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.
NEIL KENDRICKS is fascinated by the mysteries of creativity.
“What does it take to create?” poses Kendricks as he launches a Kickstarter this weekend for his passion project of a documentary, “Comics Are Everywhere.”. “Rather than making a survey film, I want to address this question through the lens of a character study — of different artists who have found their niche with one foot in comics culture, and the other in other forms of artistic expression.”
Kendricks’s film features conversation with such comics greats as Daniel Clowes, David Lloyd and Jaime Hernandez. But to delve into full character studies of form-spanning artists, he also profiles two lesser-known but deeply talented artists: JJ Villardand Danni Shinya Luo."
“Their respective talents have enabled them to move freely between comics and the art world,” Kendricks, who has taught comics-as-literature courses at San Diego State University, tells Comic Riffs. “In the case of JJ, he is also charting a course through the high-pressure world of animation while keeping his idiosyncratic personality intact.”
Comic Riffs caught up with Kendricks to talk about comics literacy, the ever-burgeoning appreciation of the art form — and how a new generation of artists is finding ways to carve out their careers:
(Disclosure: Kendricks has contributed articles to the San Diego Union-Tribune’s Arts section, where Comic Riffs once worked.)
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MICHAEL CAVNA: Take us to the beginning, Neil: What is the origin story for your “Comics Are Everywhere” documentary? What sparked the inspiration?
NEIL KENDRICKS: I first started thinking about making a documentary on comics back in 2006 or 2007. I started writing the actual treatment in 2008, developing a hypothetical version of the story that was initially focused on master cartoonists. When we eventually secured
the necessary permission and location release with the generous help of Comic-Con in 2010, I realized that the real story that hadn’t been told yet, is the emerging artists laboring — year in and year out — to make their artistic dreams come through.
Although we are bombarded with numerous blockbuster films generated by the familiar characters and content in comics and graphic novels, there haven’t been many feature-length documentaries looking at comics with real depth and substance while still being fun and engaging to watch. Of course, the only two feature-length documentaries on comics that have any real cache are Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 film, “Crumb” and 1988’s “Comic-Book Confidential.” ... Without question, “Crumb” has attained the status of a contemporary classic that is more a portrait of an extraordinary artist dealing with the fallout of growing up in a dysfunctional family during the ‘50s than an in-depth look at comics per se.
On a personal level, making a documentary about comics feels like a good fit for me, especially since I’ve always loved comics and I taught myself how to draw by studying comics at an early age. They continue to be a passion of mine, and I believe that comics are often misunderstood and underappreciated. In fact, there are only two distinctly American art forms that originated in the United States: jazz and comics. And I know that I’m on the right course since comics scholar Douglas Wolk stated, in my filmed interview in 2010, that the renaissance of comics is happening now.
One would be hard-pressed to find a better time than the present to address comics as a multifaceted topic in an engaging, insightful and, hopefully, entertaining film.
TRAILER FOR “CRUMB”:
MC: Comics, of course, are increasingly prime fodder and subject matter for documentaries these days. What do you think makes “Comics Are Everywhere” unique?
NK: What makes “Comics Are Everywhere” different? I think what this documentary-in-progress brings to the table is a real understanding of how comics work and what motivates artists to gravitate to this old-school method of created sequential art. Comics go beyond just providing storytelling or entertainment for readers; the medium operates according to a visual language of its own that is so embedded in our culture that it’s almost invisible.
Practically, everyone knows how to look at a comic, yet no one really teaches you how to navigate through a comic or graphic novel, as your eyes move from one panel to the next. It’s instinctive and you simply discover it on your own, picking up the language grounded in the interaction of text and images working in unison.
I’ve also always been fascinated with the mystery of creativity, and one of [the] main questions beating at the heart of “Comics Are Everywhere” is the inquiry: ‘What does it take to create?” Rather than making a survey film, I want to address this question through the lens of a character study of different artists who have found their niche with one foot in comics culture, and the other in other forms of artistic expression. This ability to bridge different worlds is what JJ Villard and Danni Shinya Luo have in common, even though they don’t know one another. In fact, their respective talents have enabled them to move freely between comics and the art world. In the case of JJ, he is also charting a course through the high-pressure world of animation while keeping his idiosyncratic personality intact.
I believe what also separates “Comics Are Everywhere” from other documentaries is that I have personally been immersed in comics and graphic novels for most of my life. Unlike some other filmmakers who might have started going to Comic-Con only a few years ago, I’ve been a regular attendee since the 1980s, and [since then], I have never missed it. I also periodically teach an upper-division class on comics titled, appropriately enough, “Comics and Graphic Narrative” at [San Diego State University’s] Department of English and Comparative Literature, which is the only university-level course focused on a serious study of comics and graphic novels in [Comic-Con’s home of] San Diego. ... So, I bring both a lifelong passion for the medium, as well as the artistic and critical perspective about how comics impact our culture, and why they’re incredible relevant as a means of creative expression.
