“What are you going to watch?”
“Dear Mr. Watterson – the Calvin and Hobbes documentary on Netflix.”
“Oh, I reject the entire premise of that movie. Leave him alone!”
Fans of comic strips – the old-fashioned kind that came in newspapers and stained your fingers when you turned the pages – should have plenty of excitement over the next two months. For many, the return of Charles Schultz’s Peanuts to the big screen this week will be a cause for celebration, an opportunity to introduce their children to characters who meant so much to them growing up. Those who prefer a more bittersweet remembrance will note that December 31 marks the twentieth anniversary of Bill Watterson’s final strip of Calvin and Hobbes, ending on the iconic “Let’s go exploring!” line that walks the line between sadness and joy.
What we won’t see, though, is any special anniversary releases of Calvin and Hobbes dolls or Blu-ray releases of the Calvin and Hobbes Dreamworks special. Because, like the nice lady in my introduction suggests, artist Bill Watterson is the rare genius who just wants to be left alone.
I don’t want to spend too much time framing this in terms of my own relationship with Calvin and Hobbes. Everyone who was lucky enough to catch the strip in syndication understands the power and vibrancy of Bill Watterson’s work, and my own relationship with the strip would best be described as incredibly powerful and utterly common. Calvin and Hobbes was the perfect Sunday morning looking glass. Children could peer through the looking glass and see their adulthood taking shape on the horizon; parents would find themselves reconnecting to their own youthful idealism. Watterson’s greatness was his ability to house both perspectives in a single strip.
But Watterson’s famous decision not to merchandise his syndicated comic strip has only grown in power over the years. One of the more interesting segments in Dear Mr. Watterson – a documentary that, thankfully, spends more time placing Bill Watterson’s strip in a historical context than it does catering to our shared nostalgia– is when Pearls Before Swine author Stephan Pastis speculates at length on Watterson’s decision. Watterson, Pastis argues, had more in mind than just the artistic integrity of his strip. If he had given his approval to even a few small items – a Hobbes plush or a lunchbox – then suddenly Watterson had moved his art from an individual pursuit to a collaborative one, and that’s a “loss of control” that Watterson would never have faced before. Pastis paints a picture of Watterson as part creative genius and part insufferable recluse; his validation as an armchair psychologist would come one year later when Watterson agreed to collaborate on a week of Pearls Before Swine comic strips.
That kind of resolve in the face of countless millions makes Watterson’s decision seem more impossible with each passing year. At one point in Dear Mr. Watterson, an administrator from Universal Uclick – the syndicate that Watterson fought for control of his merchandising rights – admits that he has heard some people kick around merchandising estimates in the hundreds of millions. If this estimate is correct, we are looking at the type of money that George Lucas made by holding onto the merchandise rights for Star Wars; this is the kind of savvy business move that could launch an empire, and instead, Bill Watterson had to take two long sabbaticals from his beloved comic strip just to maintain the energy necessary to fight it.
And the worst part is, we likely never would have noticed. As of Wednesday, the new Peanuts film has generated very positive reviews, with many people saying that it is a faithful continuation of the Charles Schultz legacy. Many critics even frame the success or failure of the film in terms of its ability to honor Schultz’s memory. There is no lack of sincerity in these comments either; we judge the man by the work that he created, not by his decision to monetize his Peanuts empire. Audiences are fully capable of appreciating a Charlie Brown holiday special without being affected by the countless television commercials or sponsored tweets telling us that Bullseye – the official mascot of Target – would be a great live-action replacement for Snoopy. It’s not that these commercial partnerships are tastefully done; rather, we have come to expect a certain amount of cross-promotion with any successful franchise. We let the white noise fade into the background.
How often do we even think of the absence of a Calvin and Hobbes film? We can’t focus on an empty space; the lack of Calvin and Hobbes merchandise only catches our eye when we recognize something occupying the space that Watterson’s characters may have held. Bill Watterson very well could have licensed his comic strip years ago, flooded the market with toys and animated holiday specials, and not only would we have forgiven him – accepted this as part of the nature of the game – but we would use his original works as the standard of excellence for each new adaptation. Every new Calvin and Hobbes movie would have placed the original strip on an unreachable pedestal. Failure might have done more for the comic’s legacy than success ever could.
If we accept Watterson’s aim as half-noble, half-selfish, then, it becomes hard to see a world where Calvin and Hobbes will never exist outside of the comic strip. Many editorials in 1995 tried to make sense of why Watterson would walk away from his comic strip at the top of his game; one newspaper polled his peers in the comic industry and discovered that most of them expected Watterson to buy a cabin in the middle of the woods and spend the rest of his life painting. The rare interviews that Watterson has done since his retirement also do little to shake the notion of the happy idiosyncratic. Even the idea of working with Pixar Animation Studios – the only company who many think might come closest to capturing Watterson’s vision onscreen – would not cause the author to budge on his stance against a Calvin and Hobbes film. In a 2013 interview with Mental Floss, Watterson described himself as being “blown away” by the visual sophistication of Pixar films, but also admitted that he still had “zero interest” in an animated version of his comic.
That’s the irony, though, isn’t it? To subject Bill Watterson’s creation to the Hollywood process – even as a celebration of his earnestness and uncompromised vision – would be to remove the very act of control that made Calvin and Hobbes great. In many ways, Bill Watterson is the type of genius we want all great filmmakers to be: operating with complete autonomy, knowledgeable about the history of his trade, and unwilling to bring his creation down to the level of the lowest common denominator. We like to posit this type of genius as someone who would stand on a hilltop and brightly shine, pointing out the way to a new generation of artists. Instead, we find it in the form of a man who removes himself to the woods and paints.