There two brief items up here before we get to the major point of discussion today: STRIPPED.
- Via R Stevens at The Nib, itself at Medium: pixel Neil deGrasse Tyson. You know who else R Stevens has pixelized? Me. Is this proof that Dr Tyson and I are destined to be best friends? Probably.
- For your consideration, Tom Siddell has added his previously print-only Annie in the Forest Part 2¹ to his website, free for you to read. Once again, Siddell’s done us a service, making an item freely available that could otherwise be making him money. Read it, enjoy it, drop a few bob via his donation link, or possibly by buying something from him next month at the MoCCA Fest in three weeks.
I watched STRIPPED over the weekend; anybody that caught my twitterfeed between Friday night and Saturday morning saw what I thought of it — it was masterful. But what I’ve been thinking about since was the choice of interview subjects that filmmakers Fred Schroeder and Dave Kellett chose to return to time and again. These folks were the centerpieces of the story of comics.
- There was less of Bill Watterson’s (rightly) lauded contribution than I might have suspected, and the film was not the less for it; in a handful of voiced cutaways, he made incisive points, but he wasn’t used in the film merely for the sake of Being Bill Watterson. I never thought I’d say this, but I admire the restraint that must have been required to not include every syllable of Watterson’s voice that found its way to tape.
- Darrin Bell is not a household name; Candorville and Rudy Park are both pretty damn good strips, but you likely wouldn’t place him or his work without prompting because we’re past the era of superstar comics-page creators. He’s disarmingly young, frighteningly smart, and wonderfully sincere in his many interview snippets. There have to have been many, many creators that spoke about their journey of becoming a creator, but there was a spark to Bell’s interview segments that made him a natural. I can’t wait to see the entirety of his interview.
- Greg Evans is a man I met, briefly, at the NCS Ruebens Weekend; he very kindly took the time to make me feel welcome in a place where I felt out of place. His strip isn’t for me, and I found myself surprised and a little thrilled at how much he was in the film. He almost perfectly straddles the line of long-term creator recognizing the changes in the industry², looking at them realistically, and really wondering how he can ride that wave rather than rail against it. He might have been the decades-long syndicated creator that jumped feetfirst into indy creator endeavours if Bill Amend hadn’t beat him to it.
- Patrick McDonnell is unapologetically Old School³. His tools are old school, the art style is old school — midway between Segar and Herriman, with a verbal sensibility perched directly between Schulz and Kelly — and his air of not concerning himself with the challenges facing the syndication model is older than old school. Syndicated cartoonists didn’t worry about their business model ceasing to exist in the ’40s and ’50s and ’60s; it simply was and would continue to be. Around McDonnell, you get the impression — at least for him — that reality has not changed and will not. His approach to cartooning and the business of cartooning is as Zen as the spare, airy, light-filled studio where he was interviewed.
- Jim Davis, who came up through the cartooning trenches as an assistant before catching lightning in a bottle with Garfield, is far more philosophical about cartooning than one would think he would need to be. He famously created Garfield with a businessman’s eye — there were lots of dogs on the comics page but not many cats, and he saw a market niche4 — and has overseen a juggernaut of success based on the broadest possible appeal.
He is, as a result, richer than God — maybe richer than any cartoonist has ever been, barring only Sparky himself — and is reported to be sitting on a buffer longer than a year. He has a small corporation’s worth of people working with and for him to get All Things Garf delivered to the world on a daily basis. He needn’t involve himself in any aspects of Garfield at this point, he could walk away and live in luxury for the rest of his days.
But he does. He does because (and this is from the Kickstarter backers-only full interview with Davis; the rest of you, I hope you get to see it) he thinks that one day, he could write the strip that makes the whole world laugh. Because that possibility matters more than every TV series, movie, and tchotchke put together.
- Mort Walker has been in cartooning for more than six decades. He oversees strips that have been on the page long enough that your parents (or grandparents) read them. He could be everything that’s wrong with comics but it’s clear that he stays in the game not out of stubbornness or to show Those Darn Kids how it’s done, but because he remembers reading Moon Mullins on Sunday mornings with his father, back in the 1920s. He’s see the rise and maybe-fall of comics first hand and never lost his full investment in the medium.
- Stephan Pastis is perhaps the one voice not completely in harmony with the others; he’s perhaps the most recent syndicated cartoonist to find widespread success (or at least, as widespread as it’s possible for any strip launched in the last 20 years to have achieved), and for all the success he’s had with Pearls Before Swine, there’s an edge in his interviews.
In his segments, he seems like he’s pushing back against the changes in the model, like he wants to actively drag the entire industry back four or five decades. In his most telling exchange, his frustration becomes overt — and completely understandable — when he notes the odds of ever making it as a syndicated cartoonist, and then doing so just as the business implodes. I made it to the NBA, and the stadium is collapsing. His energy would make him a stellar independent creator/owner in the webcomics mode, if only he hadn’t spent so much time in the past openly contemptuous of it.
His counterpoint, however, is absolutely crucial to the film, if only because he’s willing to express the frustrations that probably everybody in syndicated cartooning (or maybe those not named Davis or McDonnell) must be feeling. Pastis is not the enemy of progress, but he’s no friend of the particular path it’s taking.
STRIPPED is sprawling, comprehensive, hilarious, heartfelt, honest, and wonderful. It went by in an eyeblink, with no wasted moments or times that don’t serve the narrative. It’s as good a history of comics — where they came from, where they are, where they’re going — as ever there has been, and it’s only the merest fraction6 of the material that was collected during production. It feels like the work of a lifetime, and I mean it as the highest compliment that it’s astonishing to think that it only took four years to produce.
If you haven’t seen it yet, there’s probably somebody in your circle of friends that has, given that you’re on this page to begin with. Ask around; I think you’re going to find that everybody’s that seen the movie is of one mind. Something uniquely American that’s touched three or four generations is changing, but will never go away; you should know its history, and barring a time machine that lets you experience the last century of comics first-hand, STRIPPED is the best way to do so.
¹ More specifically, only available at the 2013 Thought Bubble Festival, now obtainable through the internet boutiquery services of TopatoCo.
² For example, Evans has produced Luann digitally for more than a decade.
³ Disclaimer: he’s also approximately a neighbor; we very occasionally run into each other on the street or in a restaurant and do that 20 second Hey! How are you? thing. It happened at the Reuben Weekend, which caused us both a moment of cognitive dissonance, as we were 3500km away from our usual random meeting stomping grounds. Finally, we chose the vet that took care of our greyhound for most of her life (and our new greyhound, who just had his first visit) based on his recommendation.
4 Which, if you think about it, is a very webcomics thing to do — find a niche that isn’t served and become their favorite. Only Davis did it in nineteen-freaking-seventy-eight, before a lot of webcomickers were born. Hell, if you go to his website, he’s got the entire 35+ year archive freely available — you can’t get more webcomics than that.
5 The full interview with McCloud — a couple of hours worth! — was released to KS backers last year. I really hope you get to see it someday because dang is that guy smart.
6 At just about ninety minutes, carved out of more than 300 hours of interviews, it would be possible to produce another 199 movies of equivalent length from material already on hand. Although I’m pretty sure that the 10 or 15 minutes that they spent talking to me needn’t be seen by anybody.