Comic Book Confidential

Comic Book Confidential
Director: Ron Mann
Screenplay: Charles Lippincott and Ron Mann
Features: Lynda Barry, Charles Burns, Sue Coe, Robert Crumb, Will Eisner, Al Feldstein, Shary Flenniken, William M. Gaines, Bill Griffith, Jaime Hernandez, Jack Kirby, Harvey Kurtzman, Stan Lee, Paul Mavrides, Frank Miller, Victor Moscoso, Francoise Mouly, Dan O'Neill, Harvey Pekar, Gilbert Shelton, Art Spiegelman
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1989
Country: USA/Canada
Comic Book Confidential DVD Cover

The popular consensus is that comic books have been largely neglected within the realms of "high culture" and "high art" because they are perceived as being aimed at children. The simple phrase "comic book" immediately brings to mind images of children and immaturity--those who cannot handle "real" books and must have something simpler, more basic, more direct.

Yet, comic books, which have existed in various forms for almost a century now, are more likely looked down upon not because of their associations with juvenilia, but because they resist simple categories. Nobody who has the symbolic capital to make such decisions wants to declare them a visual art, even though they involve painting and drawing. At the same time, there is a reticence to calling them literature, even though they tell stories with defined characters and themes. They're not all aimed at children, but many insult the intelligence of adults. In other words, they're not easily definable or reducable to any coherent set of criteria. Thus, they are confounding, and sometimes it is easier to just ignore the confounding than to grapple with it.

Ron Mann's splashy 1989 documentary Comic Book Confidential was one of the first broad attempts to grapple with such questions. Though short and sometimes lacking in the finer details, it is a good overview of the social history of the medium, taking us from the early days when someone first came up with the idea of taking a newspaper broadsheet of comic strips and folding it in half twice to make a booklet, to the late 1980s, when many comic books and their most recent incarnation, the graphic novel, were achieving an unheard-of level of respect. Nevertheless, the medium as whole was (and in many ways still is) viewed as somewhat disreputable, not fully deserving of the same kinds of accolades heaped on a novel or a painting.

The strength of Mann's documentary is the interviews. Mann has rounded up an impressive assortment of comic book artists, including William M. Gaines, the luminary behind such parental-cringeworthy books as Tales From the Crypt and Mad, eccentric underground artist Robert Crumb, Marvel super-creator Stan Lee, and avant-garde artist Sue Coe. In the interviews, Mann allows each person just enough time to get across what he or she brings to the medium that is unique, interesting, and challenging. After listening to all these men and women--some veterans of many decades, others relative newcomers--even those who might resist calling comic books "art" can surely concede the enormous range of the medium, allowing as it does everything from taboo-busting counterculture parody, to nationalistic super-heroics, to moving explorations of the Holocaust.

Comic Book Confidential moves through a roughly chronological storyline, hitting all the major moments in the history of comic books. Beginning with invincible superheroes like Superman and the like, comic books spread quickly throughout the culture, sometimes finding themselves in the political crosshairs, particularly in the 1950s when horror and crime comics were the subject of Congressional hearings that eventually resulted in their being suppressed almost completely for many years (sadly, this is the only major instance in the United States in which an entire medium of popular culture was wiped out by a moral panic). Mann mixes new interviews (circa 1988, that is) with older footage of many of the artists, including some amusing sequences involving Robert Crumb at an LSD party in the Haight Ashubury district of San Francisco in the late 1960s. The result is a quick, but broad portrait of the multifaceted talent that has influenced the medium.

Some of the film doesn't work so well, though. Images of artist Bill Griffith dressed up in a cheap rendition of his comic creation Zippy the Pinhead is just kind of embarrassing. Stan Lee's presence in the film is also notably truncated, most likely because Mann seems to be most interested in the artists who pushed boundaries and threatened the social order with their creations (hence the large amounts of screen time given to Crumb and Gaines). He gives the movie a bright, punchy visual style by including numerous examples of the artists' works. This is a good move, but Mann felt the urge to have these examples animated and beefed up with sound effects, which has the unfortunate effect of undermining the static nature of the comic book medium. To be fair, Mann is obviously trying to celebrate comic books, but by forcing them to mimic--even crudely--the medium of motion pictures, he is just subverting one medium to the other.

These are minor quibbles, though. Overall, Comic Book Confidential is an enjoyable and informative documentary. Those with a healthy knowledge about the comic book industry won't find much in the way of new information here (the film was obviously aimed at those who would resist giving comic books the time of day), but the opportunity to see so many important artists discussing their work offers an effective portrait of why comic books are a crucial and undeniable element of modern culture, even as they continue to confound easy categorization.

Comic Book Confidential DVD

Aspect Ratio 1.33:1
Audio English Dolby 2.0 Stereo
Subtitles English
DistributorHome Vision Entertainment
Release DateJuly 23, 2002

1.33:1 (Full Frame)
Previously available on laser disc and CD-ROM from the Voyager Co., Comic Book Confidential has been given a new digital transfer that is good, though not great, throughout. There is a fair amount of older stock footage used throughout the film, some of which looks good and some of which is very beat-up and grainy (this if, of course, to be expected). The actual interviews with the artists, which were recorded on film, look a bit soft and slightly dull, but it is a uniform softness that seems to be a result of the film stock used, rather than the transfer itself. A note on the framing: Comic Book Confidential is presented in 1.33:1 full-frame, and since Home Vision has been very good about sticking to original aspect ratios, I have to assume this is how it was intended to be seen. However, if this is its intended aspect ratio, be forewarned that Mann apparently likes to utilize the frame right to the very edges, so those who have monitors with any overscan might find some of his intertitles cropped off a bit at the sides.

English Dolby 2.0 Stereo
The two-channel stereo soundtrack is clean and clear.

Introduction by Kevin Smith
Considering that Chasing Amy is one of the few mainstream films to revolve around characters who work in the comic book industry and he has written several comic books himself, writer/director Kevin Smith is an obvious choice to introduce the movie. In this four-minute interview conducted by Ron Mann in April 2002, Smith does his usual sarcastic schtick, rhapsodizing on why comic books aren't just for kids while also poking fun at his own lifelong obsession with them. Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen.

Comic Book Archive
By far the coolest extra on the disc, this section contains over 120 pages of complete stories taken from the work of the 22 comic book artists who appear in the film. Each section shows the cover of the comic book in which the story appeared, gives a full image of each entire page, and then shows each panel of the comic individually. Presented in 1.33:1 full-frame.

Interview with director Ron Mann
Interestingly enough, in this seven-minute video interview conducted by Tim Powis for CHUM Television's Arts & Minds program in early September of 2001, director Ron Mann never once mentions Comic Book Confidential, but rather talks about his influences and how he got into documentary filmmaking. Presented in 1.33:1 full-frame.

Theatrical trailers of Comic Book Confidential, Twist, and Grass
The trailer for Comic Book Confidential is presented in 1.33:1 full-frame, while the trailers for two of Mann's other films, Twist and Grass, are presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen.

Copyright � 2002 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (3)

James Kendrick

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