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Comic Book Confidential (1988)

by on 2012/09/28

“Someone has to stand outside the whole thing, look at it, and tell you what’s going on.”

* * * *

I last saw this movie 25 years ago, during its limited theatrical release in Toronto. I must have been totally psyched for it, yet I remember nothing of the experience.

Thank goodness I’ve gotten more discerning in my advancing years, because local boy Ron Mann’s Comic Book Confidential is an amazing documentary. It won’t make a hater love funnybooks, but it reminds us aficionados why we care.

In a series of fairly distinct phases, we retrace the twentieth century, from the 1930s’ first standalone publications, to the dark and postmodern late Eighties. In the Thirties, repurposed newspaper sections give way to original creations. During the Second World War, patriotism becomes popular and, after it, the focus shifts to romance, westerns, and crime.

The fantasy formerly embodied by superheroes tangles up with the gritty noir of crime, spawning a massive obsession with Atom Age horror. Special interest groups, so far unsuccessful in an effort to castigate the strips — for eye-straining print, or the dangerous example of flying characters — at last succeed in their McCarthy Era witch-hunt. The new Comics Code Authority brings pabulum to the masses.

But as well-known properties play nice by avoiding the use of words like “terror” and “weird”, reactionaries multiply, unstoppable even when sued. Mad Magazine popularizes parody, and more daring rebels spread underground. After all the taboos have been skewered, sociopolitical trends develop, and independents eventually influence the mainstream.

The names — the legends — in this movie are legion, and include familiar figures: Art Spiegelman (Maus), Bill Gaines (Mad and Tales from the Crypt), Frank Miller (300 and Sin City), Harvey Pekar (American Splendor), Jack Kirby (Hulk and X-Men), Robert Crumb (Crumb), Stan Lee (Comic-Con), Will Eisner (The Spirit), and other critical and commercial notables. They discuss a range of topics in moderate depth, from the validity of comics as a literary form, to the medium’s utility as inexpensive propaganda, and related points in-between.

There are omissions, understandably, with mainstream titles ironically marginalized, and little discussion of the industry outside America. Fortunately, even within this subset, a wide variety of styles ensures a sampling with something for most tastes.

This variety extends to the direction and editing too. Many stretches follow a similar pattern of the artist’s thumbnail biography, a background to their work, their specific creative process, and a spoken dramatization. Animated as motion comics, drawing from original panels — including word balloons, thankfully — music, sounds, and limited visual effects are applied, and the creators read descriptions and dialogue.

They may not be professional actors but, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, there’s something compelling about a writer performing their own work.

The music is no less compelling than the words. For those like me, enamoured of the past, you might also enjoy the soundtrack. Lots of swinging jazz, military marches, doo-wop, twangy guitars, and psychedelia. Sadly, they never get into the dark synthetics of the Eighties, which would have fit the final scenes in tone.

In sum, Comic Book Confidential is absolutely packed. It’s dense with selection, obscurity, sights and sounds, abstractions and humanity alike. It bears repeated viewings, yet only scratches the surface, practically demanding you investigate further yourself. It won’t glitter and seduce you with big budget production values, but it’s reasonably inclusive, substantial, fascinating, and passionate.

Just don’t let the trailer’s eccentricity deter you.

* * * *

Not rated

85 minutes

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