Title: Comic Book Confidential
Screenplay: Ron Mann & Charles Lippincott
Studio: Cinecom Pictures
Director: Ron Mann
Starring: Bill Gaines, Will Eisner, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Robert Crumb, Harvey Kurtzman, Bill Griffith, Dan O’Neill, Frank Miller
Release date: 1988
Hello one and all! Welcome to the new year of 2013, and more importantly, WELCOME BACK to MOVIE MONDAYS!
Last week, there was no Movie Mondays article. Consider it a moment of silence, a moment to pause and reflect, and look back on last year and to take a deep breath as we dive into the New Year. Also, let it stand as a moment of silence, insofar as a passing of the torch has been made. Andrew Hudson, the original writer of Movie Mondays and co-writer with myself over more than a year (I started in April 2011), has passed on sole writing responsibility to me. I shall endeavor to continue to bring to this weekly entry the same level of entertainment, information, humor, and enthusiasm as he did, and as I have hopefully done up ‘til now.
With that said, let’s get down to it, shall we?
Comic Book Confidential, a documentary from 1988, is an interesting film. The film itself is a not so detailed survey of the history of comic books in the United States from the 1930s to the 1980s. The documentary attempts to present the comic book medium as an art form and illustrate its value in socio-political context. The word “attempts” is important here, because while the film offers insightful glimpses into the minds of many comic creators, it also spends far too much time being simply entertaining and silly to really focus on presenting a fully developed historical and social context, and never brings its message to a completely realized conclusion. More simply put, the film presents its case but never does enough to prove it.
Now, don’t misunderstand this observation. This reviewer does not disagree with the documentary’s implication that the comic book medium is a valuable form of art as well as social commentary. One merely wishes the film had done a better job in accomplishing the task it set out to do.
Throughout the film, the viewer is treated to interesting and candid discussions with some of the most important names in American comics. Starting with Bill Gaines, son of Max Gaines, the film briefly details the creation of comics. In 1933, Max Gaines developed the first four-color, saddle-stitched newsprint booklet, a forerunner to the color-comics system that would become the standard for the American comic book industry.
Afterwards the viewer is shown historical footage of possibly the darkest time in comic book history. In 1954, Fredric Wertham published an awful book called Seduction of the Innocent, wherein he claims that comic books were a negative form of pop culture, and were turning society’s children into criminals and all-around ne’er-do-wells. Gaines is shown appearing in a U.S. Congressional hearing to defend comic books, and footage of droves of children all ripping comics to shreds and tossing them in a dumpster is also shown. It was an all-out war on comics. Fredric Wertham and the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency were to the comic book industry, what Senator Joe McCarthy was to American freedom.
This segment could fill the length of its own documentary, but it is not the focus of this one, merely a backdrop for developments to follow. Because of this event, The Comics Code Authority is created, countless comic titles are canceled, a restructuring of DC Comics and eventually Marvel Comics occurs, and the nation gives birth to the “Underground Comix” movement.
Many important segments of this long and complex history are touched upon in some form or another over the course of this film. However, it all goes by far too fast to gain anything of merit from the information. The film features random interjections of extended montages of songs and comic book covers. While these work well as transitions from one subject to the next, they go on for far too long, and essentially waste time that could have been spent on interviews and insights into the rich history of the Comic Book Industry. This gives the film a real tangible quality of emotionality, whereupon the viewer gets a wonderful sense of the “warm fuzzies” while watching these industry giants speak so demurely on the thing they love. This, in and of itself, is fantastic, however, it would have been nice to be presented with more substantial information rather than just brief accounts and opinions. That’s not to say it’s all bad. This is only one complaint, albeit a rather large one.
The best parts of this documentary are two-fold. The first being this neat little presentation done for most of the people interviewed. The film showcases panels of their respective comics, while the creator of said comic offers a dramatic reading. We see Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four with voice-over from Stan Lee, Captain America as narrated by Jack Kirby, and The Spirit voiced by Will Eisner. It’s absolutely incredible!
The second being the veritable cornucopia of comic titles, covers, and artwork presented throughout the film. A complete bibliography of titles used in the film would easily be the best reading list any comic enthusiast could ever imagine.
Despite the aforementioned complaint, there is just so much to enjoy about this film. From seeing Stan Lee when he still had black hair, to seeing important figures like Bill Gaines, Jack Kirby, and Will Eisner before their unfortunate passing, to seeing Frank Miller with a full head of hair and before the world knew just how crazy he is, it’s all just great fun to watch.
When the film was originally produced, due to time constraints, Mann couldn’t include footage with Scrooge McDuck creator Carl Barks, All American Comics editor Julius “Julie” Schwartz, and creator of the first all-woman comic book It Ain’t Me Babe, Trina Robbins. But in 2008, the 20th Anniversary edition was released on Blu-ray featuring “over two hours of bonus footage with never before seen interviews with comic book legends Carl Barks, Julius Schwartz, Gary Panter, Jules Feiffer and others!” (according to the film’s official website).
I highly recommend taking the time to watch and buy this award-winning documentary! Seriously, go right now!