At the Hollywood premiere of "STRIPPED," a documentary about the art and industry of the American comic strip, fans and cartoonists poured into the Arclight Cinerama Dome to watch the film, remaining in the theater afterwards to share their own experiences during an all-star cartoonist-led Q&A.
Following the screening, directors Dave Kellett and Fred Schroeder took to the Arclight floor to praise and highlight the many creators working in the medium today, inviting all the professional creators and cartoonists in the theater to stand up, which included some featured in the film, such as "Momma" creator Mell Lazarus. The two led the audience in a round of wild applause for all those standing.
Kellett and Schroeder then kicked off the Q&A panel by inviting comic strip creators Dan Piraro ("Bizarro"), Keith Knight ("The K Chronicles"), Cathy Guisewite ("Cathy") and Matt Inman ("The Oatmeal") to the front of the theater. Starting with the basics, Kellett and Schroeder asked the four Q&A panelists how they originally got into cartooning.
"Failure in other areas," Piraro quipped as the audience laughed.
On a more serious note, Piraro explained that he grew up wanting to be a fine artist, but after he dropped out of art school, a friend recommended he take up cartooning. "I started doing that at work, people liked what they saw and encouraged me to start sending my stuff to syndicates [the management companies that sell strips to newspapers] and a few years later I started to get nibbles. Short answer is, it was my way of trying to make a living in the arts -- I was trying anything, and this one happened to work."
Webcomics superstar Inman told the audience he had not planned on being a cartoonist either, falling into the profession due to an online dating site he built.
"I coded it and launched it and I needed people to use it, because a dating site with no people was pretty pointless," Inman recalled. "I started drawing these cute comics about dating, like types of bad kissers. What ended up happening was the comics overtook the dating site. I realized, why am I bothering with this thing when I could be making comics for a living?"
Knight, who began as a syndicated newspaper cartoonist before moving to webcomics, explained that his need to draw began with a cartoon he made about a food fight in junior high, "Because there were a lot of lies going around about what happened, I wanted to set the record straight," he said as the audience laughed.
When not just his friends, but the teachers and lunch ladies as well, became excited about being drawn in a comic, "I was like, 'Oh my goodness, I'm not getting my ass kicked! If I could somehow do this for a living and make fun of people and make them laugh at it, that would be a great thing!'" This impulse eventually led him to create his semi-autobiographical comic, "The K Chronicles."
Guisewite, who was signed the very first time she submitted "Cathy" to a comics syndicate, told the audience the only reason she applied was because her mother nagged her to. As for the reasons behind creating "Cathy," Guisewite told the audience, "It was the best way to sum up my life at the moment. I just loved in comics where you could go home and seek revenge on the swimwear department, you could leave a date and go home and seek revenge on the guy you just went out with, you get off the phone with your mom and go to the page."
"So -- revenge, I guess?" she concluded as the panelists and audience laughed.
The filmmakers then opened the panel to questions from the floor, the first coming from a fan who wanted to know from everyone, but especially Guisewite, how their family reacted to being depicted on the page.
"They were in a complete state of denial about my comic strip/ It was always about someone else, even though I was directly quoting them," Guisewite replied as the audience laughed again.
"I always riff on my dad, who has a salt shaker in every room in my house. He doesn't see the strip, but he's always like, 'I heard I was in the strip again,'" Knight said. "I go, 'Oh, no -- you're, like, everyone's favorite character!'"
"I will let you know when it happens!" Piraro joked in response to a question about overcoming writer's block to produce a new, daily strip. He then stated that, much like questions about where artists get inspiration from, "nobody knows. It's the muse. If somebody told me when I first started this that I would have to write a joke a day for 30 years, I'd say that's not possible," Piraro said as the audience laughed.
"The one thing I tell people is, don't ever do a comic strip about not having an idea -- that, and the Statue of Liberty, and Uncle Sam crying," Inman joked.
This led to a question from an audience member who wanted to know how much self-promotion over social media the various creators had to do for their jobs.
"I never ever approached a paper; that was never my goal, so my audience has always been through Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Tumblr, Reddit -- all those social media outlets, and it's been amazing for me," Inman replied. "The amount of readership I get there is more than a newspaper could ever provide -- I do about a billion page hits a year."
"People like to say that the funny pages are dead. I don't think they're dead, they've just changed," he added. "They coalesce on the Facebook feed you're looking at, they rise democratically."
Inman also said that getting revenue directly from webcomics avoids the steep cut a syndicate takes, which is often fifty percent of an artist's profit. Guisewite, however, confessed that if she were starting out now, she would have never become a comic strip creator.
"I rejected all social media, because I have so much guilt built up from things I haven't answered!" she joked as the panelists laughed.
Knight chimed in that he was in a strange position as his strip was syndicated right as "newspapers were going down the tubes. So I've got one foot in newspapers, and one foot on the web."
Because of this, Knight said he's noticed his income shifting, more money now coming from what he's doing online than from papers. "Folks are there to support you, they want to support you and see you succeed because they love the stuff that you do. It's just a matter of giving them an opportunity to do it; all the social media is providing them that way."
Turning back to "The Oatmeal" for a moment, Kellett and Schroeder asked Inman how much he actually interacted with his fans over social media and comment sections.
"I treat it as a form of performance. I don't Tweet back, I don't get into comments with these people -- it's a tornado of trolls," Inman quipped as the audience laughed. Clarifying that while he did engage people online more when he first started out, the level of vitriol of commentators eventually drove him away from interacting more heavily with fans.
"I don't read comments anywhere; sometimes on Facebook I look because they filter them on how popular they are," Inman said. "If your work gets on Reddit, do not read the comments about your own work! You'll hang yourself in the shower about ten minutes later!"
"So in conclusion, the Internet is a magical wonderland," Schroeder joked.
The next question came from a cartoonist in the audience who asked how each person dealt with carpal tunnel, hand cramps and other repetitive drawing injuries. Kellett, a cartoonist himself, told the woman that he once got a form of nerve pinch and blood loss in his shoulder from drawing and typing. "Don't ignore that -- acknowledge that and go see somebody who can work on your posture, because usually, it's rolling your shoulders back, taking breaks, that sort of stuff," Kellett said.
"That claw hand thing is an excellent excuse to get a card for medical marijuana," Piraro joked.
"I just want to say what he said!" Inman added as Piraro and the audience laughed.
Shared the fact they had around 300 hours of interview footage, the two filmmakers admitted that their original approach to the documentary was to emphasize "a really doom and gloom death of newspapers, woe is me kind of story.'
"Then in the editing...we found a new story that was much more hope-filled and about the joy of cartooning," Kellett said.
Guisewite posed a question for the filmmakers, asking where the documentary went from here. Kellett and Schroeder stated the film would be available in iTunes beginning April 1, citing their desire to see it hit the number one downloaded position for that day.
"We think it would be fun if we could get everybody in the cartooning world, for one day, to support the film," Schroeder added.
Piraro then took the microphone to thank Kellett and Schroeder for putting together the documentary. "We've all been interviewed by a lot of people who have some grassroots movie project they're doing, and a lot of them don't ever see the light of day, or when you do see them you go, 'Oh, my God, I can't believe I let those guys interview me.
"In this case I had my fingers crossed the whole time you were interviewing me," Piraro continued. "It was years ago -- you guys did an amazing job. It's a really professional and beautiful film."
"STRIPPED" hits iTunes April 1 and is available for DVD purchase at strippedfilm.com