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COMIC BOOK CONFIDENTIAL

Review by Michael Jacobson

Featuring:  Robert Crumb, Will Eisner, William M. Gaines, Bill Griffith, Jack Kirby, Stan Lee
Director:  Ron Mann
Audio:  Dolby Digital Stereo
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Home Vision Entertainment
Features:  See Review
Length:  85 Minutes
Release Date:  July 23, 2002

Film **1/2

Ron Mann has an eye for all things modern and cultural, particularly those things that delighted the youth and scared the crap out of the parents.  His documentaries have included amusing takes on the history of marijuana (Grass) and sinful rock dancing (Twist), plus one on the evolution of every parents’ burden at one time or another:  the comic book.

Comic Book Confidential is a look at the evolution of an art form, how it both reflected and acted upon changes in modern culture, and what American views concerning comics over the years were.  It talks to many of the giants of the industry, from the big-name successes to the underground smugglers…each sharing his or her own part of the history and giving their views on the comic book revolution-turned-evolution in the process.

I must confess, I never got into comics as a kid, so I never had to go through the “stop reading that trash” experience with my parents the way a lot of other youths did.  As such, I was hoping for a documentary that focused more on the comics themselves and less on the cultural perception of them.  Many of the names featured in the film mean nothing to me; had I been an aficionado, I might have considered this collection of talent the holy grail of ink and paint…who knows?

Mann traces the history of the comics from the early superhero pages that reflected good, pure American values through their inevitable troubled times.  Comics, like the rest of the country, started losing their innocence when the horrible reality of the nuclear age became a part of our everyday lives.  William Gaines started a revolution by incorporating horror into his comic books.  The kids were disturbed, but loving it, while the parents were shocked and outraged.

The eventual conception of a “code” to insure decency in comics may have been nothing more than an attempt at censorship, but it really only served to drive the art form underground.  There, artists like R. Crumb and Spain found the freedom to draw whatever they wished and to tell whatever stories they wanted to tell.

From my perception, the biggest problem was simply that at no time during the evolution of comics was it clearly mentioned that these books weren’t always for children.  Parents who were comfortable with their kids reading “Little Lulu” probably had a right to be up in arms about them perusing “Tales From the Crypt”.  By the time artists were experimenting with more adult oriented material, it had already been ingrained in our collective conscience that comic books were a kids’ medium…nobody ever said otherwise, and that’s why kids still ended up buying books that were arguably too advanced in subject matter for them.

But that’s just my point of view.  Mann and the artists he assembled prefer to argue that keeping horror and sex comics out of children’s hands was a censorship issue.  They were probably right in assuming that the more their works were withheld from youngsters the more they would want to see them.

A nice touch is that many of the artists included actually read aloud one of their comic stories as the camera focuses in on their art panels.  That gives a more intimate feel to some of the work.  The background stories are usually sparse (there are 22 artists squeezed into an hour and a half), so for my money, those moments are really the closest we get to the creators and their creations.

Ultimately, Comic Book Confidential is a documentary made by a fan for other fans.  I’m not one of them, and I didn’t get my wish in hoping the film would be geared toward appreciating comics more.  For those who already love the art form, go ahead and add another star to my rating…this movie might be just the ticket you’re looking for.

Video **

There’s not much to get excited about here…the film is over a decade old, and obviously wasn’t created with cinematography or texture in mind.  The stock is a bit dingy from time to time, and images are sometimes a tad murky as a result.  It’s a watchable effort, but not an exemplary one.

Audio **

Likewise, the audio is a simple stereo mix for a picture that’s largely dialogue oriented…a few subtle sound effects and bits of music are welcome, but don’t particularly stand out.  Spoken words are clean and clear, and that’s really the best you could ask for.

Features ***

Not a bad selection of extras here…for starters, the insert booklet has a short bio blurb for each of the featured artists, including some of their artwork.  On the disc itself, you get a short introduction from Kevin Smith, a seven minute interview with Ron Mann, a comic book archive featuring a story by each artist, plus trailers for this and two other Mann films, Grass and Twist.

Summary:

I’m not the target audience for Comic Book Confidential, so Ron Mann’s loving look back at how a popular medium became a full fledged art form left me a little cold.  But comic book fans will probably find the collection of artists and the extras relating to them a real plus, and enjoy this documentary a lot more than I did.