Doc Review: Comic Book Confidential (1988)

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.

Trade Post: Shortcomings

SHORTCOMINGS (Drawn & Quarterly)
Written & drawn by Adrian Tomine
Collects Optic Nerve #9-11
Adrian Tomine is a creator I’ve heard a lot about from my more indie-oriented comic friends. I even remember when Shortcomings came out in trade format in 2007. Actually, I remember when it was announced the book was coming out a few months before. I was working in the research department at Wizard at the time and if memory serves my buddy Sean Collins was going to write about the book for Book Shelf (the monthly trade review section of Wizard at the time). I loved writing for Book Shelf and reading it, but I also hated that section because it meant a full day of me sifting through boxes in the hot, stuffy comic book library trying to track down certain issues. For the most part we didn’t get advance copies of the trades, so we would just get the issues together and read them all together, asking the companies if there were any extras of note. I developed a bit of a system, writing the cover date month on many of the long boxes, which worked out pretty well, but it was never an easy task, especially if the books were sought after by other folks which meant they would be all out of order. It might surprise some that the Wizard library did in fact include Optic Nerve, but since the book had a non-traditional shipping schedule it took the longest to track down. For whatever reason, possibly bitterness, I didn’t wind up reading the book.

Until now, thanks to a D&Q sale that I took advantage of, ordering Shortcomings along with the first Walt & Skeezix Tinpan Alley volume. The book stars Ben Tanaka a generally caustic dude in a relationship with Miko who winds up heading to New York for an internship. His friend Alice, a skirt-chasing lesbian, seems okay with his general assholeishness because she’s used to it, but it comes as no real surprise when he starts having trouble getting a hold of Miko and tries to start flings with his punky coworker Autumn and later Alice’s friend of a friend and “fence-sitter” Sasha, neither of which are destined to go anywhere. Alice heads out to New York in order to clear her head, finds something that Ben just has to see and the pair of them find out what Miko has really been up to in the Big Apple.

After reading the book in a single sitting, I’m not really sure what to think of Shortcomings. It’s not bad, by any means, but it left me slightly flat. I think one of the reasons for that is that the comic has a lot of echos back to Kevin Smith’s Clerks and Chasing Amy. Ben works at a movie theater, hates his job and seemingly everything else, but doesn’t want to leave it, he doesn’t have any further career aspirations and seems unable to make a real change in his life. He also starts dating a lesbian who has a more varied sexual history than him and things work out until something happens and they break up in a big fight. I don’t want to imply that Tomine borrowed those elements from the movies, but I have trouble thinking of anything else when those elements are put into place in close proximity. I have seen those movies a LOT by the way. One of the guys at the movie theater even notes that Jay and Silent Bob Strike back is one of his favorite movies. I can’t tell if that that’s a subtle form of what the Lost writers called “hanging a lantern” on the festivities (i.e. drawing attention to something in-story that the reader/viewer might be commenting on in the real world) or a dig at Smith (is the soon-shushed guy who also likes Fight Club and Reservoir Dogs being silenced because he’s one of those dudes who never shuts up about movies or because his favorite movies suck?). I’m probably thinking way too much about all this.

I’m also getting a little tired of reading indie books with unlikable characters as the leads. I’m trying to get through Jimmy Corrigan and am having a ROUGH time of it (he’s such a sadsack loser, I’m having trouble caring about him whatsoever). Ben’s nowhere near that annoying and he does remind me of a younger version of myself and plenty of my friends, but that whole “bitching about everything and thinking it’s clever” mentality has been annoying for years to me at this point. Luckily, I don’t equate an annoying and hard-to-like character like Ben with bad writing and Tomine does a great job of turning things around, getting me to actually wind up on Ben’s side by the end of the book. He might be kind of an ass, but at least he wasn’t a huge liar. That’s way worse in my book. Plus, I dug the character of Alice and even more so, her lady friend Meredith, who winds up being the most likable, non asshole-ish character in the bunch, probably because she’s slightly older and definitely more mature than the others.

On the positive side, the story is well told, the characters well rounded for all their craggy exteriors and the art well done in a simplistic but expressive pen and ink style. Had I not seen some of the elements previously, I think the story might have hit me a little harder in the heart or gut. As it is, I dug the story, laughed a few times here and there and had a generally good time with the proceedings, but I wasn’t overly wowed. It felt like an indie movie, but, again, not one I loved, just one I liked.

Speaking of movies, I have a lot of respect for Tomine for having a story in mind, writing it out and turning it into a comic book. Anyone with that level of creativity and follow-through is aces in my book. I wish I could do something like that. He’s actually a lot like the aforementioned Kevin Smith in those regards in that he took something he loved and turned it into his job, something that I think many people want to do, but much like Ben Tanaka, don’t have the guts to drop everything and actually attempt. In Tomine’s case, according to his bio on the D&Q page, he actually started Optic Nerve when he was 16 and has turned it all into a career. I love that kind of ingenuity and spirit and even though Shortcomings didn’t floor me, I like the story and the artist enough to give some of his other work a try. What should I read next?

