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Stripped tells the history of comic strips through creators and characters

Bill Watterson's "Calvin and Hobbes."
Bill Watterson's "Calvin and Hobbes."

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."

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.

See also: Denver Drink & Draw meets Kickstarter goal to fund Comix Brew, a free comics newspaper

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.

 

Mort Walker, creator of "Beetle Bailey."
Mort Walker, creator of "Beetle Bailey."

It had been a while since I had looked at a "Calvin and Hobbes" strip, and seeing the ones highlighted in the film, I got a little teary-eyed. The friendship between the two friends is palpable.

Oh, yeah, it is an immensely moving and sweet strip that will probably be read a hundred years from now. There are only a few that you can say that for -- "Peanuts" will be read, definitely, but "Calvin and Hobbes" will also be one of those. He's produced something wonderful in that strip.

We were lucky enough not only to get Bill for the interview, but when it came time to do the poster for the movie, we were really trying to think of who would be the best artist to represent the whole field. I approached him again and said, I know this is very cheeky so feel free to say no, but I can think of no better living cartoonist that I would love to do the poster than you. He was very polite and said he would be honored to do it, and that meant a lot to me. So he did his first cartoon in nineteen years for the film. It goes beyond nice of him, frankly. I owe him a huge debt of gratitude -- he is a very kind and generous man.

You interviewed dozens of comic artists for this film, but there have to be hundreds out there who are active. How did you choose who you spoke with?

The nice thing is, for the most part, we got virtually everyone we wanted to talk to in comics. We did over seventy interviews and that is a fair amount for a documentary. As a person trying to record this moment in history in comics, I feel very good about that. But there were a few that sort of slipped through the net and made me sad that they weren't able to be in the movie. A couple of them were Garry Trudeau of "Doonesbury," who we asked a few times but kindly declined, as did Berke Breathed, who did "Bloom County." That one was personally important to me, and I was sad that we couldn't get him.

There were two other ones. Art Spiegelman, who did "Maus" and also has some interesting theories on how comics work in society; it would have been lovely to have him in the documentary. Then there was Scott Adams, who does "Dilbert"; he would have been a good one to chat with as well. He's very tech-savvy, too, and it would have been interesting to talk to him about straddling both worlds of print and digital.

I'm 33 and I grew up reading "Luann," and I have to say, even though I knew it was created by Greg Evans, it was still surprising to sort of connect this teenage girl character I identified with so much to a guy who looked like my dad.

(Laughs) Absolutely. It's funny, because you and I are about the same age, and I think he has a daughter who is about our age as well. I mean, sometimes the strip was so note-perfect, and I think that was not an accident. I think he definitely drew from real life.

Cathy Guisewite's (the creator of "Cathy") story was fascinating -- after listening to so many artists in the film talking about submitting their work and being rejected dozens of times to then hear her story of having this whole other career trajectory that had nothing to do with comics. It was just crazy how she turned out to be a comic artist who really changed the voice of women in strips.

And for her time, she kind of became a sort of zeitgeist comic. That part of her story gets forgotten now, a little bit, because towards the end of the comic's run, it sort of got stereotyped with the "Aack!" and with the chocolate and that sort of stuff. But she was a really interesting person to talk to, and it was nice that we were able to tell a little fuller story of Cathy in the movie.

It's funny, because sometimes when we look back, we put a little too much weight on whoever was the first one in -- but she did incredible stuff with the space she was given and the time she was given. She made way for a lot of other different and interesting voices. If you try to get past putting too much weight on one title, like "Cathy" as a comic, she broke a lot of ground for a lot of other cartoonists. Even the women working on the web owe her a debt, so she was a really cool one to talk to.

With hundreds of hours of interviews, are you working on any additional material to go along with Stripped?

One of the wonderful things about digital distribution of film these days and something we're able to do as filmmakers is -- for people who really want to dig deep into the subject matter -- you can go to the website and get not only the film but the full interviews, too. The fourteen-year-old me would have eaten all of this up; I would have loved to just sit and watch hours and hours and hours of cartoonists being interviewed. So for people who really love comics, it is kind of fun as a filmmaker to be able to offer the full interviews and the director's commentary and bonus reels. We're going through and making them all available.

Stripped screens one-time only at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 23, at the Sie FilmCenter. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit the Sie's website.

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