“Dear Mr. Watterson”– A Review

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Before I go any further, for those that may not be familiar with this film, I offer up the trailer:

Let’s face it, as soon as you see the title you realize that director Joel Allen Schroeder is essentially going to be giving you a love letter.  That’s fine.  It doesn’t bill itself as a “change-the-face-of-all-you-hold-dear-forever.”  Interviews are seen with fellow professional cartoonists, scholars, authors  and some behind the scenes management types (including Lee Salem and John Glynn of Universal Press Syndicate).  We see the director viewing and handling Watterson’s originals, most of which were permanently donated to the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum of Ohio State University.

1384443844000-dear-mr-watterson-xlgWe hear the obligatory, “What the strip meant to me.” moments. We get the whole best drawn strip ever, class to himself, one-of-a-kind moments. We do not, however, learn anything new about the ultra reclusive Watterson himself.

A lot of the movie (more than I expected) was dedicated to Watterson’s decision to not license any of his C&H characters.  As a non-professional I never understood why he wouldn’t want to cash in on that potential financial bonanza.  As a kid, I would’ve LOVED a stuffed Hobbes toy.

A casual glance around my drawing board area I can see a Peanuts mug holding markers.  Above that, there’s a Peanuts clock with Charlie Brown and Snoopy on the face.  Next to my drawing board I have a mini replica of the sad Christmas tree from “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”  Having all this merchandise doesn’t make me like Peanuts more or less than Calvin and Hobbes.

Bill Watterson

Bill Watterson

Looking at it now, I suppose I understand his decision.  The only interpretation of the characters that’s available are those strips.  We don’t have dvd sets of the Calvin & Hobbes cartoon, no Calvin & Hobbes mugs full of milk to dunk my Hobbes shaped cookies in.  The image is “pure”.  If there were all those things, would we be talking about the strip like this… 18 years after it ended?  Would we still be talking about Watterson were he not such a recluse?  His silence, save for the occasional book introduction or written interviews here and there have completely fueled the legend.

My fellow Alliancer, W. Byron Wilkins feels that Watterson really missed an opportunity to make his comic more.  I agree with Byron that Bill ignored a business opportunity for the sake of artistic integrity.  Ask the hundreds of Golden Age comic book artists and writers who earned pennies a page if they’d take artistic integrity over a nice payment promising financial security.  Watterson had the luxury of being popular and really good at what he did.  He could afford to turn something down.  That being said, I don’t hate the man for depriving my childhood of a Hobbes plushie.  I don’t understand his logic, but I’m sure my logic isn’t easily understood either.

Nevin Martell recounts in his book, Looking for Calvin & Hobbes: The Unconventional Story of Bill Watterson and his Revolutionary Comic Strip, recounts a moment following Bill Watterson’s last public appearance — May 20, 1990 giving the commencement speech at his Alma Mater, Kenyon College:

Watterson’s former art professor, Martin Garhart, acting as “a chaperone and a bodyguard ,” remembers talking with Watterson that day.  They were walking across the parking lot after the commencement; Watterson was clearly in a reflective mood and the concept of integrity came up.  “Integrity is a really interesting word to try to handle,’ Garhart mused to me.  “But on one level, it’s just doing what you say you’ll do and being honest with yourself.”  He remembers being proud of his former student, telling him, “I can talk about integrity, but no one has ever offered me multi-million dollars to test it.  But you’ve had that offer and you said no.  I really admire that.”  Watterson replied, “Enough is enough, and I have enough.”  It was a short declaration, but it encapsulated Watterson’s resistance to licensing and celebrity. (p. 141)

Seeing this movie comes about at a weird time for me.  Yes, I’ve had Bob the Squirrel merchandise since almost its inception in 2002.  T-shirts, mugs, prints and of course the book collections.  All this time, an idea for a Bob doll has been festering in my mind.  As of late, demand (outside of my own head) hasincreased for a Bob doll. The advent of crowd funding capabilities has made this vision somewhat more possible.  If I had Watterson’s opportunity, I can’t say for certain that I would dive into everything licensable…but I would be sure to look at everything that was in front of me.

All in all, the movie was entertaining.  It was worth the iTunes download and then some. A casual viewer, familiar with the strip but not necessarily in the industry may not get the same thing that I got out of it.  The filmmakers have stated on the film’s official website:

This film is not a quest to find Bill Watterson, or to invade his privacy.  It is an exploration to discover why his ‘simple’ comic strip made such an impact on so many readers in the 80’s and 90’s, and why it still means so much to us today. “

How do you know that something is good?  You just know.

Source: Nevin Martell (2013). Looking for Calvin & Hobbes: The Unconventional Story of Bill Watterson and his Revolutionary Comic Strip. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group.

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frank sig shotFrank Page Frank Page is a cartoonist. Throughout his life, that is one thing that has never been disputed. In 2002, he created the comic strip Bob the Squirrel. The strip has been syndicated online through Universal Uclick/GoComics.com since 2004. Page has been staff cartoonist/graphic designer at the Rome Daily Sentinel, Rome,NY. He holds a BFA in illustration from Cazenovia College, Cazenovia, NY and a MFA in Visual Art with emphasis on Sequential Art from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, Montpelier, VT.
His work is enjoyed all over the world. can be seen daily at bobthesquirrel.com and squirrelosophy.com. He currently resides in Rome, NY where he can regularly be seen chasing his Jack Russell Terrier, Lucy, through the streets.

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10 Comments

  1. I don’t remember if it was mentioned in the film, but Watterson did once reflect on how in the future Calvin will only be remembered as that kid who pees on car logos.

