I’ve been reading comics since 1992, when Superman died. In the ensuing nearly 20 years, I’ve watched a few documentaries and read a few books about the history of the medium, but nothing too in depth. Even so, most of these kinds of things go through the same general flow of information: the first comic consisted of newspaper comic strips put in one book, someone eventually started doing that with new material, Superman came along and exploded everything, comics sold in the millions, eventually though there was a downturn, superheroes fell out of favor, horror comics got big, Frederick Wertham, the death of EC, Barry Allen kicks off the Silver Age, underground comix, grim and gritty, Image, the bust, etc.
Going into Comic Book Confidential on Netflix Instant I was curious how much of the above would be included (well, not Image because the movie came out in ’88). As it turned out nearly all of it wound up in this doc, but what really makes CBC interesting is how it focuses not on Marvel and DC after a while, but on the underground and independent comics and their creators from the 60s, 70s and 80s. After a certain point in the doc, you’d think the Big Two were just putting out nonsense that no one cared about, which might not be completely representative of what was happening, but I did appreciate the focus. I personally don’t need to hear about how Green Lantern/Green Arrow pushed the borders of what could be talked about in a comic book or how epic Claremont and Byrne’s X-Men run was for the millionth time. In fact, I hadn’t heard about guys like Spain or Gilbert Shelton, so not only getting an idea of their work but how they created or thought of creation was a lot of fun.
The movie does something kind of interesting, but also slightly annoying after a while where they have the creators featured actually reading some of their comics as the panels and pages are shown on screen. It’s actually a better presentation than I’ve seen in most motion comics, but I also would probably have liked to have seen Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, Robert Crumb, Stan Lee, Harvey Pekar, Al Feldstein, Harvey Kurtzman or any of the others get more screen time. In fact, I would love to see some of the out takes and footage that didn’t make it into the finished product because the movie’s only 90 minutes long. Someone should talk to director Ron Mann about putting out a kick ass special edition DVD with all those extras.
The most interesting aspect of this film, for me, though is how it’s such a snapshot of the comic industry at the time, or more accurately a particular aspect of it. You’d think that, from the tone of the movie, that indie comics were going to take over the world and become this amazing art form that people all over would enjoy. It’s almost like doing a documentary about youth culture that you finished and put together right before the Vietnam War hit because soon after, everything changed. There’s no real indication of the grim and gritty movement (though they do talk to Frank Miller about his Batman comics), the boom, Image and the bust. So what happened? I dunno. I’d actually like to see director Ron Mann gather as many survivors from the original doc as he can and answer that question.