When documentary filmmaker Joel Allen Schroeder was a kid, his role model was a tiny, ink-drawn troublemaker in the comics section of the newspaper: the human half of that famous, adventuresome duo Calvin and Hobbes.
With his unfettered imagination, contempt for authority and devoted friendship with a (supposedly) stuffed tiger, Calvin was the embodied fantasy of every child and nostalgic adult during the comic’s decadelong run. Even after the last strip ran in 1995, the characters never lost their shine.
“Calvin and Hobbes were always there,” Schroeder, 34, says in his film “Dear Mr. Watterson,” which screens at Artisphere on Saturday. “I don’t really remember life without them.”
With his own money and a bare-bones team of “Calvin and Hobbes” fans, Schroeder began working on the film in between gigs as a freelance editor and camera operator in the mid-2000s. (One of those fans was D.C. musician Mike Boggs — aka We Were Pirates — who wrote the score. At Artisphere, Boggs will perform and participate in a post-screening Q-and-A with Express contributor Nevin Martell, author of “Looking for Calvin and Hobbes.”)
When Kickstarter launched in 2009, Schroeder opened the project up to crowd-funding. “I thought, if we can fund the film through fans of the strip, that’s evidence of the impact of the strip,” he says.
He wasn’t disappointed — two Kickstarter appeals yielded more than $121,000 from “Calvin and Hobbes” enthusiasts worldwide. That gave Schroeder the freedom to make his film without major-league outside backers, who might have pressured him to do something he wanted to avoid at all costs: contact the creator of the comic, Bill Watterson.
The notoriously reclusive Watterson, who has given only a handful of public interviews in the two decades since the end of “Calvin and Hobbes,” doesn’t appear in the film (Schroeder says he wanted to “respect his privacy”). But interviews with reverent fellow cartoonists — the artists behind “Foxtrot,” “Pearls Before Swine,” “Non Sequitur” and many more — leave no doubt that Watterson elevated the art of the comic.
Scenes from Schroeder’s visit to Chagrin Falls, Ohio, (Watterson’s hometown) offer visual proof of how much the picturesque Cleveland suburb inspired the outdoor tableaus in “Calvin and Hobbes.” Fans of the strip will drool over shots of Watterson’s early, pre-“Calvin” cartoons and his original drafts.
Schroeder thinks “Calvin and Hobbes” owes much of its impressive legacy to a business decision: Watterson refused to license the comic for merchandising opportunities, dodging the character dilution that can come from, say, letting Snoopy hawk life insurance.
Watterson’s stance against licensing “was almost un-American,” Schroeder says. “Most characters that are out there were created to be marketable.”
Even without the kind of stuffed animals and lunchboxes that lure new, young readers to “Garfield” or “Peanuts,” “Calvin and Hobbes” has maintained a growing fan base through the evangelism of its diehard devotees. “Dear Mr. Watterson” might be the most effective bait yet.
“I’ve got the complete [‘Calvin and Hobbes’] collection on my coffee table, and I still read a couple strips a day,” Schroeder says. “I love to hear that after people see the film, they’ll bring out their books for first time in a long time … or share it with their kids.”
A Strip Down Memory Lane
Over the course of 10 years, Bill Watterson produced 3,150 “Calvin and Hobbes” strips. It’s hard to play favorites, but here are a few standout moments and recurring themes:
Calvin’s snowmen — which take the form of killer cannibals, political protesters and avant-garde nudes — are anything but child’s play. He uses them to embarrass his parents, explore the meaning of art and get vicarious revenge on enemies by building their likenesses and watching them melt.
A game whose only rule is that any player can make up any rule at any time, Calvinball is the opposite of organized team sports, invented on the fly and different every time. It’s played with an arbitrary mix of balls, wickets, rackets and mallets, the competitors wear black bandit masks and the scoring system is somewhat murky (Q to 12! Oogy to boogy!).
The Baby Raccoon
In March 1987, Calvin and Hobbes find a sickly baby raccoon in the forest. Over the course of a nine-day storyline, Calvin learns about love and loss, confronting the mysteries of death. This kind of existential and emotional depth set the strip apart from the lighter, simpler fare on the funnies page.
Watterson felt stifled by the limited (and shrinking) space allotted to comics in the newspaper, which left room only for the most basic stories and punch lines, and he persistently advocated for more artistic freedom. In 1992, Watterson’s syndicate finally gave him an unbroken half-page on Sundays, liberating him from conventional panel structures. The Sunday strips often featured elaborate dream sequences and scenes from Calvin’s wild imagination.
The last strip, which ran on Dec. 31, 1995, depicts a fresh snowfall ready for play. “It’s a magical world, Hobbes, ol’ buddy … Let’s go exploring!” Calvin says to Hobbes, toboggan at the ready. “To me, that’s words to live by,” filmmaker Joel Allen Schroeder says. “It’s just such a perfect way to end it.”
Artisphere, 1101 Wilson Boulevard, Arlington; Sat., 7:30 p.m., $8; 703-875-1100. (Rosslyn)