ED. NOTE: The 44th annual San Diego Comic-Con International — the granddaddy of the American comics and pop-culture conventions — is expected to draw more than 125,000 fans to the Convention Center through Sunday. Today, Comic Riffs focuses on talented creators in attendance.
FOR MORE THAN four years, Dave Kellett and Fred Schroeder have been crafting a love letter.
As passionate fans of comics, the webcartoonist and the filmmaker have been working on “Stripped” — a documentary that features
interviews with scores of top cartoonists. The L.A.-based professional partners call the film “our love letter to the art form.”
“The neat thing for the documentary is that Fred and I come at it from two angles, as directors,” Kellett, creator of the webcomic “Sheldon,” tells Comic Riffs of their Kickstarter-backed film. “I come at it as a cartoonist, who knows the grind of daily deadlines, and who’s seen the ground change under my feet in the industry. Fred comes at it as a voracious reader and living encyclopedia of comics, informed by his insights as a filmmaker. ...
“That inside-view, outside-view really served the film well,” Kellett continues. “It helped the film from becoming too myopic or ‘inside baseball,’ or of missing some of the specificity of how cartooning is unique. It was a really nice balance.”
As they prepared for their Comic-Con panel, Comic Riffs asked the filmmakers about the choices and challenges that have gone into making “Stripped”:
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MICHAEL CAVNA: So describe what “Stripped’ is exactly, artistically and philosophically.
FRED SCHROEDER: “Stripped” is a feature-length documentary that sits down with the world’s best cartoonists to talk about how cartooning works, why it’s so loved and how as artists they are navigating this dicey period between print and digital options when neither path works perfectly.
DAVE KELLETT: At it’s core, it’s also very much a love-letter to the art form — talking about why comics are so universally loved, and so artistically unique.
MC: When did this idea first occur to you, and how did you come to find Frederick as a creative partner? And what has that working relationship been like — does each of you have complementary strengths you bring to this?
DK : It was Fred that started the ball rolling, actually. We’ve always gotten along, and knew over the years that we shared this deep love of comics. But when Fred first pitched working on something together, I think it was to film my cartooning process - as part of a larger series exploring how artists do what they do? Something like that…
FS: I was interested in exploring the artistic process and was planning on making a documentary about various artists — painters, cartoonists, sculptors, etc. — in their studio spaces. Dave was one of the first people I contacted and he immediately suggested a film about cartoonists, and I thought it would make for a really interesting project. We both have such a love for the medium that this collaboration has just been really joy-filled.
MC: Dave, how has your experience as a veteran comic-stripper of multiple platforms especially informed this film, and your vision for it?
DK : The neat thing for the documentary, is that Fred and I come at it from two angles, as directors. I come at it as a cartoonist, who knows the grind of daily deadlines, and who’s seen the ground change under my feet in the industry. Fred comes at it as a voracious reader and living encyclopedia of comics, informed by his insights as a film-maker. And that inside-view, outside-view really served the film well. It helped the film from becoming too myopic or “inside baseball”, or of missing some of the specificity of how cartooning is unique. It was a really nice balance.
FS: Having Dave attached to this project was incredibly helpful. If I had any questions about the process of cartooning, I could just turn to Dave and ask. He would not only answer, but sometimes would sit down at the drawing board or Cintiq and show me how things were done. Then I would be able to say, “That’s not going to work on camera — is there another way we can show that?” Invariably, Dave always found a way to make things work for the movie.
Syndication, as you know, was once a path to relative professional security and massive exposure — the brass ring for generations. Garry Trudeau told me things were probably dipping by the time he got into the business four decades ago, but this century has seen the enormous erosion in sales and new launches and potential clients.
What are some of the ways these changes are reflected in ”Stripped”? Does it become a major theme?
DK : It does on some level, in that everyone we interviewed acknowledged that the days of the 100 millionaire cartoonists will never be seen again. But there’s also a universal hope for the art form, and more importantly, a love for the practice of the art form, that comes through.
FS: There is a sense that we are living in a time of great transition. The Internet is probably the greatest communication tool ever invented, and ultimately that’s what comics are: a form of communication. How and in what ways comics use the Internet is part of what we explore in the documentary.
MC: For many years I’ve encouraged documentarians — including Ken Burns — to tackle this topic and celebrate this great American art form while it’s still relevant in print newspapers, and as some of the legends are still with us. I’m so glad you guys took up the standard — have you found anything like “Stripped” to already exist? And what makes your film especially original?
