comic book culture

Documentary Spotlight: “Comic Book Confidential”

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.

“Archie’s Betty”: In search of the real Riverdale

Archie Bet

Archie’s Betty
Written and directed by Gerald Peary–2015–69 minutes

Love of popular culture runs deep and a great example is this fun and ultimately moving new documentary. Boston-area journalist, critic and film-studies professor Gerald Peary seeks out the possible and probable real-life inspirations for the characters of the ever-popular “Archie” comic books. In the process, he reveals a hidden human dimension behind the iconic faces of Archie Andrews, his dueling love interests Betty and Veronica, and others like Jughead, Reggie and Moose.

This is a project that actually dates back to 1988 when Peary, who had been a big Archie fan since his boyhood in West Virginia, wrote an article in the Boston Globe Sunday magazine that positioned Haverhill, MA as the inspiration for the comic’s fictional Riverdale. Archie’s original artist, Bob Montana, had attended Haverhill High School in the 1930s and Geary’s scrutinizing of early issues (the first Archie appeared in 1941) reveals named local landmarks were later fictionalized, like the gang’s beloved Chock’lit Shoppe. Geary tracked down several of Montana’s old classmates that could have been prototypes for the major characters and had himself a nice feature story.

But an urge to further explore this subject eventually led Peary to make this, his second film (the first was the 2009 doc about the art of film criticism called “For the Love of Movies”). He revisits many of the Haverhill classmates and locations while partnering with amateur comics historian Shaun Clancy, who became the film’s co-producer. It was Clancy who suggests that Betty—the blonde girl-next-door who’s always playing second fiddle to affluent Veronica for Archie’s affections—was not based on Montana’s Haverhill prom date but an actual woman named Betty that he dated in his twenties after he had moved to New York City and was already a working cartoonist. The film sweetly concludes with the two of them visiting the 90 year-old Betty at her assisted living facility in New Jersey where she proves to be every bit as plucky and personable as her illustrated namesake.

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The eyes have it: The world’s favorite love triangle

“Archie’s Betty” is an engaging blend of archival visuals, firsthand recollections, expert viewpoints and Peary’s own personal angle. His empathy for the inner connections people make with fictional characters and settings, and how they can develop from simple childhood escapism to something more profound with the passage of time, is the thread that will make his film appeal to viewers far beyond the ranks of Archie fanatics.

(“Archie’s Betty” had its premiere at a film festival in Buenos Aires, South America being a hotbed for all things Archie, according to Mr. Peary. For area readers, it will have two more showings at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art on June 14th. Other than that, I’m not sure though it was suggested that it may soon be available on DVD. More at the Archie’s Betty Facebook page and at bigsleepfilms.com)