Documentary "Stripped" shows the past and future of comic strips

Glenn Fleishman on a crowdfunded journey into the history of comics in America

Stripped is a new film about comic-strip history and cartoon artists, and about the scary and wonderful future we're living in, that's been four years in the making. It was funded in part by two Kickstarter campaigns and produced by two guys, long-time buddies, who had never made a full-length feature film. And it's wonderful from start to finish.

Stripped goes on sale today (April 1) at iTunes, and the filmmakers are hoping to make a splash and drive it up in the rankings to expose it to more people. On April 2, it will be released for the same price as well on Google Play and on VHX, a DRM-free distribution service, where you can stream on any compatible device as well as download the film for later playback. (Update: It's now on sale at VHX, where you can buy the basic film for $14.99, or with all sorts of extras and bonuses at higher prices.)

The film traces the history of comics in America, telling the story about the end of the age of engraving that spurred creation of cartoons as a genre; through the heyday, when cartoonists were among some of the best-known celebrities; across the decline in fortunes of newspapers; and into the present and future, including the folks behind PvP, Penny Arcade, Family Man, The Oatmeal, and more.

Don't worry: this isn't a movie that fetishizes the past or grumbles about the transition to digital and the Internet. One of the co-creators of the movie is one of the longest-working webcomics artists, Dave Kellett! (His collaborator is a veteran cinematographer, Fred Schroeder.)

The filmmakers interviewed over 80 people, and snippets from dozens of those interviews are in the movie. It's a work with scope, heart, and insight. It includes parts of an audio interview with Bill Watterson of Calvin & Hobbes, who also drew the film's poster — his first public cartooning work in 19 years!

You can listen to a recent interview I conducted for The New Disruptors with Bill and Dave.

I've read cartoon strips and panel-style comics since the moment I could make out words, and have spent a sizable amount of the intervening years in that activity. While I fell away from comic books for a good two decades, and only returned in the digital reader era, I never stopped picking up a newspaper every morning. When comics came to the Web, I added those to my rounds, too.

Stripped is both for old fans, like me, who remember when comics were reproduced in newspapers at a larger size than today, and made more of an impact on culture and politics; and new ones, who grew up alongside webcomics and may have never seen any traditional long-rectangle, square, or circle formats in print or even online.

The guys behind the film, Dave and Fred are two of the nicest people you might ever meet, and their sweetness shows through: this is a love letter to the field, and fills a gap in documentary history. Dave has two Master's degrees in cartooning, and they plan to make sure the raw footage is available to future researchers, too.

(Note that this film is quite specific to comic strips: recurring work with typically, but not exclusively, a repertoire of regular characters and sometimes ongoing storylines, published at frequent intervals, such as daily, in a periodical or online. This also includes work published a bit at a time and later collected into book form. Even with that focus, which excludes most editorial cartooning and comic books, the film still bursts with material.

As a kid in the 1970s, I recall seeing newspaper and magazine stories about cartoonists, and was a huge fan of Charles M. "Sparky" Schulz. But the movie makes clear how ridiculously famous some of them were across decades of their careers. People recognized them in the street, they were regular guests on talk shows and game shows, and could make the front pages like a movie star.

There was also more power to prod and provoke change in the past. Al Capp's L'il Abner caused fashion trends and political arguments, while Pogo was the Doonesbury of its day, even more so. And Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury, at its height in the 1970s and 1980s, unnerved presidents and politicians.

A trenchant analogy for the business of strips: a video-game boss fight

It's hard to imagine a comic strip having this sort of impact in 2014: newspapers have lost their power, readership of all media is splintered, and the strips that remain have little ability to shift opinion. Trudeau's idea of social justice these days is, rather than an ongoing parody of Kissinger teaching a university class, some of his protagonists listing off Starbucks' employment benefits.

The film traces the origins of comic strips back before my knowledge, despite having read a few academic books on the subject. Periodicals employed huge numbers of engravers as publications were able to produce issues more cheaply and faster with the combination of hot-lead typesetting and printing improvements.

But the moment offset photographic reproduction became possible, engravers who had honed their art were mostly out of work, and turned their hands to creating a new popular culture medium. (David Malki of Wondermark is a historian of this era, mining it for his strip, and explains it in fascinating detail.)

The movie also deals frankly with issues surrounding syndication, with cartoonists explaining how much money they gave up, but also the incredibly tedious and intensive sales work that syndicates did (and still do) to get strips picked up and to get them to continue to run.

One of the most short-sighted things newspapers ever did was shrink cartoons and trim their numbers: as a licensing expense, it was modest; newsprint costs drove more of it. People are loyal to local sports scores (including high-school teams), local news, the weather, and the comics. Newspapers forgot that.

Legendary cartoonist Griffy is among those interviewed for Stripped.

I grew up in a medium-sized town with a single newspaper, but many cities had two or more newspapers through the 1980s and even 1990s; a few still do. In those towns, part of the competition among newspapers was for specific popular strips, and some ran two to four pages of comics at somewhat larger sizes.

As the confluence of increased paper costs and Internet-fueled circulation declines led to cutting staff and pages, comics were seen as part of the ballast to be flung off to keep the high-flying margins aloft. (Newspapers commonly made 25 percent or higher profit margins because of a captive advertising market.)

Thus we visit the present and glimpse the future, through a clever video-game style walkthrough of how online comics have taken off. Dave and Fred know from Dave's firsthand experience, starting with an independent online-only comic in 1998, and talked to other pioneers, as well as folks who have made a partial transition from — or hybrid between — print and online, and newly minted popular cartoonists, like Kate Beaton of Hark! A Vagrant.

Though his story isn't told in the movie, Rich Stevens (Diesel Sweeties) is a perfect example. Cartooning was a side project for him, and he moved it to the fore. He was syndicated, but his quirky strip intended for digerati failed to find an audience, and he had to meet newspaper standards and reproduce it in black-and-white. He made terribly small amounts of money. The syndication world wasn't a fit, but he's developed a huge audience over years online that supports all the different work he creates.

Stripped is a rare film that gives you a fair, in-depth, emotional, and factual runthrough of an entire slice of (mostly American) artistic and creative history. The filmmakers plan to release more material over time; crowdfunding backers received access to extended and additional interviews, and more of that will come out over time.

The biggest mistake you could make (beyond not buying a copy) would be fast forwarding through the credits. At the end of the film, a music video with a neat combination of stop-motion, animation, and live action with Kate Micucci of Garfunkel and Oates, recaps the entire history of picture-based storytelling.

Published 4:23 am Tue, Apr 1, 2014

About the Author

Glenn Fleishman, @glennf, is the editor and publisher of The Magazine, a fortnightly electronic periodical for curious people with a technical bent. Glenn hosts The New Disruptors, a podcast about connecting creators and makers to their audiences, and writes as “G.F.” at the Economist's Babbage blog. He is a regular panel member on the geeky media podcast The Incomparable. In October 2012, Glenn won Jeopardy! twice.

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