So, I watched the comic strip documentary, “Stripped” on Netflix last night. It wasn’t my first viewing; I’d seen the debut of the film at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Festival back in Fall of 2013. As with my first time around, I enjoyed the film and its breezy pace and the chance to see a number of cartoonists in their studios, talking comics. “Stripped” stands pretty much alone in that it’s a film devoted to the world of the comic strip, as opposed to the much more high profile world of comic books, comic cons, super-heroes and the like.
Strange, the turn of history; what had once been the pinnacle of comics art and aspiration, the syndicated comic strip, has been marginalized to the point of near extinction, debased and devalued by both its beneficiary (the newspaper) and its public. Few of the cartoonists featured in the film are widely known, at least outside the world of comics, and many speak of working their day job for years before the strip paid well enough that they could afford to live off of it; whereas in their heyday (as the film notes), strip cartoonists, like authors, were celebrities making oodles of money.
The case may be made, that newspapers themselves led the devolution of the comic strip as a cultural touchstone , as in the years following WWII, they progressively shrank the comics pages size and influence down to nothing; filling the Sunday “Comics Section” with ads and circulars and more ads and circulars, interspersed with a comic once in a while. In its glory days, a Sunday comics section might be as large as 17″ x 24″ and 32 pages. Today it’s lucky to have three pages amidst all the drek. What kid is going to be excited about reading the local supermarket circular on a Sunday morning?*
So, among cartoonists at least, hopes were riding high that “Stripped” might do for comic strip cartooning what “20 feet from Stardom” did for backup singers. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case, as “Stripped” opted for sound-bites over interviews, and lighthearted rather than in-depth. It is enjoyable enough–but as the filmmakers opted for jaunty and entertaining, they sacrificed a sense of investment and urgency. The film lacks passion–and more importantly, a strong, compelling central character (such as Darlene Love in “20 ft.”) whose work, story and charisma holds our attention. Either the filmmakers never found such a figure, or they didn’t trust their material enough to let that figure emerge.
The last quarter of the film is devoted to the monumental changes that have been overtaking the industry and the art-form since the late 1990’s, as newspapers downsize or disappear, let staff cartoonists go and comic strips dwindle. It’s a compelling story, but somehow its drama eludes the filmmakers; bracketing the discussion as they do with bad pseudo video-game imagery– ostensibly to connect the death of newspapers with the rise of digital media. The effect is to trivialize both the economic and cultural impact of this painful transition, in truth a transition emblematic of a larger cultural shift from one media model to another, one generation to another. There’s a lot of drama in that story, but it’s not to be found in this film-which again, chooses lighthearted sound bites over substance.
The rise of the webcomic is championed, through the stories of the highly successful strips Penny Arcade and PVP, as some kind of redemptive economic model and corrective to the power of corporate media. But that model was out-of-date five or six years before the film debuted, as in the wake of Penny Arcade and others, countless cartooning hopefuls (look no further!) have flooded the web with their material, t-shirts, coffee mugs and “Donate Now” buttons.
In the end, the film is a mixed bag. As a cartoonist, and as a fan of comic strips, I enjoy seeing any media attention devoted to this venerable art form, and I did enjoy this film, in the way one enjoys low-fat desserts. Yet I’m still waiting for the film that will tell the story of strips with the same kind of passion and commitment Ken Burns brought to “Jazz”. Often touted as the other “original American art form”, the story of the comic strip, its rise and fall, and the colorful characters who populate that story both on and off the page, is still waiting for its moment “On Stage”.
Postscript: This isn’t the post I was going to write. There were other elements of the film I wanted to touch on, little things that got me thinking about one thing or another. So-part II on Stripped will be along, sooner or later!
* the decline of the syndicated comic strip is a result of lots of things, not the least of which is the proliferation of terrific graphic novels and comic books–but for the sake of brevity–I’ll leave that discussion for another day!