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Comic-Con 2014: "Stripped: The Comics Documentary"


The San Diego Comic-Con Film Festival winner for Best Documentary is a film that harks back to the original purpose of SDCC—a love for cartoonists and comics. "Stripped: The Comics Documentary" is about this history of cartoonists and their comic strips, and how they face an uncertain future. Not to be confused with the R-rated 2013 horror flick "Stripped," this documentary comes in several versions, including a clean all-ages version, and is available on DVD and VOD on several different platforms.

Other versions available include the "Stripped" Super Awesome Deluxe Edition which comes with 26 hours of additional content—mostly full interviews with the participating cartoonists—and can be ordered on the official website.

Directed and written by Dave Kellett and Frederick Schroeder (director for "Static" and cinematographer for the TV series "Prom Queen" and "Heroes: Nowhere Man" and "Chow Ciao! With Fabio Viviani"), "Stripped"  features the first ever authorized recording of Bill Watterson's voice (you won't see his face though) and brings sharply into focus the problems facing comic artists today.

The documentary begins with a nostalgic, loving look at the Sunday papers. Remember when Sunday was all about the funny papers? The funnies were something you could appreciate before you could even read, and, for some, appreciating the comic strips meant quality time with your father or mother during a relaxed Sunday brunch.

The voices of several comic strip artists create a mural of memories as they call out their funny paper favorites. So many of the cartoonists interviewed recall their fondness of "Peanuts" and others mention "Garfield." Younger comic artists recall  Watterson's "Calvin & Hobbes."

Yet none of those three strips were from the Golden Age of Comics. Kellett and Schroeder take us back, using black and white archival film footage as well as commentary by R.C. Harvey, a comics historian. There was a time when the writer of "Steve Canyon" (1947-1988), Milton Caniff, was famous. People knew Rube Goldberg, who drew several cartoon series in syndication from 1922 to 1934.

We see grainy black and white footage of Chester Gould, the creator of "Dick Tracy" on the American game show "What's My Line?" More recently, Mell Lazarus ("Miss Peach" and "Momma") appeared as himself on Angela Lansbury's "Murder, She Wrote" which ran from 1984-1996.

These artists and others like Al Capp ("Li'l Abner," 1934-1977) were celebrities. It didn't seem so far fetched for the 1965 Jack Lemmon comedy "How to Murder Your Wife" to have a successful and rich playboy cartoonist as the central character.

Charles "Sparky" Schulz, the creator of "Peanuts" (1950-2000), is seen in archival footage and his widow, Jean Schulz, and Jessica Ruskin of the Santa Rosa, CA-based Schulz Museum. Board member Patrick McDonnell ("Mutts") is also one of the prominent voices of this documentary, particularly in respect to syndicates.

Coming from different social backgrounds, the cartoonists often were driven to draw by a variety of reasons. Jim Davis ("Garfield) was often confined because of childhood asthma. Stephan Patis ("Pearls Before Swine") had bronchitis as a young boy. They drew to ease the boredom and loneliness of their days in confinement. Others just had the compulsion to draw, using whatever they could—even old Christmas cards when resources were scarce.

Cartoonists were still doing well in the 1970s to the 1990s but cartoon strips were also changing. Cathy Guisewite began drawing "Cathy" (1976-2010), bringing to light a new concerns—the everyday life and angst of the single career woman. Her contract went out to her the same day her submission came in. Guisewite recalls how embarrassing it was to show her vulnerable side. Her alter ego wasn't glamorous and didn't have exotic adventures like "Brenda Starr" (1940-2011).

Darrin Bell ("Candorville"), who is black and Jewish, had a less positive experience, recalling that he was often turned down and advised he'd do better if his characters were white, animals or children. Bell is among the new multicultural face of comic strips, and the documentary includes interviews with Lalo Alcaraz ("La Cucaracha") and Kazu Kibuishi ("Amulet" and "Flight").

Bill Watterson's "Calvin & Hobbes"(1985-1995) used both children and an imaginary animal. Watterson broke the more standardized pattern of regular modular blocks, drawing in a manner more like graphic novels, but that style has a lot in common with the illustrations for cartoon strips from the Golden Age.

Once your comic strip was accepted at a newspaper, you wanted to get syndicated. With a daily strip, particularly one that is syndicated, you need to produce material every day, reliably. Watterson recalls that he had "virtually no life beyond the drawing board." Other cartoonists talk about how they get inspired to deal with the dreaded white piece of paper.

Syndication is explained in a 1950s hokey educational segment and we also hear from the syndicates themselves such as John Glynn and Lee Salem (both of Universal Press Syndicate) and Brendan Burford (King Features Syndicate), yet we're no longer in the heyday of newspapers. Even then, syndication had its problems too—there seemed to be no room for new talent. In today's Internet-using world, there are other problems. Syndication depends upon selling your strip to many newspapers; what happens when newspapers begin to fail and fold? About 166 newspapers have closed since 2008. Major U.S. cities used to support more than one major English-language broadsheet and often a morning and an evening broadsheet.

If the syndication model is the jewel, then the web publication of cartoon strips requires either a money manager (e.g. "Penny Arcade") or massive efforts in merchandising. One web cartoonist comments that 80 percent of the income was generated through merchandising. The Internet allows anyone to be an artist and to be involved with one's audience and use as much space as one wishes. Yet then we have to strike a contrast between someone like Charles Schulz or Cathy Guisewite and their merchandising against hold-out Bill Watterson.

More subtly, the documentary also shows different working styles, the different media and tools used, including software which is sometimes combined with actual drawing with pen or pencil to paper.

There is, at this point in time, no way of knowing what the future holds for newspapers, books or comic strips. Yet the documentary ends on a positive note, allowing the last panel of Watterson's "Calvin & Hobbes" to end the documentary: "It's a magical world. Let's go exploring."

Jana Monji

Jana Monji, made in San Diego, California, lost in Japan several times, has written about theater and movies for the LA Weekly, LA Times, and currently, and the Pasadena Weekly. Her short fiction has been published in the Asian American Literary Review.

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