“The surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that it has never tried to contact us,” Bill Watterson once quipped. How appropriate that quote seems, coming from the creator of Calvin and his alter ego Spaceman Spiff. After years of enjoying random Calvin and Hobbes collections that my brothers owned, I was surprised and delighted to learn how much more there is to both the comics and their creator.
I encountered Dear Mr. Watterson while scrolling through movie suggestions online. Intrigued to see that this was a documentary, I read the film’s description and decided to give it a chance Now those of you who are true Watterson fans probably know that he is a recluse and values his privacy. So you may be wondering how this documentary handles Watterson’s personal story and whether it invades his life in any way. I know when I saw the documentary called Dear Mr. Watterson on my computer screen, my first thought was that it would be about Bill Watterson and might cross a line by prying into his personal life. Despite initial misgivings on this point, though, I decided to find out what it was really about. I’m glad that I did because the film is not what I had expected and is surprisingly good. Rather than divulging Watterson’s “secrets” in some sort of scandalous fashion, the film tactfully avoids Watterson’s life for the most part and focuses more on his work, his influences, his legacy, and why Calvin and Hobbes is so popular worldwide.
Dear Mr. Watterson is charming and fun. The music is cheerful and accompanies the comic exploration perfectly. Most of the documentary consists of interviews, and I enjoyed hearing other comic artists share their thoughts on Watterson and his work. Putting faces and voices with the names of all these famous comic artists was especially neat. I never thought I would listen to an interview with Bill Amend or other artists whose work I have perused in the Sunday funnies. Watterson has left an impressive legacy behind him, having inspired and influenced many modern comic artists in their work. Additional interviewees include cartoon museum curators, syndicate administrators, and other people involved or interested in the comic world.
In addition to appreciating the new perspectives the film provides on Watterson and Calvin and Hobbes, I especially enjoyed the beautiful colors and the animated renditions of Watterson’s watercolors, which would begin as sketches and then fill with pools of color in a very artistic fashion. One of the challenges in documentaries is supplementing interviews with footage that shows the story instead of telling it, and I think the animations of Watterson’s art are a tasteful solution that keeps the documentary visually interesting. Often, these colorful displays of Calvin and Hobbes art accompany Watterson’s witty quotes, which gave me new insight into his personality and perspectives and often left me with a smile or a laugh.
That ability to bring joy to his audience is key to Watterson’s success, I think. Through Calvin and Hobbes, Watterson found a way to touch people in a surprising way as they shared in the characters’ emotions, humor, and adventuresome spirit. Calvin and his tiger friend remind their audience of many things, from the preciousness of friendship to the fun of imagination, and I think that touchstone with readers is what has made these characters so timeless.