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'Comic Book Confidential'

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 18, 1989


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

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"Comic Book Confidential," Ron Mann's sly history of pulp artistry, looks not only at the people behind the funny papers but also at the form's narrow-minded censors. Vintage newsreels show an anti-comic-book crusade, which led to hearings before a 1954 congressional subcommittee -- laughable were it not for what's come of the Mapplethorpe arts funding ruckus on Capitol Hill.

The film begins with "the funnies," a compilation of Sunday newspaper comic strips that sold for a dime and became a Rockwellian aspect of American family life by 1934. Four years later, the industry took off with the birth of Superman, who did for comics "what Babe Ruth did for baseball," says Will Eisner, a dean of the field. A pantheon of super-heroes followed, including Jack Kirby's Captain America, who symbolized the patriotic spirit of World War II. "We were up against a formidable enemy," Kirby says. "Who better to defeat {the Nazis} than a super-hero?"

The content of the comics, a sociological mirror, continued to track the mood of the nation when the postwar audience lost interest in super-heroes in favor of romance and mystery. No longer just for kids, the comics told stories for adults as well. And along came the gory horror tales from impresario William M. Gaines, whose EC Comics became a target of the Kefauver Senate subcommittee on juvenile delinquency. The industry developed a comics code, which banned the words "horror," "weird" and "terror" and erased beads of sweat from foreheads.

The code bred pallid comics, all drained colors and insipid titles like "Cowboy Love," "Nature Boy" and "The Adventures of Jerry Lewis." It also so disgusted Gaines that he and artist Al Feldman invented Mad magazine, which set trends in parody and satire that would evolve into the subversive psychedelic strips, posters and books of the '60s that led to today's graphic novels, art comics and nihilistic comic strips.

In all, Mann talks to 22 comics creators -- nerds, zanies, furious feminists and wise old men who are among the world's most scathing social critics. Among the most strident works are Sue Coe's powerful grotesquerie "How to Commit Suicide in South Africa," and Harvey Pekar's sour diary "American Splendor," a look at the banality of his life as a filing clerk in a government hospital.

These days the artists see themselves as an alternative to corporate-owned news media -- "art is about having information and passing it on," says Coe, who draws a shark and wolf dining on the best of all possible worlds. In a lighter vein Lynda Barry, who dismisses the "crude drawing style that skyrocketed me to fame," looks cockeyed at women's issues. Women writing comic books, of course, being another sign of the times.

In general, they think of their work as involving not only storytelling and drawing, but acting skills. Mann asks them to read from their own bubbles, a dramatic contrivance with the feel of an "And Then I Wrote" concert. It's rather like listening to Marvin Hamlisch sing "What I Did for Love," naked and candid.

What Mann discovers is the evolution from bird cage carpet to sophisticated medium of personal expression. In other words, art. Whether drawing all-American or underground super-heroes, what all had in common was they took the funnies seriously.

Comic Book Confidential, at the Biograph, is unrated.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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