MC: I’m intrigued by two of your principals. First, what can you tell us about JJ Villard as a focus in your documentary — what makes him a compelling figure here? Of course, anyone who inspires artistic comparisons to Gary Panter and Lynda Barry has our attention.
NK: It’s not easy being an artist in today’s changing landscape. And both JJ and Shinya have experienced their share of challenges and they found a way to persevere and grow as artists despite the difficulties and uncertainty of building a life in the arts. In this respect, their stories echo my own journey as an artist and filmmaker. I am deeply curious about how comics have shaped and impacted their art simultaneously as a point of departure and a source of inspiration, and I want to tell that story.
Without question, JJ is a lightning rod of pure, chaotic energy, yet he is also incredibly disciplined and focused, too. Like the Joker, JJ is an agent of chaos — without the malice — and you have to love and respect the guy for staying true to himself and his ideas. I’ve joked with him sometimes that since James Brown is dead, one day he could inherit the mantle as the hardest-working man in show business.
However, the part of JJ’s artistic practice that most intrigues me are his obsessive sketchbooks. His sketchbooks stretch back to his adolescence ,with page after page of stream-of-consciousness, comic-book-like characters spawned by the artist’s mischievous id running amok. The sketchbooks are beautifully bizarre and very funny rants, and they have a duel function, both as a place to experiment with the wild ideas for his animations, and they are bound pages of psychic flypaper where nothing is censored and everything is permitted.
When I asked JJ about inspiration and the method behind this artful madness on paper, JJ cites both the ‘80s animated TV series “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” and Lawrence Hubbard’s ghetto-fabulous “Real Deal Comics.”
MC: Similarly, what intrigued you about another principal, Danni Shinya Luo — what made her and her story stand out to your filmmaker’s eye?
NK: Where JJ Villard’s process blossoms in pure chaos, Danni Shinya Luo’s aesthetic is rooted in a very balanced and calm, almost Zen-like aesthetic, celebrating female beauty in an often surreal context. They are flip sides of the same of focused, artistic coin, where drive and vision come to define their creative lives.
Shinya’s work is also steeped in a personal iconography that is evolving over time. So, I’m interested in finding out how this young artist, who is originally from Shanghai, was influenced by Manga comics as a youth, only to become a skilled painter straddling the fence between realism and surrealist fantasy. She has created cover art for Marvel and other comic-book companies, but her best work is the personal paintings and drawings that she exhibits.
Shinya’s story is also an immigrant tale told from a fresh perspective. And she is very much the product of two worlds fused into one, since he parents don’t speak English and she has found a way to balance the expectations of her family without compromising her own dreams and aspirations.
Together, JJ and Shinya’s parallel narratives juxtaposed with glimpses into the art and lives of other comic creators reflects the universal theme of artists — regardless of the medium — struggling to find their place in an ever-changing world. I can relate to their stories and I feel a connection with them, which makes me want to know more as the camera’s lens bears witness.
MC: Your film obviously has some all-star cartoonists on camera, including Daniel Clowes, David Lloyd and Jaime Hernandez. How did you describe your film to them [to get them interested]?
NK: I’ve been reading Daniel Clowes’s comic Eightball since its inception in 1989, and I would chat with him back in the day when he sold his comics at Comic-Con. These encounters date back years before “Ghost World.” In fact, he was the first artist whom I pitched the concept to in an e-mail. I had interviewed him before as a freelance writer, and I knew his absurdist take on the human condition filtered through his darkly funny point of view would be fascinating to explore further. Plus, Clowes is one of my favorite comic-book artists. I figured if I am going to do a film about comics — and alternative comics, in particular — Clowes would be an essential voice and at the top of my list.
The documentary’s all-star gallery of master cartoonists includes “Love and Rockets” co-creator Jaime Hernandez, and these choices reflect my personal taste in comics, which again veer more into the territory of alternative comics. I also interviewed graphic journalist Dan Archer, who created a comic on human trafficking. I filmed him at Comic-Con’s sister convention, San Francisco’s Alternative Press Expo, in 2011, and I plan to do some follow-up filming with him in the near future. I believe work of this caliber demonstrates how comics can effectively address the complexities of the real world and the absurdity of the human condition using comics’ visual language, fusing images and words in a symbiotic union.
