Last summer, Comic Riffs wrote an open letter on behalf of comics. The ostensible recipient was Ken Burns; the hoped-for addressee was any gifted and impassioned and clear-eyed filmmaker who could deftly document the rich history — and current seismic shifts — in cartooning.
“If not Burns, however,” the letter said, “another gifted filmmaker could step forward to make the defining film on the American cartoon.”
I received a thoughtful reply from one Emmy-winning documentarian. (I also fielded an e-mail to tell me that Mr. Burns read and appreciated the letter — and that his current filmmaking schedule was booked many years out.)
Perhaps now, however, comics — ready for their close-up — have cast two fitting filmmakers.
Webcomic creator Dave Kellett (“Sheldon,” “Drive”) and a Sundance-veteran cinematographer Frederick Schroeder (“Four Sheets to the Wind”) tell Comic Riffs that their cinematic passion project — titled “Stripped” — could soon become a reality.
As print comics weather a decline and digital comics increase, “no two cartoonists are navigating the same career path, these days, and there’s something fascinating about listening to cartoonists [talk] about what paths they think offer the best hope, going forward,” Kellett tells Comic Riffs. ”And thankfully, there is a lot of hope for the comic strip itself, even if there isn’t a lot of hope for this or that medium.”
This is, most certainly, a seismic time for comics.
Personally, for the record, I have watched this unfold for two decades from the various perches of being a syndicated comic-strip creator (and among the first wave of cartoonists online); of being a newspaper feature-section editor combing through new comics and talking with syndicate sales reps; of being a comics journalist documenting the decimation of some of those syndicates and the evisceration of some of those comics sections. And now — at this very time — the industry’s tectonic plates feel as loose and perilous and potentially thrilling as ever.
What I’m saying is: Kellett and Schroeder have come along just in time.
The “Stripped” filmmakers say they have interviewed more than 60 of the nation’s top cartoonists — from the veteran artists behind “Garfield” and “Family Circus” to creators of such new strips as “Cul de Sac,” to webcomic creators behind work like “Hark! A Vagrant.”
This, they say, is their “love-letter to the art form.”
Their aim, now, is to raise enough money for all post-production expenses. To that end, Kellett and Schroeder have launched a Kickstarter project for “Stripped,” with the goal to raise $58,000 by Sept. 22. (You can check out their details here.)
“In talking with so many fans and creators about the movie, it became clear that we weren’t the only people dying to see a doc about this subject,” Schroeder tells Comic Riffs, “and this demand really made us sit up and say: ‘Wow, we have to make this really great for everybody.’
“I think that is what is really motivating us to ask for Kickstarter funds — we want to make the movie better.”
Kellett comes at the film steeped in cartooning and the rise of webcomics; Schroeder has spent a decade in filmmaking, working on projects that have been honored at Sundance and the Spirit Awards.
“This particular project,” the Eisner-nominated Kellett tells Comic Riffs, “was just the perfect Venn Diagram of all our passions coming together: Film, comics, how artists do what they do ... and how technology is changing all of that.”
“It grew out of discussions about what both of us do as artists working in two different mediums and a real need to explore that,” Schroeder tells ’Riffs. “It was the two of us asking each other questions like: ‘How do you do that?’ or ‘How are you dealing with this?’ that led us to asking the same questions to as many other artists as possible.
“Out of those conversations, we found a common crisis that we felt needed to be addressed.”
Kellett says the film’s costs have reached about $30,000 — “travel and hard drives have probably been our biggest expenses to date.” He notes that they have “Hollywood editors and AfterEffects animators lined up to work on it,” and that “Stefan Lessard of the Dave Matthews Band will be writing an entirely original score for the film.”
The filmmakers say comics creators have mostly embraced being interviewed for “Stripped.”
“The reaction among cartoonists has been almost universally positive,” Kellett says. “So kind, so generous with their time and recollections.”
Comics and cartooning are such impossibly broad terms, of course, spanning everything from the superhero comic book to the newspaper political cartoon. Kellett says the film will focus on delivery-format changes, as well as the business of comic strips.
“The theme of the film, in its broadest scope, is how artists — all artists — are dealing with this shift from uni-directional mass media to distributed micro media,” he says. “And specifically, we’re taking as our focus the amazing art form of comic strips, and the cartoonists who create them. How these artists fell in love with the art form, how and why they do what they do, and where they see the art form going in this time of incredible change.”
Schroeder puts the cartoonist’s plight in a larger context.
“What happens to an art and an artist when the medium they work in dies or dramatically changes? Comics, like many other mass mediums — from film to music — is going through an important evolutionary shift with the digital age, not just in how it is transmitted but in how it is made,” he says. “Comics are ... an art form in danger of dying on its feet the way vaudeville did. ...
“Dave and I felt it was important to capture this moment in time by talking to as many people on the front lines of this struggle as possible.”
Working with creative support but a relative shoestring budget, the “Stripped” partners say they approach the Los Angeles-based documentary with not only passion, but a measured precision.
“We have a three-pronged strategy, actually. From webcomics, we’ve seen the power of direct sales to consumers, sans middlemen, so we’ll be doing that with DVDs,” Kellett says. “But we’re also planning to bring it into the festival and distribution circuit, and to pitch it to cable outlets or PBS as well. Then, two or three years down the line, license it to Netflix or the like for instant streaming.
“But that’s a business answer,” he continues. “The real answer is, we made this film because it fascinates us, it’s a story we want to explore, and it’s a film we would want to watch. It’s a film we’d want to make even if we lost big ol’ chunks of money on it: This is our love-letter to cartooning.”
Kickstarter has proved to be a financial boon to such recent comic projects as Womanthology. The “Stripped” documentarians underscore that Kickstarter funds could raise the quality of their project — but that the film will be a reality regardless of the fiscal outcome.
“There’s no way Fred and I aren’t going to finish this film,” Kellett says. “Hell or high water, we’ll finish this film.”