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Review: Comic Book Confidential (1988)

Comic Book Confidential (1988)

Directed by: Ron Mann

Premise: A history of comic books from the 1930s onward featuring interviews with many notable figures in the industry.

What Works: Comic Book Confidential seeks to sketch out the history of the comics industry and for the most part it accomplishes that. By now this picture is dated but it remains valuable in part because it contains interviews with so many important figures. The filmmakers interview artists and storytellers including major figures such as Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, giving the film mainstream credibility, but it also includes underground artists like Robert Crumb and Dan O’Neill. The picture also includes the voices of female comic artists like Lynda Barry and Sue Coe and their voices lend another dimension to this film and expand its perspective. This mix gives this film a broad scope and Comic Book Confidential uses a “mile wide, inch deep” approach to the history of comics, covering their origins and the trends and controversies that have ensued over the years and charting the evolution of the form from lighthearted comic strips to serious stories dealing with complex social issues. Most notably, the documentary includes excerpts from anti-comic book propaganda films of the 1950s and news footage of the 1954 U.S. Senate hearings on juvenile delinquency, in which the corruption of youth was tied to the comic book industry. In this, the film sets up an underlying thread of the ways in which the writers and artists were shaped by and responded to wider events in the culture. This sometimes meant reinforcing populist ideals, such as the patriotic superhero comics of the World War II era, but quite often the comic artists took a countercultural stance. Comic Book Confidential’s ability to highlight the ways in which comics were participatory in the culture, often in a subversive role, may be the film’s most valuable quality. Over two decades have passed since this film was made and since then mainstream comic book companies have aligned with major media corporations. In doing so the superhero has become an instrument of the establishment, both commercially and ideologically. Because Comic Book Confidential was made before all of that happened it is not cluttered with corporate noise. This is in many ways a raw picture; it does not have the slickness of a promotional picture nor is it a fan film. The filmmakers clearly have an understanding and appreciation for the comic book form, and they take this as seriously as the people they interview. The documentary is both an artifact of a particular place and time but it is also an enduring history lesson.

What Doesn’t: Comic Book Confidential is limited in what it has to offer. Because Comic Book Confidential was made before the alignment of comic book publishers with corporate media conglomerates, the picture isn’t able to address how the industry may have been impacted or compromised by that merger. The “inch deep, mile wide” approach also has drawbacks. The film touches on a lot of the major figures and trends in comic history but does not deal with them in any depth. The picture may also be difficult for viewers with not familiarity with the topic. There is a lot of material to cover and the picture transitions from one trend or figure to another in ways that might be confusing for some viewers.  Some narration might have given the film are firmer structure and made it more accessible to a wider audience. 

DVD extras: Introduction by Kevin Smith, interview with Ron Mann, comic stories by each featured artist, and artist bios.

Bottom Line: Comic Book Confidential is a flawed but interesting look at comics and the people who make them. It has some significant shortcomings but as a primer on the history and importance of comics the film is both entertaining and informative.

Episode: #396 (July 15, 2012)