Although I didn’t have the ongoing access to Clowes and several of the established cartoonists interviewed thus far, they were honest and open about their thoughts about comics during these filmed conversations. Although we haven’t started editing yet, I have been writing and refining an extended, story treatment as an outline guiding the trajectory of the narrative. I think what the documentary will eventually reveal is that the experiences of master cartoonists aren’t that far removed from younger artists like JJ and Shinya. Most of them went to art school and found their calling in comics, or found inspiration in comics that propelled them into the arts. More often than not, you don’t chose art — art chooses you.
MC: Tell us about the financing of your film, if you would. What your needs are, and what you hope to gain through Kickstarter?
NK: Since the film rolled into production in 2010, I have been financing this indie documentary out of my own pocket. And I don’t have deep pockets, to say the least. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I have invested everything that I have into this project. I often worked multiple teaching jobs to keep going and there have been numerous lean times when I had to borrow funds from family and friends and, sometimes, I found myself in the position of starving a bit for my art.
The years of struggle make the triumph of being selected as one of the 10 innovative artists for the 2013-14 Creative Catalyst Fund/ Individual Artist’s Fellowship all the more sweet and wonderful, because of the amount of sacrifice that has transpired over the last three years. The much-needed funding from the CCF will enable me to upgrade my camera equipment, to travel to get additional interviews in other parts of the country, and to get the ball rolling on prepping the film with a possible editor for postproduction down the road.
The Kickstarter funds [the campaign seeks $15,000] will help facilitate that process because we are determined to do this documentary to the best of our abilities. I didn’t go into this with the intent of doing a shake-and-bake documentary filmed at one Comic-Con, then rushed into postproduction. I knew from the get-go that to have any perspective on the subject would call for a true commitment over an extended period of time. And investing the time means one must find the funds to keep filming.
MC: So what stage is your film at now, and what are your plans and hopes for it -- including distribution?
NK: This month marks the third year of filming for Comics Are Everywhere. But it is not uncommon for documentaries to take four-to-six years to complete. You have to be willing to invest years of your life into a subject. Since I plan to keep filming until the spring or summer 2014, I have a wish list of other master cartoonists whom I hope to convince for on-camera interviews to broaden the documentary’s constellation of luminaries willing to share their secrets of what it take to create from a personal perspective.
Once Comics Are Everywhere is completed, I plan to screen the film on the film-festival circuit. And since comics are hugely popular, I think we have a good chance at secure some form of distribution. If we don’t secure the usual routes of distribution, however, we will find a way to self-distribute the doc ourselves by any means necessary.
MC: As busy as you are, is there anyone or anything you especially want to catch at this year’s Con?
NK: I am always on the lookout for the unknown gem waiting to be discovered. I haven’t dealt with the epic crowds that fill Hall H in a few years, probably not since James Cameron debuted the first 3D footage for Avatar in 2008. I tend to spend most of my time wandering through Artist’s Alley and navigating through the labyrinth of Comic-Con’s Exhibit Hall. Over the years, my tastes have become more refined, so I don’t purchase as many titles as I used to. But when something truly catches my eye and I smile inside, that makes dealing with the convention’s tidal waves of people totally worth the effort.
MC: Is there anything I didn’t ask that ...you’d like to spotlight?
NK: Something that’s extremely important ... “Who are your collaborators?” After all, you can’t make a film alone, even though I
have done quite a bit of the filming alone. Fortunately, I have been blessed with some wonderful filmmaker friends as much-needed and appreciated collaborators. My producer Natalia Quintana — whom I met at SDSU’s film program — and I have been talking about the film for a while, and she finally made the leap of faith earlier this year and jumped into the fray with uncompromising energy, drive, intelligence and enthusiasm. She flew out from New York to San Diego last month with her own money to help me film the documentary’s Kickstarter video.
Likewise, cinematographer Nathan Gulick is a friend and collaborator from the very beginning, and at one point he flew to San Francisco — twice — to help me film interviews. These artists have become part of my extended family. Although Nathan hasn’t been able to be part of recent shoots due to his job, he is still helps spread the word. Cinematographer Denise Galvao is another friend and former classmate from film school, and she joined us this summer. During a recent shoot, she filmed with one camera while I operated another camera to get coverage on a two-camera shoot with JJ at Titmouse Animation, where he is working on his big break, the animated TV series “King Star King.” Other collaborators include my friend Kathryn Panian, who edited the first teaser trailer, but she left the film in 2011 due to job commitments.
“COMICS ARE EVERYWHERE”:
SCHEDULE: On Sunday, Kendricks is on the panel “Get Comics Anywhere.”