    I do recall, however, that it was discussed that a large part of the reason he didn’t merchandise everything to death wasn’t just the artistic integrity, but a refusal to spend time having to deal with everyone else’s input. I suppose, now that I think about it, that comes down to artistic integrity as well. He could have easily handed that responsibility off to someone else if he didn’t want to do it.

    But I get it. You spend a lot of your mental capacity developing this thing, and a lot of your time doing it. And it’s successful and makes you a lot of money. I don’t know that I’d want to deal with a bunch of people who then take my child and tell me that they know it better than I do so they can make more money with it.

    After seeing the movie I saw that short tribute to Calvin and Hobbes where the famous strip of them dancing is animated. And it’s done really well. But as good as it was I felt it lacked something. I don’t know what. Maybe Watterson’s thick brushstrokes. Maybe something else. Heck, the choice of music alone puts the animator’s stamp on there and makes it something else. Sure, I hear Vince Guaraldi every time I see a Peanuts strip, but Schulz picked that music to accompany his animated comic. Someone else’s choice in music just insists that I see it through them. I like the Calvin and Hobbes that’s in my head better, I guess. Anyway, I’m rambling.

    But yeah, a stuffed Hobbes would have been nice.

    • The idea that something is lost is really interesting, and really made me think. I remember seeing that animation too, and while I really enjoyed it, I have to agree with you that something just wasn’t right. And then I take it one step further, and imagine a show where Calvin and Hobbes have weird squeaky voices, and I just…shiver. It’s just…wrong.

      One of the questions I get asked a lot by non-comic people is a variation of “Would you make ‘LeyLines’ into a movie?” and my answer is always “No…but I’d give the green light on a live-action TV show. If I could keep a veto, of course.” The reason is that I truly don’t think anything good could come out of taking a story as sprawling as the one I’m making and cram it into a 90 min production. I know that there’s no way to “make it right” without also making it horrible. Whereas with a TV show, especially a live-action one, it’s at least far enough removed that it’s not going to clash too much with what I’m making, but close enough in delivery method to mesh with the pacing of my book. Maybe Watterson could never find a combination that wouldn’t clash and would almost mesh.

      At least this way, we all get to have our own Calvin and Hobbes. Our own voices, our own version. We’re not looking at a screen and hearing an actor and saying “That’s not how he moves and sounds! No! Now that’s all I’ll see and hear, and you’ve taken away what I had!” This way we get to keep something that was precious. Hmm. Food for thought.

      • Back in 2009, I did a Bob animation…
        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=isHiYFbnfug
        I did a handful of others because I was teaching myself flash, it was a Graduate school thing and I always wanted to see what Bob would fare “alive”. I was relatively happy with the way that it turned out, and for the most part it looked like a strip… but something was not right. I think that when I draw the strip I see him (in my imagination) moving and interacting differently than what came to be.

        I’ve always said that I’m not doing another animation because of the amount of work involved… which is true. But the other reason is because the first finished animation kinda creeped me out.

  2. As cartoonists, we’re solitary by nature. It’s part and parcel with the gig. I agree that giving up control of something you spend a majority of your time with can be daunting…scratch that… damn near flipping impossible! I know that I can walk into a room of 300 people and be able to give a speech with no problem. If I’m in setting with very few people, even one or two, I tend to freeze up and hug the wall. Watterson is that to the 100th degree… and he had the cache enough to keep his privacy private. That I do admire him for.

    I also know the feeling of wanting every letter and line to come from your own hand… not an assistant or hired gun. That is something I also admire.

    But, damn… a Hobbes doll. Why Bill? WHY?

  3. Man, this brings up so many emotions in me. But let me state I love the comic and totally respect Watterson’s talents and stance.

    My main issue is that Watterson KNEW what he was getting into. It’s not like popular comic strips before C&H had never had ANY merchandising. It goes hand in hand. So Watterson fully understood that at some point his comic would be put on mugs, t-shirts, calendars, etc. So in my opinion he took the money from the overwhelming success of C&H, but refused the money for the merchandising saying “Enough is enough.”

    But the Syndicate had done their jobs… they made C&H as popular as it was. There a ton of great comics our there that never see the light of day. So if not for the Syndicate, C&H would be nohting more than a mere set of comics on Watterson’s desk. No, instead C&H is one of the most popular comics of all times. And that is because the Syndicate did their job. Then when it came time to get their return on investment for C&H, Watterson pulls a fit and ends up making the whole thing a bitter battle for both sides.

    It could have been avoided. And as such, in my opinion, that battle led to an early ending for C&H. Something I think both sides of the business table did not want to see.

    It is what it is now and we can discuss it ad nauseam, but the outcome will never change. 🙂

  4. This commerce vs art debate would be a great topic for a future podcast. I’d be especially interested in hearing more of Byron’s opinion, because he does bring up some good points.

  5. great review Frank! I pretty much agree, and the merchandising dilemma is something I see both sides of.. but I would be one to cash in, baby. It’s a comic strip (an outstanding one at that), not the Mona Lisa. And the Mona Lisa actually has merch!

  6. It’s interesting to note that C&H was probably also the last great super popular syndicated strip and that to a large extent that formula is now obsolete. Maybe Watterson was putting something of an exclamation point on the end of newspaper comics as it were. I am not sure I get the ‘purity’ angle since syndicated comics are part of commerce from the start. Krazy Kat is really IMHO the only strip to come close to being ‘pure’ art ( and that strip was intensely UN-popular in its time!)

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