examined in the film involves Calvin and Hobbes stumbling across a dead bird in the forest while exploring one day.

Calvin spends the rest of the strip extrapolating upon the nature of life and how fragile he perceives it to be.

For a comic strip about a 6-year-old boy and his stuffed tiger he believes is real, “Calvin and Hobbes” is able to tread some deep water.

Part of the film is also dedicated to the debate on whether comics should be classified as “high” art along with great novels, paintings and music, or “low” art. The film certainly leans in favor of Mr. Watterson’s opinion.

For fans of “Calvin and Hobbes,” “Dear Mr. Watterson” is at once a semi-investigative look at what made “Calvin and Hobbes” what it is – including Watterson’s small-town upbringing, his reclusive nature – a dive into the climate of comic strips both in Watterson’s day and in 2014, and a love letter to the strip itself.

At one point, the camera follows director Schroeder up the stairs of his childhood home to his old bedroom where he explains that when he was about 10 years old, his walls were covered with “Calvin and Hobbes” strips.

The look in Schroeder’s eyes as he speaks of his childhood only furthers the film’s view that comics, like songs or pictures, are a way to tap into the past and take one back to days gone by.

The biggest shortcoming of the film is that the viewer’s appreciation and interest may be compromised if the viewer has never read “Calvin and Hobbes.”

However, if nothing else, the film made me want desperately to drop what I was doing after the credits rolled, pick up all my old “Calvin and Hobbes” anthologies, and read them all cover-to-cover to rediscover the magic that drew me to this film in the first place.