Kevin Dougherty of Wilkes-Barre to document cartoonist Drew Friedman’s work
For some, artist Drew Friedman is the cartoonist whose near-photorealistic work satirizing celebrities has appeared in such periodicals as Mad Magazine and Spy to the Wall Street Journal and Time. For others, Friedman is the historian who has chronicled the lives of a number of comedians and comic book creators whom time was overlooking. But the spotlight that Friedman placed on his subjects is going to be turned on him courtesy of a Wilkes-Barre-based filmmaker.
Kevin Dougherty is currently in production on “The Vermeer Of The Borscht Belt,” a documentary feature film about Friedman and his work. The title comes from a positive review Friedman received from the New York Times Book Review for his 2006 tome “Old Jewish Comedians.”
Friedman got his start as an artist at Topps Trading Cards, working on “Toxic High,” one of the company’s last humor-themed card series. He would go on to make a name for himself getting his work published in Heavy Metal and National Lampoon. By 1986 he was working for the snarky Spy magazine and in the early 1990s supplied illustrations for radio personality Howard Stern’s two books, “Private Parts” and “Miss America.”
For Dougherty, the film isn’t coming about through his fandom for Friedman’s artwork but his friendship with the writer/artist.
“We met like twenty years ago,” Dougherty explains. “I had done a CD-ROM, a kid’s game, and he did the art for it. It was barely released but we’ve been friends ever since.”
The two share an alma mater in New York’s School of Visual Arts, though Friedman had graduated before Dougherty enrolled in their animation program. Over the years, Dougherty has worked on films shot in New York City, created an animated pilot, “Fuzzball,” which sold to Nickelodeon, worked as an editor for local TV news and has produced a number of music videos for regional bands.
Most recently, Dougherty worked on Friedman’s book “More Heroes Of The Comics.”
“I was his researcher,” he explains. “I researched a hundred different comic book artists. It was really intense. This was his second book (on the subject), so there were a ton of people you never heard of. Literally, two of the guys were (actor) Abe Vigoda’s brothers who worked for Archie Comics. They were the two stars of the family until Abe got (his role in the classic film) ‘The Godfather.’”
Following that collaboration, Dougherty was looking around for a subject for a documentary about comics and realized that the answer was right in front of him. And Friedman certainly didn’t object to the idea.
“He’s pretty much ‘It’s your thing, just do it,’ and I tell him ‘If you don’t end up hating me just a little bit, I’m doing something wrong.’”
“I want to make a documentary that’s funny. I don’t want it to be ‘Crumb,’” Dougherty states, referencing director Terry Zwigoff’s acclaimed 1994 documentary about underground cartoonist R. Crumb. “I don’t want it to be depressing, about a tortured man.”
“He’s a really normal guy, who draws really weird pictures,” he continues. “He doesn’t have a lot of skeletons in his closet. This film is more about his work and telling his life story through his work. If you look at it, there’s a chronology to it.”
Dougherty admits that there will be some challenges in translating Friedman’s art to the big screen. He compares what he will be doing to a documentary about a pop band.
“That’s so easy to do; you just have somebody talk for five minutes and then you stick a song in there,” he says. “This is a documentary about a guy who draws static work. You can only put a picture on the screen for so long before you have to do something, and I don’t want to do faux animation. I have an animation background and as much as I love animation, I don’t want to force it where it doesn’t have to be or shouldn’t be.”
“It’s not an action-oriented thing,” he admits. “You have to keep it moving, but how do you do that? That’s where the funny comes in. I want it to be funny. It’s not just about Drew but about the whole weird world he chronicles. It’s easy to peg it as nostalgia, but it’s not really nostalgia. It’s pretentious to call it history. It’s also sort of personal. There’s some sort of reason why there’s so many people who like weird, old stuff. I don’t know what it is.”
Dougherty has already shot footage at an event Friedman participatied in at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in Manhattan at the beginning of April. Dougherty will also be on hand with his camera on May 2 when a “Heroes of the Comics” exhibit featuring Friedman’s work opens at the Society of Illustrators in New York City.
Once he has all of his footage, Dougherty will dive into post-production work with the hopes of having the film edited and ready for the film festival circuit late next year.
“We’re definitely doing festivals,” he states. “I’ve had some inquiries from festivals already. It just depends on the timing what festivals we’re going to do. We’re going to be at San Diego Comic-Con, I’m sure.”
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