For a film that was released thirty years ago, this Ron Mann documentary remains a pretty great primer on the eventual rise of comics from a folded-and-stapled version of the Sunday funnies to the “permanent art form” it has grown into. It moves briskly from the squeaky-clean heroics of early Superman and Captain America comics to the rise of underground “comix” and up to the modern insecurities of Lynda Barry’s post-feminist preteen girls and the age of esteemed graphic novels like Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust-themed graphic novel Maus. “Comic Book Confidential” is a candid and quirky overview, clocking in at an economical 85 minutes. Mann’s sly, subversive style fits the subject matter well and he features entertaining interviews and profiles of over twenty artists. Most valuable nowadays is the presence of four comic-book pioneers that have since passed away: Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, William Gaines and Harvey Kurtzman.
“Comic Book Confidential” chronologically follows one of the most beloved (and at one time most reviled) of popular art forms. This strict timeline format helps in charting the social continuum in which comic art developed. During the Depression and WW2, superheroes made sense. After the war, their appeal lessened and stronger creative lights like Eisner sought to free themselves from the assembly-line mindset of most comic-book publishers. This led to a more literary form, but also encouraged risk-taking and a drift towards lurid subject matter. There is an especially strong segment revealing lesser-known aspects of cartoon culture like the major censorship battle waged on envelope-pushing series like Weird Science and Tales from the Crypt by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Juvenile Delinquency in 1954. Mann, the long-time pop culture maven who also made the marijuana doc “Grass,” digs up a Reefer Madness-style propaganda clip where a group of boys become “a mass of tangled nerves” after glancing at a couple of violent titles and quickly get busy weaponizing knives and rocks.
Another good get is a snippet of the fearless testimony in front of the Senate panel by eventual Mad magazine founder William Gaines. In an interview for the film, “Big Bill” tells with wry detachment an anecdote about how he defied the Comics Code Authority when they told him to remove the beads of perspiration from the face of a black astronaut in one of his books, threatening to sue the CCA in return. The censorious influence of that organization started to fade and soon the film is detailing the rise of radicalized Sixties artist like R. Crumb, Dan O’Neill and Shary Fleniken.
William Gaines holding court in his office.
From the beginnings of that underground scene in San Francisco circa the late 60s, “CBC” advances about twenty years on (it was released in 1988). The indie comics scene has exploded since then (maybe time for a sequel?) so you won’t be getting anything on prominent later practitioners like Chris Ware or Alison Bechdel. But what you do get are several sequences from artists and writers who are still working today or whose work extended well into the new century (as in the case of Harvey Pekar, who died in 2010). Scenes of Jaime Hernandez (“Love and Rockets”) and Charles Burns (“Big Baby”) explaining the genesis of an episode, then reading it while we watch the finished panels, are a highlight of the film. Not everything works here—I could have done without the silly live-action music video featuring a guy dressed up (badly) as Zippy the Pinhead—and in retrospect, assertions like the one predicting the demise of the superhero make “Comic Book Confidential” look a bit dated. Yet minor quibbles like that pale next to the film’s prescient presentation of contemporary comics as an eminent (but still happily incorrigible) literary form.
This brief trailer has uses a bit of the Dr. John song “Diggin’ on Comix” which played over the film’s opening credits. Great tune but sadly has not popped up anywhere else.