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Comic Book Confidential

Home Vision Entertainment

Featuring 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, and Art Spiegelman.

Written by Ron Mann and Charles Lippencott

Directed by Ron Mann

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Review by D.K. Holm                    

What a difference a decade makes. When Comic Book Confidential came out in 1988 the documentary was a breath of fresh air. Finally, someone in cinema was taking seriously both the explosion of recent, fascinating comic book work and the early history of a form that had enriched American culture since the '30s. The film's panoply of comic book artists and its celebration of graphic novels (such as The Watchmen) dear to comic book nerds made CBC an invigorating delight.

The buff's gratitude to director Ron Mann led partially to the success of his subsequent documentaries, Twist, on the '60s dance craze, and Grass, a doc similar to CBC in its "ironical" use of archival footage and animated passages.

But what a difference 14 years makes! And it's not just that in the intervening decade so much has happened — Crumb the movie, new generations of comic book artists, museum exhibits, the growth in serious publication, and the bottom dropping out of the comic-book market. It's just that now we can see how unsophisticated Comic Book Confidential often is.

CBC follows the history of comic books from William Gaines, Sr. to Frank Miller. The interviewees, in alphabetical order, include Lynda Barry (a terrible "reader" of her own work), Charles Burns, Sue Coe (what is this British graphic illustrator doing in a movie about comic books?), Robert Crumb (who manages typically to say in a few words what the film elsewhere labors to explain or illustrate), Will Eisner (the charming grand sponsor of style in comics art), Mad's Al Feldstein, Shary Flenniken (propriatress of the most underrated comic characters of the era, Trots and Bonnie), William M. Gaines, Bill Griffith, Jaime Hernandez, the late Jack Kirby, Harvey Kurtzman, Stan Lee, Paul Mavrides, Frank Miller, Victor Moscoso, Francoise Mouly, Dan O'Neill (weirdly photographed against a backdrop of strippers playing pool), Harvey Pekar, Gilbert Shelton (with a pleasing Texas accent), and Art Spiegelman.

There is nothing particularly inaccurate in Comic Book Confidential, and it does manage to include more information than documentaries of the vague, emotional school (such as anything about disabled kids that wins an Oscar for best documentary feature). The problem is that much of it is also clumsy. For transitions, Mann creates animated passages out of bits of art by the cartoonists mentioned, moments that amount to time-squandering padding. There is also an embarrassing enactment of Zippy the Pinhead (when the photographs of comic-strip panels would suffice). The music rarely seems well selected or appropriate to the moment (though song rights can be a problem to get). Worse, as in Grass, archival footage is included under the assumption that we can't help but find it all short-sighted, ridiculous, and amusing. The notorious anti-comic campaigner Dr. Fredric Wertham is shown testifying; excepts from a TV show decrying violent comics is excerpted. Such moments are positioned to evoke knowing and derisive laughs, but trying to explain the climate in which these people made their claims, and trying to understand their viewpoint, would have made for a richer film.

Home Vision Entertainment has put together a nice package for this movie, which is historically important, if nothing else. The full frame image is fine; the Dolby Digital 2.0 audio is adequate for a talky movie with periodic bursts of music. Extras start out with a tedious three minute introduction by the inevitably "ironic" and unfunny Kevin Smith. Things get worse with a seven-and-a-half minute interview with Ron Mann, who says "you know" 32 times and name-drops Emile De Antonio and Elia Kazan as crucial guardian angels at key moments in his career. In a slide-show feature on the disc, each of the 22 artists has a representative story. Rounding out the supplements are trailers for Comic Book Confidential, Grass, and Twist, and a 16-page booklet with quotes from the comic book artists.

— D.K. Holm

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© 2002, The DVD Journal