Saturday, November 16, 2013

"Dear Mr. Watterson" doesn't go deep enough

It's not hyperbole to say that "Calvin and Hobbes" is the closest thing I have to a religion. For all the writing I do on here about important entertainment from my past, none of those TV shows or movies, or even Spider-Man, played as big a role in my life as Bill Watterson's legendary comic strip. Everyone who knows me has probably heard me react to a situation by saying "This is like that Calvin and Hobbes strip where..." As a kid, I enjoyed it at face value for Calvin's mischief and the frequent appearance of dinosaurs. Reading it when I was older revealed the deep meaning behind those panels. I realized I had taken powerful lessons from those comics and it didn't feel like an accident when I came across this illustration of a speech given by Bill Watterson shortly after I left my job. It was a scarily perfect summation of the last year of my life...but maybe I'm getting ahead of myself.

The "Calvin and Hobbes" phenomenon is explored in the documentary Dear Mr. Watterson, which just opened in a handful of theaters but is also available for purchase and download via Itunes. It's an entertaining watch and I would happily recommend it to any fan of the comic, but I couldn't help but feel like it missed a few major opportunities. But I'll quickly sum up the best parts of the film - the section detailing the visual resemblance between the world of "Calvin and Hobbes" and Watterson's hometown of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, other comic strip artists giving their perspective on why the strip is so memorable, and a moving conclusion that analyzes the famous final Sunday strip ("It's a magical world, Hobbes old buddy, let's go exploring.")

Anyone who has knows the strip's history won't be surprised that the elusive Watterson never appears on camera. He tends to give one print interview per decade and it appears no picture of him has been taken since the 1980s, to the point where his elusive nature has given "Calvin and Hobbes" a whole new layer of intrigue. The director, Joel Allen Schroeder, respects Watterson far too much to mount some guerrilla attempt to ambush him for an interview and spends a lot of time on screen himself. It doesn't surprise me given this particular subject matter. "Calvin and Hobbes" is one of those special treasures that feels deeply personal to each fan even though it's been enjoyed by millions of people all over the world. Actually, I said something similar about Iron Maiden's music and I believe that's the measure of a truly great work of art. However, my main disappointment with the documentary is that it never gets at why it feels so intensely personal to those who read it. The movie leaves you with the impression that it was simply because of great illustrations and a sharp wit, and while those things are certainly integral to its success, it goes far deeper.

Seth Green, co-creator of "Robot Chicken," describes the strip as "so subversive," but the movie never follows up on exactly why that is. Naturally, it covers Watterson's relentless battle to prevent "Calvin and Hobbes" from being merchandised, a rejection of what would have surely added up to hundreds of millions of dollars. However, it isn't mentioned that his decision was completely in line with the overriding themes of the strip. The reason "Calvin and Hobbes" is subversive is that it completely rejects the rat race and the idea that success is defined only by acquisition of wealth. Calvin's adventures drive home that real fulfillment comes from play and leisure, rather than work, and is there anything more taboo in modern America than that? This country is obsessed with productivity and profit and has no concern with the mental and emotional well-being of its people. Then we wonder why so many people here snap and go on murderous rampages. Those who make unprofitable activities like leisure or vacation a priority get called lazy or indulgent or, my favorite, "entitled."

The wave of dogshit articles using "entitled" as a pejorative against anyone who would like a life that doesn't suck demonstrates how hard it actually is to actually live the philosophy of "Calvin and Hobbes." If you're not working at some terrible job, you're expected to be looking for some terrible job full-time, rather than taking time for things like walking in the woods, sledding down a hill, playing with a cardboard box, or anything else Calvin enjoys doing. The irony is that the word isn't even being used correctly. If you really think you're "entitled" to something, you won't make any effort to get it since you think the world owes it to you. But I think that anyone who was a kid in the heyday of "Calvin and Hobbes" knows by now that society isn't going to give anything to you, ever. If you want a meaningful life, you have to fight against conventional wisdom and very powerful interests to take it for yourself, and that's the opposite of "entitled." In the end, I think Watterson's decision to avoid licensing altogether was not just to protect the artistic integrity of his work, but also to maintain the life he wanted. If "Calvin and Hobbes" became a multimedia empire like "Garfield," he's not just a cartoonist but a manager. It just wasn't how he wanted to spend his days.

"There's never enough time to do all the nothing you want," Calvin once said. Time for rest and reflection is treated as a luxury but Watterson knew it was essential. This is the reason I believe the strip connects with people the way it does, because deep down most of us know what's really important, we just ignore it in the name of sensibility. Perhaps it's a bit foolish to expect a documentary to delve that deep into the strip's meaning, but then again, there was one particularly interesting scene where the director analyzed a strip towards the end of the comic's run. Calvin imagines sledding off the top of a huge mountain but the end reveals it was just a tiny hill and he looks back, disappointed by the brief sled ride. Schroeder reads this as a metaphor for Watterson realizing that the thrill of creating "Calvin and Hobbes" was fading and now we know it didn't last much longer after that. In the end, I think I wanted more analysis like that...less discussion of the strip's popularity and more about its actual content. Maybe next time.

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