Leave Bill Watterson Alone
Dear Mr. Watterson is a documentary project that explores cartoonist Bill Watterson, his timeless comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, and their impact on culture. Celebrities like Seth Green and Bill Amend are interviewed, as are appreciative fans, many of whom have grown up with a deep admiration for Calvin and Hobbes. And while the film’s synopsis promises that it is “not a quest to find Watterson, who prefers his privacy,” I find that assurance unlikely. After all, the project is named Dear Mr. Watterson, not A Film Where We Talk About How Great Calvin and Hobbes Is. But I can’t blame the filmmakers for hoping to reach Watterson on a personal level. That promise helped earn their Kickstarter campaign over $85,000. It’s pretty easy to get caught up in the idea of getting his attention after almost twenty years of silence.
Calvin and Hobbes ended in 1995 and Watterson, then still in his thirties, vanished into retirement. He had been tight-lipped about his personal life while the strip was still running, and he sequestered himself even further when it ended. That decision has given him a reputation as some kind of cranky recluse, a Salinger-esque weirdo who shuns his fans and finds joy only in solitude. It makes for an intriguing story, and many fans have taken it as a challenge to get to Bill first. Like Dear Mr. Watterson, Nevin Martell’s 2009 book Looking for Calvin and Hobbes discusses the cultural significance of Watterson’s work but with a clearer intention to land an impossible interview with the cartoonist. Both Looking for Calvin and Hobbes and Dear Mr. Watterson are helmed by die-hard C&H fans, both of whom openly acknowledge Watterson’s decision to keep to himself. But if they’re such devotees, why do they ignore his reluctance and try for his attention anyway?
There are a few potential answers to that question. Many Calvin and Hobbes fans came of age as the internet was becoming more and more common. We’ve never had too much trouble finding our heroes online. Writers, musicians, athletes, comedians; they’ve all opened themselves up for their fans. Even icons from decades past, your George Takeis and Roger Eberts, have enthusiastically immersed themselves in internet culture. Aspiring entertainers are expected to put themselves out there, and open transparency has become the norm and not the exception. By avoiding open communication, Watterson is sticking out like a sore thumb to his fans.
Another possibility is our shared love for intriguing personalities. It’s not enough to be good at what you do, you need to be interesting while you do it. This isn’t a new phenomenon, nor is it an emphatically bad one. It is what it is, and it’s easy to see why people are drawn to colorful and media-savvy celebrities. However, finding intrigue in reluctant celebrities like Bill Watterson becomes difficult. Writers like Nevin Martell try their best to eke out some kind of story for Watterson, but due to his refusal to be interviewed they find themselves in a dead end. So we improvise, perpetuating that legend about a backwoods introvert who burns fan mail and frightens children. But even Forrester could be Found, so we all hold out hope. But what exactly are we hoping for?
After these long years of silence, expectations for anything from Watterson are tremendous. Writers, filmmakers and fans all dream of getting that golden egg, an interview, that could answer all of our lingering questions. But what can we expect? What do we even want to know? Watterson has told us everything he needs to about himself. His ten years behind Calvin and Hobbes have revealed a creative, talented, driven and often hilarious artist. He showed his silly side when Calvin imagined Tyrannosauruses flying around in an F18s, and he showed us his poignant side when a baby raccoon Calvin and Hobbes were nursing to health passed away. Through his strip he has let us know he detests art critics, loves Charles Schultz, questions faith, and hopes for a greener future. That he wants no part in interviews should be meaningless. We know everything we need about Bill Watterson from his incredible body of work.
Yet people persist. The fantasy of finding more about Watterson, or getting him to show up for your book or movie, is enough to turn fans into treasure hunters. But he’s not some prize specimen hiding in the mountains of Ohio, nor is he a fictionalized recluse with a chip on his shoulder. He’s a real human being who has time and time again decided to keep his privacy. And while it’s fun to speculate about him, it’s ultimately needless; his work is a better autobiography than we could ever hope for. So I encourage any fans who have enough passion and talent to make a film or write a book, please don’t look for Bill. Don’t even try. Instead, explore the magical world he created. The next Calvin and Hobbes Kickstarter I see needs to be named A Film Where We Talk About How Great Calvin and Hobbes Is, because we all know better than to name it Dear Mr. Watterson.
Also, no more of that fan art where Calvin grows up, marries Susie, and has a daughter who he gives Hobbes to. None of that. That needs to stop.