Docu Triple Feature: Planet B-Boy, Cool School & American Movie

Have I mentioned before how much I love dance movies? If not, I do. I even watch a few dance shows in the vein of America’s Next Best Dance Crew (new season starts soon!). So, when I came across Planet B-Boy (2007) in the Netflix instant watch queue, I added it. Like most of the 330 movies currently on my queue, I added it a while ago, but didn’t get around to watching it until recently. One of the things I love about the instant watch feature is that it opens me up to documentaries I probably wouldn’t have otherwise heard about.

Okay, so here’s the deal with Planet B-Boy. It starts off telling a little bit of the history of break dancing and b-boy culture, how it started in the US and has branched out to what seems like every country in the world and about how the crews compete now. The main thrust of the movie follows several break dance crews as they compete in the big break dance competition for the whole world. You get everything from the kid who’s doing this even though his parents don’t understand to a little French kid who is on a mostly black dance crew. When you see them walk up, it looks like a joke or a gimmick, but the kid’s got moves.

Not only do you get wrapped up in the dance competition, but also some of the individuals from the different crews. It’s a great little movie that feels as much like a sports competition than a simple dance off.

I’m also a fan of art. Not a big huge fan. I’ve never really studied it or anything, but I’m fascinated by the creative process in general, especially when it means taking a blank canvas or a lump of clay and doing something so cool with it. The Cool School (2008) takes a look at the burgeoning modern art scene in LA in the late 50s through the 60s. I had a lot of fun with this, learned a lot and don’t really remember a ton, but I know it was a fun watch. See, all these artists really saw themselves as these counter culture rebels, and they were. It’s just kind of funny to think about how powerful this scene and the very similar one like it going on over in New York really were revolutionary. Can you think of anything like that now? Is it because everything under the sun has been done (and recorded) or is it that we’re not really pushing ourselves as youths anymore? And how does Twilight play into all this?! Okay, I’m getting riled up.

Cool School focuses on not just the scene, but most of the artists, participants and hangers on who were around for it, which was something I really liked. A lot of times you watch something like this and it’s a lot of secondary and tertiary figures or songs and daughters talking about people. Heck, they even got Dennis Hopper to appear with another guy and talk about the artists like me and my friends talk about comics. It was pretty cool, especially considering that after a few people fell out of the group, left or died, it all kind of fell apart. This one’s definitely worth a look if you’re interested in art, culture or stories about what a group of compatriots can do with a little money and a lot of freedom.

Sweet Christmas, American Movie(1999) is not the kind of movie you should watch when you’re feeling down about yourself and wondering whether you should give up on your dreams. Or maybe it is. It’s about that dude there on the left in the poster. He’s been a dreamer all his life and wants to make movies. The problem is that he’s got no money, is heavily in debt and has a drinking problem. But none of that will stop him from making his movie…or at least finishing the short film he started years prior.

The reason I watched this movie today is that I remembered seeing it at the video store and never had an idea what it was about. Sometimes my choices come down to something that simple. Thanks to my current emotional state and unemployment this flick really hit me, especially because the dude on the left can’t imagine how anyone resigns themselves to living a boring life working in a factory or something and not doing something great. The simple fact of the matter that he doesn’t seem to grasp is that not everyone can be a movie director and every city needs a garbage man. But damn, you’ve got to appreciate and admire his dogged determination to get his creation out there. I wish I had that kind of drive. Maybe I do and I just haven’t figured out what that drive is for. Anyway, enough soul searching, everyone who’s ever had a creative impulse to do anything and either given up or not, this is the movie for you. Oh, plus the dude on the right is funny every single time he speaks, though unintentionally. Good, no great, stuff!

The 8 Raddest CustomCon 24 Entries So Far

Monday marked the beginning of the 24th annual CustomCon over on TheFwoosh. It’s basically a virtual Toy Fair in which toy customizers offer up their creations as if they’re pitching brand new lines to real buyers. For more info, check out the site. Today is day three (I’m not exactly sure how long it goes, but I’m guessing a week). I just went through them and while I really dug all the pieces that people put up there, I did have some favorites. Huge props to everyone who contributed, I’ve got nothing but respect for anyone who takes the initiative to actually make the toys they want instead of sitting around and bitching about what they don’t have. Hit the jump to check out the full list of figures that include zombie MiniMates, really detailed Mike Tyson’s Punch Out and Immortal Iron Fist and the Immortal Weapons figures. You’ll be glad you did. Continue reading The 8 Raddest CustomCon 24 Entries So Far