FS: I think if we knew of a documentary that covered the same ground, we wouldn’t have made ”Stripped.” Dave and I started with a long conversation between the two of us about the medium and where it’s been and where it is going, and this led to wanting to open up a dialogue with other people about these issues. We really began making this movie for ourselves because we were tired of waiting for someone else to make it. Hopefully it is successful enough to warrant more, because we really just scratch the surface of comics’ wide and varied history.
DK : In an ideal world, a network will love this film so much, they’ll pay us to make a five-parter on 20th-century comics!
MC: It’s great that you bridge the evolution to webcomics, to [Kate] Beaton and the Penny Arcade guys. Now, I know Mike [Krahulik] and Jerry [Holkins] hoped for syndication in the ‘90s, and Kate nods to predecessors like [“For Better or for Worse” creator] Lynn Johnston. Did you find that syndicated cartoonists and webcomic creators feel like two distinct camps, or more like creative kin — one community — cut from the same cloth?
: Much more like creative kin. There’s a shared love for the art that comes through. They all know the grind and solitude of the cartoonist’s
life. They all know the desperation that kicks in when it’s 3 a.m., when a deadline is looming. And interestingly, both camps are learning from each other. I think [“Garfield” creator] Jim Davis even says at one point, “Don’t think the established cartoonists aren’t looking over their shoulders at these younger cartoonists, because that’s what we talk about when we get together.”
FS: I agree with Dave. They all are cartoonists, and all share a love of comics in whatever form they take — be it syndicated comic strip, webcomic, comic book or graphic novel. Every comic artist has a real kinship and appreciation for each other, I think, because they all love comics so much. It’s because they care so much that sometimes disagreements occur, but overall more is agreed on than disagreed when it comes to comics.
MC: What interviews were hardest to get, or most surprising, or revelatory — and is this anyone you didn’t get that you especially wish you had?
FS: Well we never thought we would get [“Calvin and Hobbes” creator] Bill Watterson to talk to us about comics, but he was someone Dave and I both wanted to weigh in on these issues. Low and behold — after a year of shooting this project — he did, and what he had to say was really insightful and interesting. I think people are going to be surprised about what he ended up sharing with us about comics. Some of the older cartoonists like Mort Walker (“Beetle Bailey”) and Mel Lazarus (“Momma”) were amazing to talk to and get their perspective on a medium they’ve been involved with longer than I’ve been alive. Cathy Gusewite (“Cathy”) and Lynn Johnston also had a great perspective on the challenges faced by being women in a male-dominated field, and how they both had a unique voice to contribute to the comics page.
DK: But there are a few interviews that we always pined for. I think I most hoped for Berke Breathed (“Bloom County”) to join us, and Fred most hoped for Art Speigelman (“Maus”). But we conducted something like 80 or 90 interviews all over North America, with some the greatest living cartoonists of our age — so we have no complaints. This was a charmed project from start to finish.
MC: Your multiple Kickstarter campaigns seemed to raise not only the film’s funding, but also its profile. Can you speak to how Kickstarter specifically has buoyed your film?
DK : Kickstarter is a game-changer, in the way art and ideas can be funded. The entire dynamics of how art is produced is turned on its head. And the artist, if they handle it right, comes out of the process so empowered. Fred and I, thanks to the financial support of our Kickstarter backers, were able to produce a feature-length film, without having to take notes from a single studio or financier, and without the albatross of unbearable debt around our neck. Think of that in the context of 100 years of filmmaking: That’s ... amazing.
FS: Kickstarter is really revolutionary in the way art can be funded. I think the idea of Kickstarter has also captivated the world and because of that it has become an extremely high-profile site. Just being on Kickstarter allowed us to talk to people like The Economist, Ain’t It Cool News and USA Today — and The Washington Post! — places that wouldn’t have talked about us if not for the Kickstarter campaign. All of that is good for the movie and helping to get as many eyes on it as possible. Hopefully, anyone who is interested in comics will be able to see it soon.
MC: So when is the film due for “release,” and how will you distribute? Will you do the film-festival circuit first, or comics conventions, or other?
FS: We’ll have more official announcements soon, but the movie is for all intents and purposes done. We are waiting to hear back on a couple things, but if everything goes according to plan, you will be seeing the film before the end of the year.
MC: Is there anything I haven’t asked that you want readers to know?
FS: The one thing I hope for is that your readers keep reading comics. It’s a wonderful and rich medium that can do things no other medium can. Keep exploring and finding new things out there. I promise you won’t be disappointed.
DK : Fred’s absolutely right: We’d ultimately love this film to not only be a record of where comics are, in this moment, but also a springboard for new readers to find new features. If this functions as a jumping-off point for a whole new generation of comics readers, that would be just wonderful.
SCHEDULE: On Saturday, directors Frederick Schroederand Dave Kellett will appear on the “Stripped” panel.