'Dear Mr. Watterson': An Interview With the Director Behind the Upcoming 'Calvin and Hobbes' Documentary

Millions of people grew up reading Calvin and Hobbes in the newspaper each day. With its bright, colorful artwork, highly detailed ink drawings and storylines that truly captured the imagination of a child, Calvin and Hobbes set a new standard that few strips have been able to match. The now legendary strip was featured in well over 2,400 newspapers around the world. To date, well over 45 million copies of the 18 different Calvin and Hobbes treasuries have been sold

When creator Bill Watterson ended the strip after only 10 years, millions around the world were sad to see it go. As most millennials know, the majority of comic strips in the newspaper have been there for five decades or more. Most have been taken over by another writer and illustrator, or even worse, farmed out to a team. 

I was fortunate enough to be able to interview Joel Schroeder, director of the upcoming documentary Dear Mr. Watterson, about his film and this iconic comic strip via email. As someone who used to dream about becoming a professional cartoonist, this was a dream come true for me. 

Jesse Merkel: I assume that you've been a fan of Calvin and Hobbes for a long time? Did you read the strip in the newspapers or in book form?

JM: How did you go about assembling your team to help make this documentary?

JS: At some point in spring or summer of 2007, I was having dinner with a couple of friends, and I told them about my idea for the film. Both of them reacted positively to it and offered to help make it happen. The three of us had made films together while at school at the University of Southern California, but had not collaborated for a long time. 

So, it started very small, with no budget, but with me directing and producing, Chris Browne producing, and Andrew Waruszewski as cinematographer. Matt McUsic learned about the project and came on board to help produce. Then in December of 2007, we had our first day of interviews. As we needed to bring in people for specific needs down the road, we reached out to our contacts to find the rest of the crew that we needed.

99% of the feedback I've gotten has been positive. I regularly get e-mails thanking me for making the film, and we've got a sizable group of fans eagerly waiting to see it.

Occasionally we see a negative comment about it, expressing the opinion that the film is pointless or that the film will be hated by Bill Watterson, and while I disagree with those feelings, I can understand where those people are coming from.

(Above: Joel looking at archives in Chagrin Falls.)

JM: The Calvin and Hobbes creator has a reputation for being private, to put it mildly.

Bill Watterson is aware of the project, however, and I know that if he wanted to, he knows how to reach me. The film is about the impact of his strip, not his life as a cartoonist.

I definitely want fans of the strip to be prompted to dig out their books or finally take the plunge and get the complete collection of Calvin and Hobbes. It's wonderful to hear from fans who are introducing the strip to their children or nieces and nephews, and I hope that the film might enlighten some people who have never really given the strip a chance.

If I had to really tell you what the film is about, though, I'd say the film is about the power and possibilities of art. When a simple comic strip about a boy and his tiger can have such a wide and lasting impact on so many people from around the world, that's a beautiful thing.

(Above: Stephan Pastis inking in his strip Pearls Before Swine.)

JS: If I'm ever going to talk about a comic strip other than Calvin and Hobbes, it's going to be Cul de Sac, by Richard Thompson. Several years ago, after learning that Bill Watterson had written the foreword to the first Cul de Sac collection, I bought it and gave it a read. And it was fantastic. The strip is so well done, and even though it is not widely known, I think you'd have a hard time finding a professional cartoonist who doesn't love it.

Sadly, Richard Thompson has had to retire Cul de Sac for health reasons, but in my humble opinion, if any Calvin and Hobbes fan is mourning the loss of Calvin and Hobbes, you must pick up the Cul de Sac book collections!

JM: What were some of the best parts about making this documentary? Was it seeing the true love people had for the comic, or was it getting to interview so many awesome people?

JS: I've been able to interview some really great people while making this film, including fans and cartoonists. I won't go into picking favorite interviews, but there have definitely been some fascinating ones.

One thing I really enjoy, however, is talking to fans and seeing the look that comes over them as they talk about their love of Calvin and Hobbes. And one of the main reasons I got into filmmaking was because I saw the impact that a film can have on an audience. If this film connects with viewers and takes them on a brief nostalgic detour and gets them thinking about Calvin and Hobbes for 90 minutes, that'll be the most satisfying part.

(Above: A young Calvin and Hobbes fan.)

JM: Finally, I've got a feeling that a documentary about one of the worlds most beloved comic strips would be quite well received. Will people be able to buy this documentary eventually? Also, tell us where we can go for regular updates!

JS: After we make our festival rounds this spring, we'll work to get the film out on DVD/BluRay/iTunes/etc as soon as we can. To keep updated, people can follow us on Twitter, on our Facebook page or group, or join our mailing list at our website!

Author's note: I am eternerally grateful to Joel for taking time out of his busy schedule to get back to me, and I personally cannot wait to see this documentary! Be sure to check out all of his pages, and watch the trailer, all you Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cats!