Trade Post: Creature Tech and Wormwood: It Only Hurts When I Pee

I don’t want you guys thinking I’m slacking off and not reading trades just because I’m not posting them. In fact, I’ve got a huge pile of trades next to my desk here just waiting for reviews, but I’ve been slacking off when it comes to posting about them. That’s a little better right? Anyway, as I mentioned in my post about the new SyFy (ick) show Warehouse 13, I recently read Doug TenNapel’s Creature Tech from Top Shelf and it reminded me a lot of that show. I’ve also recently read Wormwood Gentlemen Corpse Volume 2: It Only Hurts When I Pee by Ben Templesmith for IDW. They’re both in the sci-fi and fantasy genre so I figured they’d go well together.

CREATURE TECH (Top Shelf)
Written and drawn by Doug TenNapel
My bossman Justin Aclin recommended this book to me and I didn’t really know anything about it. It wasn’t until after I looked TenNapel up on Wiki that I discovered he was the brain behind the Earthwork Jim games, which I loved even though the first one is still crazy hard.

The story’s about Michael Ong, a scientist who gets relegated to the Research Technical Institute (dubbed Creature Tech by the locals) by the US government. His former pastor, current man of religion dad lives in town as well, but they’ve got their problems. The black and white graphic novel (which, as far as I’m concerned, means an original work created specifically for the larger page count provided for by a trade, not just any collection of sequential art, that’s pretentious) focuses on Michael dealing with the Shroud of Turin, a reincarnated ghost scientist, a giant bug lab assistant, falling in love with a girl and an alien, multi armed chest plate. It’s kind of like the current Blue Beetle with some of the quirkiness of Gail Simone’s All New Atom thrown in (loved her run on that book).

I really dug TenNapel’s art style (you can really see the Earthworm Jim style in there) and the story was quirky without getting too extreme in that column. Ong is a fun, reluctant hero who has some obvious personal problems that he seems to be dealing with (he definitely has an arc, which is nice). Oh, plus, there’s giant space eels and other cool looking aliens. I highly recommend checking this book out and I wonder if TenNapel’s got plans for any future installments? Maybe I should read that Wikipedia page I linked too above…

But instead, on to the next review!

WORMWOOD GENTLEMAN CORPSE VOLUME 2: IT ONLY HURTS WHEN I PEE (IDW)
Written and drawn by Ben Templesmith
Like most other people I first heard about Ben Templesmith because he drew/painted the original 30 Days of Night along with some of the other follow-up minis. I’m not a big fan of that book, but it’s definitely one of those slap-yourself-in-the-forehead, why-didn’t-I-think-of-that moments. A few years back Templesmith started up his own creation called Wormwood Gentleman Corpse, which is a little worm dude who inhabits corpses. The funny thing is that I didn’t even realize he was the worm and not the corpse until halfway through the first series. I can be a bit dense sometimes. He’s got a few sidekicks in the form of a robot man (Pendulum) and a stripper girl with tattoos that come to life (I can’t find her name after looking for one whole minute). I was a big fan of the take no prisoners craziness of the original mini-series, but lost track of the story in the following minis and issues. Luckily, I was able to pick up the second and third volumes and started reading through them.

This volume finds Wormwood cursed and needing the blessing of the leprechaun queen. In this mythology leprechauns are crude, gibberish-speaking little people with a penchant for violence and humping robots. In the process of trying to get the blessing to get rid of the sickness/curse, Wormwood runs into some squid-like invaders who he had a run-in with in a previous adventure. There’s also a story about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse who are being kept satiated in a hotel with a steady supply of prostitutes, food and drugs.

What I like about Templesmith’s writing is that he doesn’t shy away from things, while still not going too over the top in a bad way. There’s plenty of over-the-topness, like when Wormwood shows his companions his “suit chamber” which is, of course, a room full of preserved corpses, including Jesus’ (he decides on a little girl’s). There’s also a running gag about the genitalia Wormwood built for Pendulum. Good clean fun, you know? It’s kind of like Hellboy, but if Hellboy was an ass who had been around a lot longer, hopped dimensions and made a lot more enemies than a demon from hell.

Oh, also, Templesmith’s art is sick. Thanks to the supplemental material in the back (bonus points for the bonus material, as always), we can see the steps he takes in creating his art. It seems to be a combination of penciling, painting and then digital painting. It’s a super cool and unique style that a few others have tried to copy, but can’t quite get. Whether you like Templesmith or not, you can’t argue that he’s one of the more original artists out there. And, while we’re talking about his style, I really liked how the 30 Days of Night movie captures his style, while still keeping the realism of actual people. I can’t wait to read the other trade and track down the first one.