Dear Mr. Watterson Explains Why Geeks Love Calvin and Hobbes

Geek Culture Kickstarter People

Back in 2010, Joel Schroeder contacted me about using a photo of my son’s snowman creation for a documentary he was filming about Calvin and Hobbes. Two years later, Dear Mr. Watterson is still in production, with a goal of completing the final cut of the film by the end of 2012.

Schroeder’s quest to understand the far-reaching impact of Bill Watterson’s decade-long comic strip began as a series of fan interviews in December 2007.

“At the time, I don’t think we realized what it was going to become,” recalls the director. “We definitely wanted to document the impact of the strip, but then it grew into trying to answer the question of how on earth it had such impact. By digging deeper, it has become a better film.”

Exploring Calvin’s inner life with his pet stuffed tiger, Hobbes, is a foundational experience for geeks. Most GeekDads and GeekMoms have made a transition from identifying with Calvin to becoming his parents. My own son spent two weeks waking me from naps on the couch by screaming blaster noises in my ear and then delightedly running away from the angered Naggon King. The first time that happened, Calvin and Hobbes revealed a new layer of meaning to me.

“There is something about Calvin and Hobbes that is sort of impossible to define,” says Schroeder. “It means a little something different to all of us, but we connected with it in a way that is unique and special. Watterson put everything into it.”

The creator of the beloved strip, Bill Watterson, shocked fans in 1995 by declaring that his work here was done. After a decade of meeting daily deadlines and resisting merchandising, Watterson disappeared back into his private life in Ohio, rarely surfacing to talk to fans or the press. In one such interview, he claimed he doesn’t regret stopping the strip:

If I had rolled along with the strip’s popularity and repeated myself for another five, 10 or 20 years, the people now ‘grieving’ for Calvin and Hobbes would be wishing me dead and cursing newspapers for running tedious, ancient strips like mine instead of acquiring fresher, livelier talent.

Watterson may be right. His 1990s crusade to protect his work came before the Internet spawned a culture of co-creation, so he might be on the wrong side of geek creed in the current landscape of SOPA, ACTA and CISPA. The reach of Calvin and Hobbes — perhaps much to the creator’s chagrin — includes mashups with other geek canons, like Star Wars, Spiderman, Doctor Who and historical figures. If Calvin were still spinning his imagination in nearby woods, would his timeless sense of wonder have survived an Internet filled with YouTube, Twitter and Pinterest? Would the eternal six-year-old adopt a limited perception of sharing through social media in a way that would seem out of touch? The world has changed. Mercifully, Calvin never will.

According to Schroeder, the legacy of Bill Watterson boils down to two key aspects of his work. Watterson’s artistic quest for control of his creative space gave him room to elevate the medium (“Once he got the unrestricted half page on Sunday, his stuff is amazing,” says Schroeder). The cartoonist also wanted control over the licensing of his work, a battle that ultimately improved how artists are treated in the industry today. Although he hasn’t met Watterson, Schroeder paraphrased a quote by Tony Cochran (Agnes): You don’t get a comic strip like Calvin and Hobbes out of someone who isn’t really a kind and gentle person.

“My idea of Bill Watterson is that he is probably an amazing person,” says Schroeder. “People that know him are probably lucky to know him.”

Cartoonist Jan Eliot (Stone Soup) defines Calvin and Hobbes

Schroeder lists Scientific Progress Goes Boink as one of his favorite books. By the time that paperback came out in 1991, he had already found a connection with the main character, who bears a resemblance to the filmmaker.

“It sure didn’t hurt that we were both blonde,” says Schroeder. “Calvin is six years old, and he’s always six. I was born in 1979, so I was six years old in 1985 when the strip was launched. That had significance to me, that Calvin and I are the same age. It felt that I had this bond with him that was greater than other people could claim.”

Dear Mr. Watterson is Fingerprint Films‘ first project, but Schroeder has worked with cinematographer Andrew Waruszewski, and producers Mat McUsic and Christopher Browne previously. Most of the crew went to school together at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts.

“When you go to film school, you come out and you’re ready to make films,” explains Schroeder. “In a lot of cases, you struggle for several years. I’ve been able to team up with some of those friends from school again, on projects where we are becoming the key creatives.”

Since undertaking this project, one of Schroeder’s best experiences was going to Ohio State University and visiting the Billy Ireland Cartoon Art Library and Museum, where most of the original Calvin and Hobbes strips are curated. (Watterson went to nearby Kenyon College.) The director was able to see the evolution of Watterson’s work. Trips like that contribute greatly to the depth of the film, but were only possible with help from fans of the strip.

Dear Mr. Watterson has made use of Kickstarter twice, in December 2009 to kick off production and again this month to finish post-production of the film (“Kick-finishing” as Schroeder puts it). With the help of 359 backers two years ago, the film raised $25,000 to allow the crew to capture interviews with industry cartoonists, including Bill Amend (Foxtrot), Berkeley Breathed (Bloom County, Outland, Opus), Seth Green (co-creator, Robot Chicken) and Wiley Miller (Non-Sequitur). A quarter of the budget has gone to travel, and another third to equipment.

“From the beginning, we wanted the film to be made by Calvin and Hobbes fans,” says the director. “It is an amazing experience to see the feedback that comes in during these times. People are emailing stories about why Calvin and Hobbes is special to them. It is just so rewarding, to get that outpouring from fans from around the world.”

Now 90 minutes in length, the documentary still needs scoring, animation, and sound mixing, as well as business costs associated with music licensing, legal fees, and insurance. General release of the film is expected to begin with film festivals and traditional distribution, but the creative team will also find a way to stream the documentary online. “It’s like we’ve run the first 25.2 miles of a marathon,” Schroeder writes in his Kickstarter plea, “and we just need to finish up that last mile. If we can raise $50,000 by July 14th, we’ll use those funds to sprint to the finish.”

If once again DMW is successful with their fundraising — as I type, the campaign has enjoyed a good weekend but still sits over $20,000 shy of their goal — the DVDs will be sent to backers in December, five years after the first footage was shot. If the deadline passes with insufficient funding, delays could exceed a year.

“I know we’ll finish the project no matter what,” predicts Schroeder. “We’ve put in too much time to let it fall apart, but the process will definitely slow down.”

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