Okay, okay, I’d meant to get this post up yesterday, but as much of the day was taken up with Airport Fun Times, and I am also on vacation this week (my hotel in Portland is conveniently close to something called Voodoo Donuts, which seems to always have a line outside), you’ll get what you get and you’ll like it.
Fortunately, I think that you’ll like this one a good deal.
The STRIPPED (check out the snazzy new website!) panel went up in an inconvenient location (the literally far corner of the San Diego Convention Center) at an inconvenient time (7:00pm, against the Masquerade, big media parties, and need for food after the major day on the show floor), and still managed to — as they say in Hollywood — kill¹.
Sitting at the front table were co-directors and hivemind Freddave Kellett-Schroeder, editor Ben Waters, and associate producer Jen Troy². Messers Kellet-Schroeder did most of the talking and retain their uncanny ability to both finish each others sentences and interrupt each other for maximum comedic effect; those kids need to take their schtick on the road. In response to an enquiry from the Kellett half of the directorial team, a show of hands indicated that the majority of the audience had been backers of the film’s two Kickstarter campaigns, so they’ve been following along through the four year process of making the movieMore precisely, the interview process started four years ago, Waters and Troy began their work two years ago, and but for a few remaining clearances, the movie’s essentially done.
Without further delay, the first clip was shown. In essence, it’s the first six or seven minutes of the film, about 80% of which had previously been released to Kickstarter backers as a sneak peek. Various unattributed creator voices³ talk about what comic strips mean to them over a scene of a father and daughter reading the Sunday comics together at breakfast4. The titles are interspersed with a scene of a comic being drawn (fans will recognize Kellett’s art style), with more clips of creators (with names this time) talking about what comics mean to them, their favorite strips (Peanuts, Garfield, Calvin and Hobbes, Bloom County, Foxtrot, Nancy, and Pogo got called out), along with reminiscences of reading the comics page on the floor as an earliest memory of childhood. It sets the stage for a movie that’s a love letter to comics beautifully.
However, that wasn’t always the tone of the movie. In a process that could conceivably stretch to a half-decade, a movie’s narrative has the potential to change; in their first assemblage of footage, Schroeder-Kellett were convinced that what they had in their hands was a disaster movie: comics were endangered, they had to get the interviews done and the movie released quickly before they went away. The second clip they showed had been the original opening to the movie which focused on the theme of comics and newspapers failing6. It was a doom-filled two or three minutes that closed on a Bill Watterson quote7 about daily comics disappearing.
Following test screenings with filmmakers that they trusted, Kellett-Schroeder came to the conclusion that the opening was radically out of step with what the rest of the movie was about; in the years since they’d started gathering interviews, they’d found hope and certainty that although comic strips are changing, they are also broadening and diversifying and thriving in ways that weren’t obvious at the start of the process. Although it was time-consuming and expensive, that mean the film had to change and it certainly seems better for that correction. As Kellett put it, With a documentary, you’re writing a story with other peoples’ words, and that means making mistakes and learning as you work.
The third clip was the proverbial money shot; in the year since the first clips of STRIPPED were shown at SDCC 2012, Watterson’s involvement grew from answering questions via email to answering questions in an audio interview8, which are spread throughout the film as relevant underscores to points being made. In the section titled The Golden Age of Comics, we get to see what the lifestyle of the rich and famous cartoonist of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s was like: newsreel interview clips, sitting on the couch next to Johnny Carson, popular movies built jet-set rich cartoonists, Jim Davis doing a commercial for American Express, Mel Lazarus guest-starring as himself on Murder She Wrote9 — there were decades where those making newspaper comic strips (especially serial adventure strips) were millionaires and billionaires. The first Watterson audio clip — the first time he’s allowed himself to be recorded! — closes out the section. There was a hush in the room that lasted two beats past the fade-out, then the applause erupted.
Bill 10has been very nice, Kellett said, very generous, and that theme recurred; each of the interviewed creators came in for effusive thanks and praise. More than once, Kellett said, somebody they were talking to extended the scheduled interview by an hour or more because they were so invested in the discussion. Kellett pointed out that not only did this add to the amount of transcribing Troy had to do, she also has had to obtain clearance on 627 different comic strips that are visually identifiable in the film. She seemed okay with that.
- The Q&A section opened on the obvious question: How did you get Bill Watterson? His name was at the top of the wish list of must-have interviews (because who hasn’t been moved by Calvin and Hobbes?), but it was accepted that there was no way they’d get him. But in talking to so many other cartoonists, people that Watterson is in contact with and respects, word filtered back to him that these two guys are legit and worth talking to, and if you aren’t a part of this, it’ll be a little lacking. Because of that, Watterson reached out (!) and said he wanted to be a part of it. He spoke over the phone for 40 – 45 minutes in total, and later a recorder was sent to him to ensure the highest possible audio quality for his answers.
- The one clunker of a question came next. A gentleman stood up and asked Can I play devil’s advocate and
(Kellett: No. Next question.)
ask, haven’t comic strips gone the way of jazz? Nobody makes movies from comic strips anymore, adventure strips are dead, compared to graphic novels, do they matter? Do people still care?
Kellett again: Thank you for that, I’m going to go kill myself now. But then he pointed out that comic strips are nowhere near the point of, say, opera, which only survives because of state sponsorship and whose heydey as a popular art is centuries past. There’s an amazing renaissance flourishing, but it’s not concentrated. We will never again see the billionaire cartoonist, but there is so much more good work.
Schroeder: Art Speigelman said No popular art ever dies, it either becomes “Art” like jazz, or it finds another way. There’s just so much more out there vying for your attention, but you won’t see the huge popularity like in the ’40s when daily entertainment consisted of just comics and radio.
