The webcomics documentary that's actually about the funny pages

The mission statement for Stripped!, a documentary by Dave Kellett (Sheldon) and Frederick Schroeder, is about forging a common history between webcomics and newspaper funnies. Not comic books, interestingly. I suppose that makes sense, as the most popular webcomics (xkcd, The Oatmeal and Penny Arcade) most closely resemble the four-panel forebears. It’s starting to become standard practice, by the way, to refer these sort of webcomics as “gag-a-day” or “short-form.”

Still, it’s a delight to explore this oft-neglected corner in the world of sequential art. The days of the celebrity cartoonists like Milton Caniff and Al Capp are long past, as depicted in archival footage where they were treated as major celebrities on early TV shows. However, the list of interviewees for Stripped! are still recognizable industry titans: Lynn Johnston. Jeff Smith. Greg Evans. Jim Davis. Mort Walker. Cathy Guisewite, who hilariously has the letters “AACK” hanging in her home. And one name that brings the directors to the point of fanboy glee, Bill Watterson … the first time he’s allowed his voice to be recorded. (Charles Schulz may no longer be with us, but his influential presence looms over the entire documentary.) It’s wonderful seeing the faces of the creators behind so many iconic characters. They gather here to reminisce, sharing crude doodles drawn as a child, their cherished influences, and the highs and lows of working under the syndicate system.

What all cartoonists share is their infectious joy over the creative process. There’s a sequence midway through the documentary, scored to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, where various artists -- young and old, webcomic creators and syndicate cartoonists -- draw on computers, tablets, markers, pens, brushes and inks. The tools and the styles may be different, but the passion is the same: create a world that you made from scratch and that you can call your own. Sure, Dan Piraro may recall the pressures over trying to come up with a different joke a day … but did he ever have to try to squeeze humor out of the Meech Lake Accord like Kate Beaton did?

Eventually, playtime’s over. Stripped! gets to the brass tacks of its central thesis: The newspaper industry is dying, eliminating the well-trod medium for comic strips. It’s a sentiment that’s acknowledged by the veterans, who are knowledgeable of the causes but are at a loss for solutions. Here’s where the major philosophical divide comes in. Several veterans express skepticism about webcomics, defending syndicates and the proven revenue system. To my surprise, even relative newcomers like Stephan Pastis don’t think newspapers will ever really die. (“I don’t think we’re looking at a future without print just like I don’t think we’re looking at a future without books,” says Bill Griffith.)

The webcomic defenders argue from the standpoint of progress: David Malki brings out old illustrated books and points out how engravers were eclipsed by photographers. To adapt, these craftsmen moved on to developing something photographers couldn’t do better: cartooning. They argue that cartoonists need to adapt, which means forging into bold new directions. It might mean using “the infinite canvas"; it might mean having to sacrifice some of your privacy to forge a closer interaction with fans. (By the way, there’s almost a sinister undercurrent about fans being able to know what you look like simply by using Google Image Search.) There are benefits, too. Mike Krahulik brings up a good point that, before, comics had to cater to everyone -- the elderly and the young alike. Webcomics are suited for a world where fans of one thing are not necessarily going to be fans of another thing … and yet both can be financially sustainable.

Overall, Stripped! turned out to be a pleasant surprise. When I donated to the project on Kickstarter, I’d expected a documentary that was mostly going to be about webcomics. (And yeah, it was cool seeing my name in the credits … as “El Santo.”) It turns out that newspaper cartoonists were given a much larger spotlight ... to the documentary’s benefit. Stripped! served as a fantastic reminder to the viewers as to why comics still matter, no matter what the format.

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