DUELING FOR the lead among top documentaries on iTunes this week is Justin Bieber, Lance Armstrong, Mick Jagger’s backup singer and…
A bunch of comic-strip cartoonists?
Many of them from the back pages of newspapers?
Yes, “Stripped,” Dave Kellett and Frederick Schroeder’s love letter to comic strips, has hit iTunes this week, and is already jockeying for the top docu spot. The film has also cracked iTunes’ sales chart among the top-50 movies.
It’s apparently paying off that the filmmakers have been doing publicity for months. And the recent announcement that once-reclusive “Calvin and Hobbes” creator Bill Watterson created the film’s poster — his first public cartoon in nearly 20 years — certainly raised awareness of the movie beyond die-hard comics fans.
[BILL WATTERSON TALKS: 'Calvin and Hobbes' cartoonist on why he created 'Stripped' poster art]
Many viewers, it seems, remain curious about the men and women who create syndicated strips and webcomics; the film features more than 70 artists and writers.
Comic Riffs caught up with the filmmakers to discuss their labor-of-love project — ranging from which creators they sought to interview (and why) to their warm nostalgia for the former cultural preeminence of the funny pages:
MICHAEL CAVNA: Your film, above all, feels like a love letter to the art form, if not also to those who make comics. Could you speak some about your passion behind the project? It’s the kind of passion that’s required, of course, to see this through to polished completion after many years and multiple Kickstarters…
FREDERICK SCHROEDER: I’d say that anything you work on for over four years for no pay has to be for the love of it. Both Dave and I had a real passion for the material, and that shared love for the medium of comics and comic strips really fueled each other and kept us going. I’m not sure either of us could have sustained it on our own, but because we were having this conversation about comics together, I think it continued to make the project new and exciting everyday. It really was a joy-filled process making this movie, and I think that speaks to how well a collaboration it ended up being, but also the inherent joy to be found in comic strips themselves. Who doesn’t smile when reading the comics? We basically were smiling and laughing together for the last four years.
DAVE KELLETT: Exactly. If you’re going to work on something for four years on nights, weekends, vacations, and give up other paying gigs and other income streams, you really have to love it. You have to love it so much that you’re willing to sacrifice things for it. That being said, Fred and I loved working together on the film. It’s a dream project, filled with wonderful people who we look up to and admire. And there was a lot of laughter these past four years.
CAVNA: “Stripped” opens with — and really meditates on — comics as a reading experience. Especially the once more-common morning ritual of turning to your newspaper’s comics pages — emphasis on plural pageS — with a certain warm reassurance, particularly on Sundays. As a storyteller, what was your thinking behind this opening approach? Because the narrative sure summons that nostalgia.
KELLETT: It’s nice that you noticed that, because we changed up the opening two, three, maybe even four times. The first few minutes set the tone for a entire film, and it took us a few false starts to settle on that moment of just reading. It’s the nature of documentary filmmaking, I suppose. You have to find your footing among 300-plus hours of interviews. And for us, we realized the best possible opening was just…the universal act of reading comics in a sun-filled room, and not a care in the world. It triggers such nostalgia, as it’s everyone’s first step in their lifelong love of comics.
SCHROEDER: The opening of the film, for me, was an attempt to summon up the shared, common experience of reading comics that is — for lack of a better word — changing. Everyone my age [30s] and older has that memory of reading the comics page on a lazy Sunday morning, but kids growing up today are reading and experiencing comics in a much different way. We wanted to capture that sense of nostalgia for a time that may be past us.
CAVNA: “Stripped” really celebrates the heyday of newspaper comics — that midcentury period when they were central to the American cultural conversation. As talking-head cartoonists in your film, perhaps only Mort Walker and Mell Lazarus reach back to that golden era as practitioners. As you cast about for voices, did you become acutely aware of how many of these greats — including Walt Kelly and Al Capp — we have lost in more recent decades? And does newspaper comics’ ebbing from prominence in the national conversation feel like a long slide along a continuum to you, or more like a decline that has had sudden, almost tectonic moments of jarring displacement?
