At the end of the 19th Century, a new art form rose to prominence within the pages of the American newspaper: the comic strip. Beginning with creations such as Rudolph Dirks’ “The Katzenjammer Kids” and Richard Outcault’s “The Yellow Kid,” newspaper comics quickly exploded in popularity, spawning long-running strips that dominated well into the 21st Century. Exploring the history, art and the future of those working in the comic strip industry comes “STRIPPED,” an interview-intensive new documentary by filmmakers Dave Kellett and Fred Schroeder.
A cartoonist in his own right, Kellett is the author of the Harvey Award-nominated book “How To Make Webcomics” and the webcomics “Sheldon” and “Drive.” Along with Schroeder, a cinematographer and independent filmmaker, the two interviewed over 70 working cartoonists working across both print and digital, taking their project to Kickstarter where they successfully made double their funding goal. Giving viewers a glimpse into the world of professional cartoonists, interviewees include everyone from webcomics creators such as Kate Beaton (“Hark, A Vagrant”), Ryan North (“Dinosaur Comics”), Jerry Holkins & Mike Krahulik (“Penny Arcade”) and Scot Kurtz (“PvP”), to more traditional newspaper creators like Mort Walker (“Beetle Bailey”), Greg Evans (“Luann”), Cathy Guisewite (“Cathy”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin And Hobbes”).
With the film available on iTunes now, Kellett and Schroeder spoke with CBR News about their documentary, interviewing the reclusive Bill Watterson and the future of the American comic strip.
CBR News: Dave, I know that you’re a cartoonist yourself, and Fred you’re a filmmaker, so before we talk about the documentary let’s start at the very beginning: how did you both meet? And how did you decide to collaborate on this documentary together?
Fred Schroeder: I went to college at LMU with Dave’s wife Gloria so we have known each other for quite a while now. I first approached Dave about being the subject of a documentary I wanted to make about different artists’ studio processes. I was planning on focusing on a painter, a sculptor and a cartoonist, and Dave was the one who suggested making an entire documentary focused on cartoonists.
Dave Kellett: That conversation was in late 2009, and the newspaper world was just falling apart: absolutely in freefall. It’s since stabilized a great deal, but back then it was really looking grim. And in our talks Fred and I were thinking we might really be at the end of an era, in terms of newspaper comics — and that this was the perfect time, perhaps the last time, to catch a lot of these pros in their element.
In recent years there’s been a lot of attention paid to mainstream superhero comics thanks to Marvel and DC’s movies, and a lot of critical attention paid to the indie graphic novel scene. Why did the two of you want to focus on the somewhat less well-known world of comic strips and their creators for your film?
Schroeder: Dave and I have a shared love of the medium of comics and specifically comic strips. Dave is a comic strip artist himself! We also felt that while the world of comic books has been explored previous, no one had really delved too deep into the world of comic strips and that was something we wanted to investigate further.
Kellett: Also, I think I’d disagree a tiny bit with your description of comic strips as “less well known.” It’s hard to argue that daily “Peanuts,” “Garfield,” or “Calvin And Hobbes” have been less impactful on our culture and reading habits than, say, X-Men’s weekly trades. While I can’t recall the “Peanuts” book numbers off-hand, there are over one hundred million “Garfield” books in print, and forty-two million “Calvin And Hobbes” books in print.
That’s a good point, and one that actually brings me to my next question. One of the things I think is really interesting is that, along with highlighting comic strips, you also incorporated a lot of incredibly popular online web cartoonists like Ryan North, Kate Beaton and Matt Inman. Yet when we in the comics’ community discuss cartoonists, we act as though there’s a really strong divide between newspaper comics and webcomics, even when they’re made by the same people or have similar formats. Why do you think that is? And do you see that perception changing?
Schroeder: I think the perception that web cartoonists and print cartoonists are different or separate from each other is really changing. Most if not all of the cartoonists on both sides had more in common with each other than differences. We found that most of the cartoonists we talked to had nothing but respect and admiration for each other. Big print cartoonists like Jim Davis and Bill Amend read a lot of online strips and talked to us about how they are always looking at what’s coming up. On the flip side of that, online guys like Scott Kurtz loved “Garfield” and “Peanuts” growing up so there is a lot of love I think on both sides!
Kellett: They’re all fighting the same pressures of creating on a daily basis, being true to their voice while feeding a public appetite — and all the while working in solitary, quiet conditions. So there’s actually a lot of similarities in terms of temperament and lifestyle.
