Sometimes the most universal truths can be found in the smallest slices of life. That’s what makes independent documentaries so powerful, engaging, and entertaining. Not only do they show you little worlds to which you’ve never had access, but they oftentimes also tell the larger story of what it means to be human. Armed with this intellectual conceit, a bag of Funyuns, and a couple of Miller beers, Daniel Elkin curls up in front of the TV and delves deep into the bowels of Netflix Streaming Documentaries to find out a little bit more about all of us.
Today he and his friend Jason Sacks found 2013’s Dear Mr. Watterson by director Joel Allen Schroeder.
Elkin: Let’s face facts, Sacks, there are very few absolutes in this life. One is that the sandwich represents the pinnacle of culinary arts, and another … another is that almost everyone likes the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes. A matter of fact, it has been said by learned folk that if you can’t connect to Calvin and Hobbes, you cannot connect to humanity. Such is the universal nature of the strip. Somehow, in the ten years or so that Bill Watterson wrote and drew this comic, he was able to tap into the collective unconscious and create something all-embracing; something about the adventures and misadventures of a six-year-old boy and his stuffed tiger reflected back upon ourselves, made us laugh and made us think.
Though Watterson ended the strip on December 31, 1995, its popularity remains undiminished and the characters he created have become iconic.
The film Dear Mr. Watterson is kind of a love letter to Calvin and Hobbes. It is a small documentary that, according to the press release, “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 80s and 90s, and why it still means so much to us today.” As a descriptor of the film, this does a pretty good job. As a documentary, the movie succeeds by allowing people to talk about their relationship with the strip and what it has meant to and for them over the years, while also providing both a historical perspective of the development of Calvin and Hobbes and some essential biographical information about Bill Watterson. The film also does a fine job of featuring the strip itself, which, of course, is a tremendous asset, as well as allow for a small discussion of the characters’ place in pop culture.
Where the film falls is when director, Joel Allen Schroeder, inserts himself into the film. There’s kind of a creepiness to him that, at least for me, was off-putting and undermined his intent to some degree.
That all being said, though, what I most enjoyed about Dear Mr. Watterson was some of the bigger questions it almost haphazardly elicited. In the course of viewing this documentary I found myself confronted by two larger issues. The first being the distinction between “high” and “low” art, and the second being the idea of creating for commerce vs. art for art’s sake (i.e. personal expression).
Aside from reminiscing about reading Calvin and Hobbes at the breakfast table, remarking on how the film succeeds or fails as a documentary, discussing the ramifications of the demise of the newspaper comic strip, and/or delving into the idea of what makes pop culture figures iconic (though I’m sure we will touch on all of these), I’d like to direct our conversation about this film towards these larger ideas, if that’s okay with you.
Sacks: Elkin, how can I disagree with a man who is so committed to his love of the sandwich? Your passion for breaded brilliance may only be matched by my love for comics literature and my endless navel-gazing about the interesting questions that you just asked me.
I’ve been fascinated for years with the question of what makes “high art” and “low art.” As a strong advocate for the greatness of comic art, which for decades has been treated like the lowest possible form of human communication (as this documentary adroitly points out), I think you can guess that I’ll fall on the side that doesn’t make a distinction between those two planes of art, that finds that transcendent and important art can be created that is both high and low.
In fact, Dear Mr. Watterson makes the perfect case for the idea that there should be no distinction between high and low. When we consider the deep emotional impact that Calvin and Hobbes has had on the world, on the way that even the most casual fans speak in reverent tones when discussing this brilliant artistic work, it’s clear that Calvin has had a significant impact on the way that smart, empathetic people view the world.
Furthermore, this film makes a subtle case that the boundaries imposed by the discipline of creating a daily comic strip – the relentless deadlines, the power of recurring themes, the artistic shortcuts that often need to be made to produce day after day after day – gave Watterson an odd sort of freedom. Because he needed to create a strip each day, he was required to come up with endless ideas and was able to build a rapport with his audience.
There was a unique power in the American comic strip and its impact on readers. That daily presence in a ubiquitous form of communication allowed deeper penetration for comics than for virtually any artform, even a television show. I still remember the deep, deep love that my fifth grade teacher had for Pogo. When he found out that I was a big comics fan, his eyes lit up with a joy that is reserved for comments about how much one likes a friend’s dog or how well-behaved one’s children act. Mr. Moloney adored these characters, and it was clear that he adored them in ways that were more than a simple love for fictional characters.