KELLETT: It’s representative, I think, of a change not just in comics, but in our culture in general. We used to have watercooler moments: “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “The Cosby Show,” “Seinfeld.” Shows and books and songs that everyone knew. But now it’s fractured from mass media to niche media to even micro-media. For example, your favorite show in the world might be a show on cable that I’ve never, ever heard of. And the same is true now for comics: Where once we had “Pogo” and “Peanuts,” and everyone knew them and read them, now we have Penny Arcade and The Oatmeal, and infinitely smaller audiences know them.
SCHROEDER: People have so many more options for entertainment now than they did when people like Al Capp and George McManus were at the height of their influence on American culture. There’s no question that comic strips no longer have the kind of cultural dominance they once had, and this can be tied to the rise of other mediums like television, video games and above all, the Internet. However, the Internet has also allowed for an opportunity for comics to transform themselves and perhaps buck the old saying that “there are no second acts in American lives … .”
CAVNA: Almost at the exact midpoint of “Stripped,” your film itself shifts to train a probing lens on the present and future of the comics industry. Was there a conscious decision to almost cleave the film evenly between the warm, gauzy past and the sometimes bracing chill of our current state?
SCHROEDER: Unlike narrative films, which have — when they are doing their job right — clear three-act structures, documentaries stories take shape in the editing room more than anywhere else. The editing of this film and finding the story was the longest process, and our editor, Ben Waters, contributed immensely to this process that involved shifting pieces around in an attempt to tell the most compelling story. What we found is, once we gave the viewer the background on comics in the first half of the film — in a way, setting the stage — we then could start the conversation about where comics are and where they are going as an art form.
KELLETT: I agree with Fred. I’d only chime in to say more kind words can’t be said about … Ben Waters. His talent for finding just the right cut, in just the right way, contributed so much to this film.
CAVNA: In Ken Burns’s films, sometimes a Shelby Foote (“The Civil War”) or a Buck O’Neil (“Baseball”) emerges as the spiritual or intellectual godfather of a film — almost like the spoken poet whose ability to enliven and illuminate the subject matter becomes the overarching voice of authority and enlightenment and alive-ness. In “Stripped,” who is your Shelby Foote?
SCHROEDER: While I admire Ken Burns’s documentaries quite a bit, we never wanted to have just one voice dominating the conversation in “Stripped. We really attempted to give voice to as many cartoonists as possible and allow for the common threads to pull through, as well as the differences. That said, at a certain point we do use Scott McCloud to help guide a certain amount in the latter portion of the film, as to how comics are moving into the future, but that’s only because McCloud is such an amazing speaker — no one was giving us better quotes on the subject.
KELLETT: For me, the spiritual centers of the film come in Bill Watterson ["Calvin and Hobbes"] and Patrick McDonnell ["Mutts"]. They both speak with such quiet elegance and such joy on the solitary beauty of creating comic strips. It’s almost a Zen optimism, when you listen to them talk about their art. I walk away inspired when I hear them.
CAVNA: Speaking of Ken Burns, I once wrote an “open letter” to him [after meeting with him] … when it struck me that the next American invention he should cinematically take on is cartoons and the newspaper comic strip. Fortunately, you and Frederick have provided just that sort of documentary. Do you feel as if you have filled a void — or at least have documented some elements of the industry that have gone uncovered on film?
SCHROEDER: Oh I think “Stripped” just scratches the surface of what can be done. My hope is that there are at least a dozen more movies exploring this vast medium of comics. In many ways as a filmmaker, you could spend the rest of your life exploring this subject. Personally, I don’t think Dave and I are done with comics yet. Hopefully people will like what we’ve done here and join us on future explorations.
KELLETT: I have two hopes, coming out of this film. One is that 10 more films immediately get made on comics by other folks, representing other voices, other perspectives, other audiences. This is an art form that’s underexplored, frankly, given its impact on American, Canadian and global culture. The second hope is that Fred and I get to make a few of the other projects we’ve talked about, centered [on] comics. Some are documentaries, some are…other things. Making “Stripped” has been a joy-filled process, and in Fred, I’ve found a real kindred spirit, and I hope we get to make more things. So if you work for the National Endowment for the Arts, drop me an e-mail.
