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‘Stripped’ Tackles Comics like no Documentary Before

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While comic books and graphic novels are getting their own share of attention with a wave of successful movies, the other “comics,” the “funny pages” of the newspaper, are changing in a way that no one can predict. In an effort to bring light to this surprising world, the documentary Stripped takes a fresh look at the history of newspaper comics, what they are today, and the shocking digital future that has dawned.

strippeddocumentaryProduced, written, and directed by Frederick Schroeder and Dave Kellett (himself a cartoonist with the webcomic Sheldon), Stripped features interviews with over seventy individuals, each a star in the world of strip comics. The interviewees include longtime newspaper cartoonists Mort Walker of Beetle Bailey and Jim Davis of Garfield, more recent cartoonists like Bill Amend of Foxtrot, and web cartoonists including Kate Beaton of Hark, A Vagrant! and The Oatmeal’s Matt Inman. Thought-provoking discussions from representatives from the Universal Press and King Features show the business aspects of newspaper comics, while comic-philosopher Scott McCloud, author of Understanding Comics, discusses what it all means.

One of Stripped’s most eyebrow-raising features is its interview with Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes. As famous as the strip was, Watterson is infamous for his refusal to take part in any publicity, preferring to keep to himself in retirement. The topic must have caught his interest, which of course it would, as he was a central combatant in the battle to defeat the twelve panel block-layout of Sunday strips days ago. Never one for interview, his voice and a still photo are used describing the issue of art in what is, foundationally, a business. He also produced the poster for Stripped, his first widely published work since the end of Calvin and Hobbes.

After introducing (more like reminding) us of the world of funny pages with an image of reading a father and child reading the paper together, Stripped shows the golden age of newspaper comics when cartoonists were highly paid members of fashionable society. Today, we live in a more digital age when newspapers are struggling to stay in print, let alone pay syndicates for the work of the artists they represent. While the argument is upheld that there will always be a need for local newspapers, comparing it with other technology that was supposed to “die” like the radio, the documentary shows the Internet has also given birth to a universe of webcomics. Using an entertaining metaphor of the career of a webcartoonist as an 8-bit RPG video game, the modern steps of creation, promotion, merchandising, and more are explored by a new generation of cartoonists who are largely one-many armies of art.

Fueled by an original score by Stefan Lessard of Dave Matthews Band, Stripped is a fascinating and fun look into the changing world of comics. Its pace is steady and brings several different viewpoints to the discussion. Its most powerful image is perhaps fittingly the last, a shot of a father and child reading comics together, now on a digital tablet, bookending the documentary to show that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Stripped is available in full on iTunes.

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About Jeff Provine

Jeff Provine is a Composition professor, novelist, cartoonist, and traveler of three continents. His latest book is a collection of local ghost legends, Campus Ghosts of Norman, Oklahoma.