Stripped tells the history of comic strips through creators and characters
Through conversations with friend and filmmaker Frederick Schroeder, comic artist and comic historian Dave Kellet realized that he needed to make a documentary on the life and art of the comic strip. Two successful Kickstarter campaigns later, Stripped was born. It's a deep and thoughtful look at the world of comic-strip art, as told by the creators of such iconic print strips as "Cathy," "Calvin and Hobbes," "Zippy the Pinhead" and "Beetle Bailey," as well as the new school of web comics like "Penny Arcade" and "Hark! A Vagrant."
Bill Watterson's "Calvin and Hobbes."
In advance of Stripped's one-night-only showing at the Sie FilmCenter on April 23, Kellet spoke with Westword about why he chose to make the documentary and how he secured interviews with more than seventy comic artists.
Westword: Why did you decide to make this documentary at this point in time?
Dave Kellet: The background of that is sort of two-fold: Fred Schroeder and I came at this as co-directors for very similar and very different reasons. I'm a cartoonist by trade and I make my living online with two strips, one called Sheldon and another one called Drive. I also have two masters degrees in the history of comics, so there is already a built in love for comics on my part. Fred, as a professional cinematographer, has done movies and TV commercials, been nominated at Sundance -- as friends, we just have this sort of shared loved of comics.
A while back, Fred and I started talking about how, around '98 or '99, it was a really interesting and dangerous time for newspapers and, therefore, for comics. There was a big slide for newspapers -- a lot of sell-offs and bankruptcies and cutting of page count and content, both syndicated and staff-produced. We started talking about how this would be a great point of time to talk about it, and talk to the seventy- and eighty-year-old cartoonists who remembered it in the super heyday, and then talk to twenty- and thirty-something cartoonists who are trying to make a living online. We knew there would be a difference of opinions and difference of careers.
We basically set out to make the documentary that we ourselves wanted to watch as lovers of comic strips: No one had ever really done an in-depth documentary on this art form that all of us grew up reading. It seemed to us to be really fertile ground for a documentary. We really wanted to show that the art form is still surviving and still thriving, but it's interesting how different it is being applied online versus in print.
Over the four years of making this film, we collected about 300 hours of interviews of over seventy cartoonists from the U.S. and Canada. So there's enough material for a weeklong PBS special on comics, if the world will ever smile on that idea. (Laughs.) But this also made it really hard to narrow it down to one movie; there was just so much great stuff that made it onto the cutting-room floor. Thankfully, what's left is, I think, a really tight and interesting and bouncy movie that has some heart about comics.
Bill Watterson (creator of Calvin and Hobbes) is a notoriously private person who doesn't do interviews. Though he doesn't appear on camera, you were able to get him to speak about his experience as a comic artist. How did you make that happen?
He's unique in American culture in that he has touched tens of millions of lives and has pretty consistently requested privacy. There are only a few people with similar paths -- J.D. Salinger did the same, and a few other novelists. But Watterson is sort of famously private, which is a hard thing to do -- to remain private in your life when you make such a public art. But for people who read "Calvin and Hobbes," I think they suspect such a kind heart and a wonderful man behind the work.
After we had done about twenty or thirty interviews, we reached out to him through known channels -- friends and friends of friends who knew him. I wrote him a one-page letter explaining that we had no desire to impose on his privacy or impose on him; we just wanted to talk about the art form of comics. I think that helped -- that, in addition to the fact that a cartoonist was making the documentary -- and encouraged him wanting to talk about the art form. It was lovely -- he said some wonderful and surprising things about the art form. We were really lucky and grateful to him for wanting to participate.
Keep reading for more on Stripped.