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Comic Book Confidential
posted September 27, 2011

imageCreators: Ron Mann (writer/director), Charles Lippincott (writer)
Publishing Information: Film, 90 minutes, 1988/1989
Ordering Numbers:

Ron Mann's late-1980s, interview-stuffed survey of the comic book field's history in light of the growing alternative comics movement is in the free-screening phase of its lengthy history. While the last version for sale is I believe a 2002 release, the film currently pops up as a free offering on at least a few of the multiple streaming services currently jostling for position in that market. It's the kind of movie your non-comics reading friend calls you into the room to show you on the TV screen to ask after, forcing you to try and remember if you ever actually saw it twenty-plus years ago.

First time watching or first time watching in a while, taking in Comic Book Confidential is kind of a fascinating experience at this point. The film, Mann's third in a productive career-to-date, arrived at a strange nexus in comic book history where the art form was making great leaps and bounds in terms of an avenue for personal expression -- by which I mean there were several comics that actually addressed adult issues in a sophisticated way, something that was difficult to unearth even ten years earlier -- but the industry to support that kind of material was in its pre-bookstore phase: the art form was all dressed up with no place to go. William Gaines, Jack Kirby, Harvey Kurtzman and Will Eisner were still alive to give interviews and Stan Lee was about two stories removed from where he is now in terms of how he describes the rise of the Marvel superheroes in the 1960s. As far as the alternative comics voices like Jaime Hernandez and Lynda Barry, mostly you'll be struck by how young they are. Charles Burns looks practically fetal.

The work of authors like Burns is in a very early stage at this point, too, which I think colors the film as an artistic case for comics at that particular moment in time. There's a significant difference between Pekar reading a work drawn by Robert Crumb -- his collaborations with Crumb clearly among the best work in his long career -- and Hernandez communicating to us a charming early story of Maggie lusting after a pair of boots, which of course is light years removed from the astonishing comics yet to come. As the most fully-realized of the younger artists profiled, Frank Miller and Sue Coe make significant impressions.

Comic Book Confidential is almost an interactive movie now, as you can mentally riff on everything that's happened since. Back then even comics fans were just starting to come to grips with the undergrounds as something beyond Crumb and Shelton and dirty pictures of Mickey Mouse, RAW's various printing strategies were treated with as much reverence as the material published in its pages, Frank Miller's 1980s work had a specific political context that may get ignored now, Dr. Wertham was still 100 percent a Darth Vader-style villain and the restriction of comics under the Comics Code the overriding historical industry issue, and so on. What I can recall being big criticisms of the film when it was released, the aggressive music used and the format of having cartoonists read their own work, seems more clearly a hit-and-miss proposition now that the novelty of seeing comics and cartoonists treated in serious fashion is gone. As a general approach, those things are rarely a distraction, except perhaps for the odd gentleman stomping around dressed up like Zippy The Pinhead during Bill Griffith's segment. Some cartoonists are born performers and others clearly aren't, and this shouldn't color our perception of their work as much as it might here. Those choices in presentation also seem a product of the time: the pairing of novelty rock records, affected voices and out-sized actors with comics feeding into a notion that had greater visibility a quarter-century ago: that all comics-making was on some level an activity exclusive to rascals and rebels. In that sense, and so many more, comics has come a long way.