If we define Art as that which moves us and which illuminates our life, then there’s no question that Calvin & Hobbes is Art. It’s clear from this movie that the little boy and his tiger sparkle in fans’ minds in the same way that my teacher thought of Pogo, Albert Alligator, Churchy LaFemme, and the rest. They resonate, they illuminate and they delight.
They’re also magnificently well-drawn. Watterson had a gorgeously spontaneous line, a way of drawing that somehow connected right to the corners of our brains devoted to joy, happiness and nostalgia in ways that few other cartoonists ever have. It’s with that approach that Watterson shows his mastery and proves that he’s not just a cartoonist who created characters that fans love, but actually moved ahead the comics artform.
Watterson changed the conversation, in ways that few of his peers ever did. Daniel, did I move our conversation in the direction that you were hoping for?
Elkin: Yes and no, Sacks – but then, dammit, I equivocate. What did the drunken Porter say in Macbeth? Oh yes, “here’s an equivocator, that could swear in both the scales against either scale; who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven” – but then, of course, that is neither here nor there.
Art is what Art does. I like your definition, “that which moves us and which illuminates our life” as it opens the floodgates wide. It clears out distinctions and goes for the gut (and the head), allowing even for the accidental as much as the intentional, and places the onus on the receiver more so than the creator.
But I can see how this might be a slippery slope, especially in terms of our other discussion point, creating for commerce vs personal expression. Watterson did create Art, as his strip did both move and illuminate. He chose, though, to work within the confines of the syndicated comic strip and was able to continue to do so for those ten or so years unfettered from editorial dictates (for the most part) because of its commercial success. One could make the argument that in the absence of financial concerns, Watterson could have done even more with Calvin and Hobbes, pushed the artform even further into new arenas and thematic areas – taking his “low art” into the realm of art considered “high”. He certainly had the talent, intelligence, and creativity to do so – but the equivocator in me realizes that were he to have done so, his characters would not have reached the iconic status they enjoy.
I look at comics that cross this tightrope more perilously. Things like the Bound and Gaggedanthology curated by Tom Neely, or, more recently, the latest issue of Josh Bayer’s Suspect Device and I see these comics that ostensibly inhabit the world of the “daily strip” form. And yet they push out further the cage bars to the point where they become something entirely different. Is this “high art” pulsing in “low art” anatomy? Does the distinction break down even further due to the nature of intent? More importantly, does the intended audience for the work suffuse the particularity?
Once again, equivocation. How does Banquo describe the Weird Sisters in Act 1, Scene 3? “You should be women, and yet your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so.” Form and function, content and context, we label our apperception of Art through the obligations we feel towards its presentation. Calvin and Hobbes was a daily strip running alongside Family Circus and Funky Winkerbean, given the nature of this, our expectations get shifted. Were Calvin and Hobbes be featured in Suspect Device, we would view its artistic value under different auspices.
Still, there is something transgressive about what Watterson accomplished. His audience’s reaction to his art was somehow different from the audience’s reaction to a strip like Heathcliff, for example. Certainly this is intrinsically connected to his creative acts, but, I wonder if it also didn’t have something to with his refusal to commercially saturate the world with emblems of his creations. The comparison Dear Mr. Watterson makes between Watterson’s refusal to license his characters compared to the choices made by the likes of Jim Davis and Berkeley Breathed speaks to our other topic, the shaping of expectations as a result of the commerce of art. How do we view a creative work that becomes commercially ubiquitous (Snoopy selling Life Insurance???) compared to one that is so carefully curated and managed? Does this alter the nature of our reaction? Then again, you can get a Visa card that features Van Gogh’s Starry Night on its face. Wasn’t London Calling recently used to sell Jaguars?
Ah me, we do so equivocate here. “There’s daggers in men’s smiles.”
Sacks: And of course, Shakespeare was the most popular playwright of his time and worked for commercial success rather than artistic success. In fact, he often chose subjects for his plays that viewers would recognize and understand – not too far from the idea of Transformers or Battleship. Because we’re so far divorced in time from Shakespeare’s era, we can see his material in a way that’s very different from how his contemporaries saw him – without all the tchotchkes and merchandising, all the metaphorical stuffed Garfield dolls.
Snoopy selling life insurance may be annoying, but in the end does it really matter? Is the essential aspect of Peanuts that you can buy a stuffed Snoopy doll or that Sparky Schulz created characters that are iconic and wonderful, and created material that is both timeless and innovative? To me, much of the stuff that is dwelled upon in this film is a bit of a tangent. Calvin and Hobbes may be more “pure” because Bill Watterson resisted the temptation to market it, but that’s ultimately not important to the story here. What is important isn’t the fact that, like Steve Ditko or Greta Garbo, he’s more fascinating because of his absence from the story. What matters is the strip itself.