Kellett: And there are more comics creators making a living than 30 years ago, and comics speak to more people than they used to. If you were a black woman or gay boy in the ’40s, what comics spoke to you?
- Briefer questions: Asked if there were transcripts of the interviews (Troy nodded furiously), it was said that the dream outcome would be a coffee table book that we would not have to publish. Asked when the movie can be seen and how, the process of determining distribution and timing is in active exploration now. Asked if Garry Trudeau was in the movie, it turned out that there were three or four people they really wanted but who didn’t want to participate: Trudeau hates to do interviews, Berke Breathed very kindly declined, Scott Adams deferred on account of his vocal dystonia, Gary Larson and Art Spiegelman also opted not to participate. But as filmmakers, they are thrilled by the 70, 80, 90 interviews that they did get.
- Second best laugh of the night: If future is on the internet, did you interview any webcomics guys?
Kellett: We did not. I’m not very familiar with that world. (In actuality, webcomics become increasingly prominent in the second half of the film, and dominate the last third.)
- Noting that Kellett and Schroeder are interested in releasing the full videos (possibly as a series of DVD extras, or 99 cents per on iTunes, or whatever), one questioner wanted to know if they would release the full Watterson audio interview. The consensus was that they would have to ask if he was comfortable with that, and it would probably depend on how he felt about the final film. They speculated that he would be amenable to his interview appearing in print, at least.nable to appearing in a book, at least.
- Asked what interview most shocking, Kellett told the story of meeting Jim Davis at PAWS headquarters, the three-building complex rising out of a cornfield in Indiana after following a dirt road, with sunbeams perfectly illuminating the scene and imagined heavenly choir going aahhh-AAAHHH! and realizing That’s where Garfield lives! I’m sorry, what was the question? Clarifying that the question was about shocking opinions, they decided on Stephan Pastis, noting that in the film he and Kellett argue and it got heated. I think it made the documentary better, we wanted the film not to be about our viewpoint, we wanted him in there. He was great.
Schroder: At first we thought web/print would be hardcore in their community, but they’re all cartoonists.
Troy: Every interview was amazing, everybody has their own take on creativity, but Patrick McDonnell was my favorite. I was transcribing and he talked about how creating the strip he’ll go into a Zen state and I realized I wasn’t typing any more.
Waters: A lot of people were watching their language a little bit, but the Penny Arcade guys not so much. They’re very frank, maybe brash, nobody else really talks like that in the movie. Everybody is very nice.
Kellett: We all fell in love with Cathy Guisewite. Younger unmarried me wants to date younger unmarried Cathy Guisewite. Please nobody send this to my wife.
With time closing in, they showed the clip from last year focusing on how webcomics make their money (it’s done as an 8-bit videogame starting with CARTOONIST NEEDS FOOD BADLY and ending with a boss fight for audience) and took two last questions.
- The first resulted in the biggest laugh of the night when asked how they handled their inner fanboy while interviewing heroes. Kellett responded, Sometimes we didn’t. Fred and I were flying to Canada to interview Lynn Johnston, it’s like four connections and on the first leg of our flight we got the email from Watterson. Literally the whole flight we were GIVE ME THE IPHONE AGAIN, LOOK WHAT HE SAID HERE FRED, HE MADE A STAR WARS JOKE!!11 Schroeder: Dave did that.
- Given the instruction to make the last question a good one, a young man stood and said he didn’t have a question, he wanted to thank the panel on behalf of every eight year old kid that’s ever loved comics, thanks for grabbing that passion, and being able to share that with everybody; his voice was cracking and it was pretty obvious what the comics have meant to him. Kellett was visibly affected by the honest emotion, and reiterated that the film couldn’t have been possible without the help of everybody they spoke to, but also the people that have been supporting the idea of STRIPPED from Day One. The ovation was enthusiastically and genuine, and if it had appeared in a movie you might have felt it too contrived to be real. Fade to black.
¹ To paraphrase noted filmmaker Mr The Frog, It’s gonna be boffo, Lenny! Totally socko!
² Big ups to Troy, who had the good grace to speak slowly and use ordinary words, a boon for those of us (me) transcribing in the audience; I attribute this to the fact that it was her job to log the film — that is, sit through all 300+ hours of interviews and transcribe the entire damn thing. Respect.
³ I believe that I recognized Lynn Johnston, Greg Evans, Jim Davis, Cathy Guisewite, and Jerry Holkins in that vocal montage but again — no names shown. Yes, I am a tremendous nerd.
4 The breakfast scene was beautifully art-directed, and I say that without a trace of irony or sarcasm. First time I saw the five second pan across the table, past the coffee and juice and toasted bagel smeared with fresh creamery butter, I got hungry. Well done, Mr Schroeder.
5 And, in the case of documentaries, I’d argue has an obligation to do so in a lot of cases; if you come into a documentary with the conclusions predetermined, you aren’t showing how things are.
6 Literally, it started on a cold open on Gregg Evans being asked about the state of newspaper comics, getting a pained expression on his face, and letting out a ragged sigh.
7 Which I believe was from his famed speech at Ohio State’s Festival of Cartoon Art in 1989. Watterson has always been not just a genius-level maker of comics, but a scholar and observer who has few equals, and foresight about where they’re going that’s nearly unparalleled. We’ll be hearing more from him in this piece.
8 I confirmed with Schroeder later that the audio portions were not in person, so it’s no use trying to kidnap one of them to divulge where Watterson lives.
9 What is this theme with cartoonists and murder?
10 Not Mr Watterson, I note. Of all the people in the world to be on a first-name basis with!
11 For full effect, you have to imagine Kellett’s voice Dopplering up in the all-caps part.