Comic Book Confidential: 20th Anniversary Edition
December 3, 2012
Often regarded as just for kids, comic books finally gained a modicum of respectability in the mid to late 1980s with the rise in popularity of titles like Watchmen, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Maus to name but only a few. Harlan Ellison’s seminal essay, entitled “Did Your Mother Throw Yours Out?”, in the pages of Playboy magazine also helped wake up the mainstream to what comic book fans had known for years – that they were not strictly for juveniles and that they dared to explore complex issues, like the depiction of violence, what it means to be a hero and even using the medium to tell personal, meaningful stories. Around this time, Canadian filmmaker Ron Mann made Comic Book Confidential (1988), a primer, of sorts, for comic books, tracing their origins, documenting their near-extinction and their maturation into a viable art form.
Right from the get-go, Mann establishes his unique approach. Not only does he have his subjects talk about their work but he also has them read a sampling as well. As they are doing this, he crudely animates the artwork from which they’re reading and includes sound effects and music in an attempt to free the images from the static confines of the page. It’s a ballsy technique that divided people within the comic book industry (see The Comics Journal coverage).
Mann takes us back to 1933 and the birthplace of comic books with William M. Gaines recalling his memories of the medium’s first baby steps. We meet groundbreaking pioneers like Jack Kirby and Will Eisner who helped create the grammar of comic books and gave birth to iconic characters like Captain America and The Spirit. Ever the eloquent elder statesman, Eisner talks about what the medium did for him. It says something when Eisner, reading over moving panels of The Spirit, complete with sound effects, is more effective in conveying the comic book than the entirety of the recent, big-budget live-action film by Frank Miller.
The 1950s saw the rise in horror comics like Tales from the Crypt, The Haunt of Fear, The Vault of Horror and so on. Gaines talks about his run-ins with censorship thanks to conservative watchdogs like Dr. Fredric Wertham who led the charge to have them cleaned up. Mann includes hilarious vintage footage warning people of the dangerous effects of comic books. Publishers decided to self-censor and created the Comics Code, which drove the horror comic books underground. This led to a return of superhero comic books in the 1960s with the rise of Marvel Comics and Stan Lee’s incredible stable of titles: The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, The Amazing Spider-Man, and many others.
On the flipside, underground comic books that reflected the thriving counterculture at the time began to emerge with Robert Crumb’s Fritz the Cat, Spain Rodriguez’s Trashman and Gilbert Shelton’s The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. This portion of the documentary is fascinating as this period of comics isn’t talked about much anymore but these titles really reflected their times and paved the way for the rise of the independents in the ’80s. The cautionary tale that comes out of this time is when Dan O’Neill took on Disney with The Air Pirates, which dared to satire Mickey Mouse. He was sued for his troubles and taken to the cleaners.
Mann also takes a look at an often overlooked aspect: female comic book creators and interviews Shary Flenniken, Lynda Barry and Sue Coe who weren’t afraid to address controversial subject matter in the 1970s, like capital punishment or honest examinations of relationships between men and women or addressing girls coming of age. Women seem to still get short-changed in this medium and it would be great to see a documentary dedicated exclusive to their work, expanding on what was started in Comic Book Confidential.
Mann takes a look at the rise of indie comic book companies and artists that were interested in documenting their own lives, like Harvey Pekar with American Splendor or that of marginalized cultures like Jaime Hernandez with Love and Rockets. These titles are more authentic, slice-of-life stories with rich characters that eschew the endlessly formulaic costumed superhero genre. In the ‘80s, Art Spiegelman strove to have comics regarded as legit art with a European or even avant-garde sensibility. His magazine Raw really pushed the envelope and wasn’t afraid to experiment with how it was presented, not just visually, but in terms of texture (type of paper used, etc.) as well.
Not content with showing a series of talking heads, Mann pushed the envelope with Comic Book Confidential by presenting his subject matter in a dynamic way that no one had thought to do before – or often, since – but perfectly suited the material. The documentary features a healthy cross-section of people in the medium, from pioneers like Will Eisner and William M. Gaines, to underground provocateurs like Robert Crumb and the new wave (at the time) of independents like Charles Burns. The problem with a documentary like this is that you can criticize it for all the subjects it doesn’t interview, important figures like Alan Moore and Neal Adams, but you can only squeeze so many into one film and I think that Mann does an admirable job with the people he does include. Let’s not forget, Comic Book Confidential is not meant to be the definitive word on the medium but merely a primer, a jumping off point for one to become familiar with the major figures and the important movements.
Mann’s documentary is given a wonderful upgrade, transfer-wise, on this new Blu-Ray edition. It doesn’t lose the grainy, filmic quality of its 16mm roots but the colors from various sample comic book panels pop more with their vibrancy.
There is a half-assed introduction by Kevin Smith of Clerks (1994) and Chasing Amy (1997) fame. He extols the virtues of comic books and argues that they aren’t just for kids anymore in this rambling monologue.
The real treasure trove for fans of this documentary is the over 40 minutes of outtake footage with people like Dave Gibbons and Bill Sienkiewicz that didn’t make the final cut. There is also more footage of people like Robert Crumb and Harvey Pekar who did. This is fantastic stuff as we get Gibbons talking about Watchmen and Sienkiewicz talking about Elektra Assassin.
The “Interview with Ron Mann” sees the filmmaker in a reflective mood as he talks about getting his start in filmmaking. He started at a young age making cheap movies with his friends. At the time, it was more of a hobby and he didn’t get serious about it until after he graduated from the University of Toronto in 1980. He also talks about why documentaries appeal to him more than fictional films.
Also included is the “Original Promo Comic” which first appeared in the DVD version years ago. It gives a brief biographical sketch of each person in the documentary along with a key quote from them.
Finally, there is “The Balloon Pops,” an essay written by notable Canadian film critic Geoff Pevere where he talks about Comic Book Confidential’s legacy and argues that comic books are a legitimate art form.