The question of the special charm of Calvin and Hobbes will be, for many of the iconic comic strip’s fans, not a question at all. The boy and his tiger were only a comics-page presence for one short decade, ending in 1995, but the strip’s combination of high-quality art, deep thoughts and fun still captures imaginations; this week’s news that Calvin and Hobbes will be available as an e-book was met with extreme excitement. A new documentary, Dear Mr. Watterson: An Exploration of Calvin & Hobbes, arriving in theaters on Nov. 15, attempts to capture some of that magic — magic that’s been proved by public response to the movie, which surpassed two separate Kickstarter crowdfunding goals.
One answer to that question, found filmmaker Joel Allen Schroeder, wasn’t actually a result of what appeared in original Calvin and Hobbes comics. Though there were a few possible directions the movie could have taken — with a plethora of fans eager to be interviewed, and many professional cartoonists willing, after some convincing, to talk about their colleague, Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson — Schroeder ended up devoting a fair amount of focus to something that can’t be shown onscreen: the official Calvin and Hobbes merchandise that does not exist.
Though unlicensed merchandise is out there (those ubiquitous peeing Calvin decals, for example), Watterson would not consent to license his characters for products. Though there were several factors that went into that decision, the movie suggests one particular result that directly affects fans: with no plush Hobbes toys out there, nobody can say that Hobbes the tiger is just a stuffed animal brought to life by Calvin’s imagination. The same holds true for all other nonexistent Calvin and Hobbes products: without them, readers can only connect via Watterson’s work and their own imaginations.
“I really think that had he handled [licensing] differently, had things played out differently, this strip might not be as special for me, all these years later,” Schroeder says.
Another surprise for Schroeder had to do with Watterson himself — even though the artist doesn’t even appear in the movie.
“People will use the word recluse, and I always am hesitant to use that word. I’m not a fan of that word because it comes with a negative connotation, that there’s something wrong with him or strange about him,” says Schroeder. “My understanding of him has changed. I don’t think he’s a strange person. I think he’s probably more normal. I don’t think most of us would prefer to live in the spotlight.”
The filmmakers decided not to seriously pursue asking Watterson to be in the film, knowing that he very rarely does interviews or any other sort of press. (Watterson was invited to the premiere but ended up watching it on DVD instead.)
As for the title, however, it was part of the original idea for the movie, and it stuck all along. “I don’t think of the film as a fan letter to Bill Watterson,” says Schroeder. “I hope it’s more than that.”