Last week I attended a special screening of Comic Book Confidential, director Ron Mann's 1988 film that is credited as not only the first documentary about comic books, but also as a primary force in contextualizing both underground and mainstream comics as part of a larger cultural interest in sequential art. Part of the touring exhibition Masters of American Comics (hosted in two parts by The Jewish Museum and The Newark Museum), New York comic book geeks have been waiting for this show to arrive since it was announced last fall.
"There was a history of underground comic books, and there was a history of mainstream comic books -- but they didn't merge together," said Mann, who thanked the well-known writer and artist Lynda Barry for helping him understand that the scene was larger than any book or movie had recognized at the time. But the self-described cultural historian likely would have arrived at this conclusion with or without Barry's input: his filming methods can only be described as obsessive. He recalled interviewing virtually anyone who had even a nominal interest in the medium, acknowledging in disbelief to the crowd 20 years after the fact, "I interviewed Frank Zappa for this movie!" (Inexplicably, footage of the musician never made it into the film, and Mann rattled off about a half-dozen more artists he had spoken to who wound up as casualties of the running time -- among them being Scrooge McDuck creator Carl Barks, All American Comics editor Julie Schwartz and the legendary creator of the first all-woman comic book It Ain't Me Babe, Trina Robbins.)
Mann recounted starting Confidential in the mid-'80s while working on an electronic press kit for the Robert Redford comedy Legal Eagles. Secretly diverting Universal Pictures' resources from that project to his own, he used the studio's crew, money and film to interview comic book legends like Will Eisner, Frank Miller and Jack Kirby during his off hours. While these finances afforded him some of the flexibility he required to find and create diverse footage, the film proved successful because Mann possessed the depth and acumen to create a compelling historical narrative from comic book culture.
In particular, Mann spoke candidly about how he felt an incredible sense of responsibility in representing the work of others -- a point evident both throughout the movie and in various memories he shared with the audience about the production.
"I interviewed Jack Kirby, and his memory was very slow," Mann said. "So as I was leaving Jack Kirby's house, I rolled down the window of my car and unspooled and exposed the film and threw it out on the highway because I didn't want anybody to see it -- because I didn't want anyone to see Jack Kirby that way. ... I went back three or four times, just to get a section of Jack Kirby where it was coherent."
This kind of sensitivity and dedication to the artist not only demonstrated great respect for those in the culture, but upon the film's release, proved absolutely vital to proving the value of comics and comic book artists to an audience that was largely disdainful of the medium. In fact, it was necessary that the filmmaker employ a variety of methods that made the film a closer representation of the work of the artist -- not so much to win over those who were uninterested in comics (since they wouldn't likely be watching anyway), but as a means of personalizing the movie for those who were new to comics and needed an introduction to the aesthetic of the discipline and key figures in the field.
Speaking to this idea, Mann described the methods of narration he used in the movie to highlight various comic strips. "When you think about an artist's handwriting, it's distinctive, it's his voice," he said. "What you're hearing when you reading those bubbles is the artist's voice [as opposed to an actors], so I thought of it as a performance as an anthology of artists reading their work."
And to the extent it is possible for another to present the voice of an artist without distortion, Ron Mann does so, brilliantly highlighting the industry's best work while documenting the struggles these professionals have faced throughout a history of uncertain acceptance within mainstream culture. For example, Mann dedicates a sizeable portion of Comic Book Confidential to discussing Al Feldstein, whose 1950s-era comic book serial Tales from the Crypt was censored by the Comic Book Association for its depiction of violence. At the same time, however, the series was influencing the work of filmmakers and writers like Alfred Hitchcock and Ray Bradbury.
It's difficult to imagine now, but revelations like this finally opened comic book culture to a larger audience because it showed the practice to be much more valuable to wider arts culture than it was given credit for. The featured artists seemed to have an awareness of the film's crossover potential, best evidenced by the uncannily prophetic words of Will Eisner to his interviewer (and now close friend) Mann: "We don't have to defend comics any more after this." Two decades on, we know he couldn't have been more right.
Paddy Johnson is the editor of the New York art blog Art Fag City.
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