Because when the fans and pros in this film discuss Watterson’s artfulness and creativity, there’s a special spark in their eyes. There’s a response to the universe that the master cartoonist created that is extremely powerful and completely sincere. There’s a deep sense of gratitude among Calvin fans that something deeply enriching and beguilingly simple was brought into their lives. He moved, he illuminated and – lest we forget – he was producing innovative art and pushed the cage bars in ways that few (if any) of his contemporaries even considered.
I recently picked up a small stack of The Menomonee Falls Guardian, a newspaper published in the 1970s that ran a wide swath of the daily comics of the era. It’s striking that so many of the comics of the time were drawn simply. They were often clever and sometimes filled with creatively depicted characters. But looking at Wizard of Id and Broom Hilda and Tumbleweeds and Beetle Bailey, you see the milieu in which Watterson emerged: a comics page in which conformity ruled and innovation – at least the innovations to which Watterson aspired – seemed impossible.
But Watterson was a rebel. Though he was working in the form that he had always wanted to work in, he pushed the boundaries, brought a new artfulness to the page, delivered exquisite artwork and memorable characters. Unlike so many of his peers, Watterson seemed to live inside the head of his lead, showing Calvin’s experience from the perspective of this tow-headed rogue.
This strip was transgressive because it was a clear and specific representation of Bill Watterson’s view of his comic strip, an uncompromised and pure expression of his artistic values as well as being damn funny and a wonderful depiction of the imagination of youth. It resonates because it is the perfect expression of a master creator’s view of the world. Oh, and did I mention that it’s funny?
Elkin: Funny? Oh yes, Sacks, Calvin and Hobbes is funny alright, which is certainly part of its charm, part of what draws us in, part of what makes it memorable – but as you’ve pointed out already, being funny, in and of itself, doesn’t really guarantee it lasting… it certainly doesn’t allow for entrance into the realm of the iconic. There has to be something more, something more primal and visceral for Art to transcend the bounds of time and attention span. Hell, I thought the comedian Kevin Meaney was the funniest person I had ever seen back in the late 1980’s. Where is he now?
Probably wearing tight pants.
I guess, in a way, we’ve been circling around the term “bravery”. Though Dear Mr. Watterson never comes out and says it, I think one of the things that everyone points to in the interviews featured throughout the documentary is that people responded to the temerity of the strip. Yes, Watterson “was a rebel” as you say – and that fact underscores his bravery. It takes the bold to be bold, as it were. Watterson could have easily sat on his laurels and produced within the comfort of the “successful formula”. He could easily be bathing in a tub full of cash with very little effort at all:
Monday = Calvin doesn’t like school.
Tuesday = Calvin doesn’t obey his parents.
Wednesday = Calvin thinks girls are gross.
Thursday = Calvin imagines himself a dinosaur.
Friday = Calvin and Hobbes tussle.
Saturday = Calvin finds foibles in politics.
Sunday = Calvin builds a snowman.
Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
Then license the shit out the characters and reap the rewards of lunchboxes, pajamas, bed sheets, and plushies.
But he didn’t do this, did he? He pushed and pushed and pushed – experimenting with form, layout, stylistic choices, philosophy, and a deeper understanding of the archetype of innocence vs. experience. It’s the brave soul who moves forward when everyone else around him or her is relaxing in their metaphorical Barcalounger sipping Bombay Gimlets from a golden cistern.
Thus, perhaps, the demarcation between “high” and “low” art dissembles, the question of creating for commerce vs. art for art’s sake is answered (albeit tangentially). Maybe it’s not even a matter of intent.
Dear Mr. Watterson is a documentary about “why” Calvin and Hobbes “made such an impact on so many readers.” Perhaps part of the answer is that we admire what Watterson created because secretly we know that we could never be that brave. He becomes a hero, in a way, and his creations, therefore, become part of the mythos, his characters iconic.
“Lay on, MacDuff, and damned be him that first cries, ‘Hold, enough!‘”
Or have I just equivocated once more….
Elkin’s Favorite Calvin and Hobbes Strip:
Sacks’s Favorite Calvin and Hobbes Strip:
Trailer for the film:
Daniel Elkin writes about comics and documentaries. He can be found RT’ing posts about sandwiches on Twitter.
Jason Sacks wishes he had a cute tiger when he was a kid – but he sometimes imagined himself with one. He’s the Publisher of Comics Bulletin and sometimes tweets in a great flurry.