You guys also talked to “legacy” comic strip cartoonists like Jeff Keane of “Family Circus,” where the strip is essentially kept in the family or passed down when the original creator leaves. Do you think that’s a model that will transition over to the web, or to your eyes is that an aspect unique to newspaper comic strips?
Schroeder: It’s hard to say what the future has in store for comics and whether something like “xkcd” or “Penny Arcade” will last through multiple generations the way “Blondie” or “Family Circus” has. My guess is that if someone creates an enduring enough character like Mickey Mouse, Tintin or Snoopy that could last for generations. I’m just not sure if we’ve seen a character like that online yet.
Kellett: That’s a really interesting question, because it speaks to how newspapers once controlled the availability and distribution of comics. Back in the day, you were absolutely going to continue a strip after the creator died — because it was immensely, immensely hard to establish, grow, and nurture a “hit.” So artists were hired, or sons and daughters were enlisted, because these titles offered too much wealth to walk away from. But with the Internet, there’s no limit to choice for a comics audience, and so people don’t just passively read the 30 comics chosen for them on the comics page, anymore. They seek out and find quality strips, and word gets around fast. So it’s quality — not established titles — that rise to the top, online. And if a son or daughter or hired hand is any less talented at a strip, it won’t succeed.
You guys interviewed tons of creators, but I think your most talked about interview is Bill Watterson. As someone who has spent most of the last two decades shunning the limelight, how did the two of you meet with Watterson and convince him to take part in the documentary?
Schroeder: When Dave and I first started making “STRIPPED,” Bill Watterson was at the top of our list of people we wanted to talk to. We never thought it would happen but every time we interviewed someone who knew him we dropped the hint that if there was any way they could let him know that we wanted to talk to him about comics we would really appreciate it. Fortunately I guess people enjoyed talking to us and passed the word along to Bill that, lo and behold, he said yes.
Kellett: I had also sent him a one-page letter telling him that Fred and I had no desire to ask him personal questions: In the broadest possible sense, we only wanted to talk about the art and craft of cartooning. And a week or two later, as we’re getting on a plane to Canada to interview Lynn Johnston (“For Better or For Worse”), we get a lovely e-mail from him. And we were over the moon. He was and continues to be so kind to the project: we can’t thank him enough.
So along those lines, was there any person that you were incredibly thrilled to speak to, or whose interview surprised you or changed the way you thought about their work?
Schroeder: We interviewed over 70 different cartoonists in the course of making “STRIPPED” and each one was really a treat for me, to be able to visit their studio space and see how these incredible creative people work. Cathy Guisewite (“Cathy”) was someone who really surprised me when we visited her studio. I had no idea how groundbreaking and influential her strip was at the time and when I went back to research her strip I was delighted to find how well written it was and full of really insightful commentary on what it meant to be a working woman in the ’70s and ’80s in particular.
Kellett: This will sound cheesy, but as a cartoonist this film has absolutely changed me. There’s not an interview in there that didn’t impact my thoughts on cartooning, or even the way in which I approach the daily craft of it. Making this film has genuinely changed my life, and all for the better.
My only hope is that some of that magic has rubbed off on the movie, and folks watching can experience a slice of the joy and love for the art that Fred and I found.
The documentary will be available on iTunes and you’re now premiered it in LA — at this point do you two have any plans for wider theatrical distribution?
Schroeder: “STRIPPED” will be available digitally and on DVD through strippedfilm.com where we are also making 15 uncut interviews available for people who want to dig deeper. In addition to that we’re planning a 10-15 city tour of the film that will incorporate live Q&A with local cartoonists along the way. Hopefully if everything goes well this will lead to more opportunities for this film, and further projects on comics.
Finally, as both fans and a part of the industry yourselves, what do you personally think is the future of the American comic strip?
Schroeder: I think the future of American comic strips definitely involves spaceships and time travel and maybe some Grant Morrison nanobot-type thingys that do pop magic. Also: cats.
Kellett: Fred’s tired. It’s been four years of production.
I think the future is unquestionably digital — but the surprising thing is that the format of comic strips will remain largely the same, mainly because it works so well. There are very few other formats that allow a single creator, working alone, to create satisfying stand-alone content day after day, and be so well-received by an audience. The comic strip does that superbly.
“STRIPPED” is now available for purchase on iTunes and strippedfilm.com.