CAVNA: One of the immediate draws and curiosities of the film — beyond die-hard comics fans — is, of course, the presence of Bill Watterson. First, what was your reaction to getting his voice recorded publicly for, what the film says, is the first time ever? And Bill tells me you later approached him about doing the film’s poster — a request that itself takes some chutzpah — or as they said in “Little Orphan Annie’s” heyday, real “moxie”. What was it like to then receive Bill’s first public cartoon in nearly 20 years — since “Calvin and Hobbes” sledded off to explore for the final time?
SCHROEDER: I love that you call it moxie! All I can say is that Bill Watterson was incredibly generous to our film. It is really beyond any measure of kindness, and blew both of us away to have someone we admire so much, be such a significant part of our film. When we put a list together of cartoonists we wanted to talk to, Watterson was at the top of our list. But if we were honest about it, we never imagined he would do it. So all you can do is ask. The same can be said of our poster: We said we would love for Watterson to do it, but never imagined he’d agree. And when the art finally arrived, Dave and I were kind of floored and just stared at it for a while, trying to comprehend that we’d just gotten the first comic art in 19 years from someone who may be the greatest living cartoonist. I mean we love this stuff — we both have original comic art on our walls — and to get something like this for your own project is just beyond cool.
KELLETT: The best way I can describe Bill’s involvement in the film is this: It was 5-percent [our] asking, and 95-percent [his] being an incredibly, incredibly kind guy. He didn’t have to answer even our first query, but throughout the project, he’s shown us such generosity of spirit. It’s lovely of him. He’s a good, good man, and I am eternally thankful to him: Not only for the gift he gave to the film, but for his full body of work, which continues to inspire and challenge us to do better work, and be a better person. And really, that’s the greatest praise you can give to any artist.
CAVNA: “Stripped” focuses on the long central role of the newspaper as buyer and client, revenue source and delivery system, of the comic strip — yet the most conspicuously missing voice in “Stripped” is anyone at all who works IN a newsroom — the often-obscured editor who actually decides what readers see, and who has weathered the decline in print comics readership and fewer syndicate offerings from a unique vantage point. I see [Los Angeles Times editor] Sherry Stern is noted in the closing credits — but why omit newspaper editors entirely?
KELLETT: It speaks mostly to how hard it was to edit this film down to a reasonable size from the 300 hours of raw footage. There are so, so many cartoonists and quotes and paths I wish we could’ve included in the film. Absolutely. But a film can only serve so many masters, and you have to trim.
SCHROEDER: We collected over 300 hours of interviews with “Stripped” and unfortunately, a lot of amazing things didn’t make it into the movie. It’s just the terrible nature of the beast that sometimes incredibly insightful things end up on the cutting-room floor for the sake of clarity. However, we are going to try to make the uncut interviews available as downloads through an amazing company called VHX. The great thing about online digital distribution is that it allows for the movie to spill over into the gutters in this way and can open up the film in ways you couldn’t previously. Sort of like how comics online aren’t limited to the three- or four-panel structure, now films can really expand in scope and size to allow for those amazing moments to be seen.
CAVNA: “Stripped” gets especially spirited when it pivots to the webcartoonists, who often speak with the thrill of being upstarts who carved their own path to an audience. What were some of the joys and challenges of reflecting that still-unfolding narrative?
SCHROEDER: In many ways, there’s never been a better time to be a creative person. As a reader, I really look forward to how the medium of comics is getting pushed forward, thanks to the platform of the digital screen. Comics keep evolving online and as a reader, that is exciting to see. Also, the opportunities for your work to get out there have never been easier. As cartoonist Dylan Meconis says in our film: “As long as you pay for the web hosting, you can do whatever you want.”
KELLETT: It’ll be interesting to watch that section, 15 or 20 years on, and see how much of that enthusiasm has been tempered or reaffirmed. And, of course, just to see how fat everyone’s gotten.
