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‘Comic Book Confidential’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 18, 1989

 


Director:
Ron Mann
Cast:
Lynda Barry;
Robert Crumb;
Will Eisner;
William M. Gaines;
Stan Lee;
Jack Kirby
NR
Not rated


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Confronted by comic books, the non-aficionado can feel turned off or intimidated. This pictorial pulp world seems restricted to children (Superman, Spiderman, etc.) or socially impaired mutants who love secret societies, sneer over their collector's-item pages at Tim Burton's "Batman" and save up for geeky conventions in Las Vegas.

Canadian director Ron Mann's "Comic Book Confidential," a non-pretentious, strip-by-strip overview of comic-book America, past and present, smudges those connotations and draws you right in. Turns out everybody's welcome, at least everybody that believes "imagination" and "free rein" belong in the same sentence.

Of course there are always those who know better than the rest of us, and far too frequently they're legislators. In the 1950s (the intellectual dark ages for most artists), the Senate subcommittee on juvenile delinquency censored William Gaines' gruesome "Tales from the Crypt" and other "EC" horror books, saving Our Children once again.

But following a lull-after-the-Stu rm period (during which time our comic-book options included "Nature Boy," "Young Brides" and "The Adventures of Jerry Lewis"), Stan Lee -- with Marvel Comics -- brought back the superheroes, and into the '60s, the underground and daring doodlers returned.

Now we have works as sophisticated as Sue Coe's (yes, women thrive in Comics Land too) "How to Commit Suicide in South Africa," an unmanacled indictment of that country's apartheid prisons; Art Spiegelman's "Maus," an animalistic represention of the Nazi horrors, in which Jews are mice, Nazis are cats and American troops are dogs; and Jaime Hernandez's "Love and Rockets," a contemporary series on East L.A. living.

It's also hard to miss the wide-reaching, comic-book/cartoon-influenced explosion that suffuses the culture, from Andy Warhol's panel-portraits and Keith Haring's suggestive squiggles to "Star Wars," "Superman," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" and countless other projects in the making, such as "Dick Tracy," "Brenda Starr," "Archie," "Zippy the Pinhead" and of course "Batman II."

Filmmaker Mann interviews 22 artists who relate their mad affairs with pen and ink over the years and, with a technique known as filmograph in which the camera glides its way through the picture strips, Mann "animates" their work while the artists read their dialogue.

It's also a pleasure to see the faces that made those crazy-flow images, many of them at least as strange as their creations. There's the wry, head-shaking Gaines who rebounded from the Hill hearings to found the relatively toned down Mad magazine, the legendary Stan Lee sporting mafioso shades, the soft-spoken Bill Griffith who describes his Zippy character as "a part of me that went astray in the '70s," and still-alive-after-Haight-Ashbury undergrounder Robert Crumb who created "Fritz the Cat" and the famous "Stoned Again" panel poster.

There's a whole world out there that Mann has identified well. He's also done what the good comic strip aims to -- keep you absorbed from first frame to last.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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