CAVNA: Rarely have I heard so many cartoonists be so publicly honest about two frequent topics of our [inside baseball] trade conversation: 1. What a brutal grind the daily strips deadline can be for years and decades on end — Bill Amend, among others, speaks to this well; and 2., what terrible entrepreneurs and businesspeople so many creative right-brained cartoonists are — Scott McCloud and Dan Piraro and Robert Khoo really illuminate this. Could you talk about your decision to really peel back these areas of the industry?
KELLETT: It’s such a deceptively simple art, from the outside looking in. All you have to do is one strip a day, right? But it can be grueling work, 10 years in, when someone’s sick in the family, or you’ve broken an ankle, or there’s just been a funeral, and the deadline’s still looming. No matter what, you have to be funny, and on a daily basis. And I think the film needed to show that.
SCHROEDER: I think it’s helpful to see the realities of what it means to be a professional creative person. Growing up, I never had an example of what it meant to be an artist day to day. I think the section of “Stripped” that speaks directly about the creative process is the most important part of our film and will have the most resonance with other creative people — writers, musicians, filmmakers, et cetera.
CAVNA: Your camera wonderfully dotes on the pure act of simply drawing. Whether it’s by dip pen, by brush or Cintiq stylus, you bask in the beauty of the physical creation — which Jeannie Schulz says has an elemental magic for the beholder. What was the thinking behind this wonderful decision, which demands cinematic patience — but is in such quiet contrast to all the spoken words?
KELLETT: All credit needs to go to Fred, in that arena. There were so many shots that we talked over, agonized over, and planned to the umpteenth degree — but ultimately it was Fred’s skill as a photographer that brought those moments out. It’s such still, quiet moments, those shots of creators drawing: They’re among my favorite parts of the movie.
SCHROEDER: In the film, Jeannie Schulz says, “Drawing is magic,” and I agree wholeheartedly. When you capture a line connecting to another line and suddenly a character appears with an expression and emotion, how else can you describe it other than “magic.” Those little drawings are where the love of the art form really blooms and if we didn’t get that process on film, I would consider the movie a failure. This movie started as wanting to capture the studio process of various artists, so making sure we had that in the movie was a top priority.
CAVNA: What are some of the things you learned about your own industry in the course of making this film?
KELLETT: In some ways, the cadre of professional cartoonists is fewer in numbers than professional NBA players. But it’s fun to see, among this small group, how similar they all are … despite differences in personalities and ages and backgrounds. If nothing else, there’s a shared love for the art form.
SCHROEDER: The path I found the webcartoonists walking seems almost identical to the one independent moviemakers will be following. The way a webcartoonist works and distributes his/her strip is almost exactly how we are planning to release this movie.
CAVNA: Is there anyone you really wanted to get but couldn’t — a Gary Larson or Garry Trudeau or Berkeley Breathed, perhaps? And do you have a favorite anecdote that wound up on the cutting-room floor?
SCHROEDER: I did really want to talk to Gary Larson, because “The Far Side” made such an impression on me growing up.
KELLETT: For me, it was Breathed: He was a huge influence on my young cartooning. But he couldn’t have been nicer in declining to be interviewed, and of course he was so generous in letting us use any “Bloom County” (images) we wanted in the film.
CAVNA: What were a few of the highlights that [especially] stand out now, in reflection, about making “Stripped”?
SCHROEDER: I have to say, it was a real privilege and honor for Dave to allow me to step into his world as a cartoonist. The comics community is surprisingly supportive in ways that make you happy you’ve chosen a creative field. If you told me as a kid — whose first book that he paid for with his own money was a “Garfield” collection — that I would be in Jim Davis’s studio, watching him draw, or that Bill Watterson would be making the poster … I mean, come on. It doesn’t get any better!
KELLETT: This has been a dream project, in so many ways. I’m changed by the process, and for the better. I’ve been able to sit and talk with my heroes and peers for hours on end about an art form I love, and put together a love-letter to comics that I’m really proud of. And in the process, I’ve made lifelong friendships with people in the production, with cartoonists I’d never met — and more than all the rest, with Fred. It’s been an honor to work with him.