“I always felt I was involved in a literary form. I had literary pretensions. I was a frustrated writer, and a frustrated artist. I took my two ineptitudes and by combining them created an eptitude.”
–Will Eisner, creator of The Spirit comic book
“Badly drawn, badly written, and badly printed—a strain on the young eyes and young nervous systems—the effects of these pulp-paper nightmares is that of a violent stimulant. Their crude blacks and reds spoil a child’s natural sense of color; their hypodermic injection of sex and murder make the child impatient with better, though quieter, stories. Unless we want a coming generation even more ferocious than the present one, parents and teachers throughout America must band together to break the ‘comic’ magazine.” –Chicago Daily News, May 8th, 1940
General Standards Part B
5) Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism and werewolfism are prohibited.
General Standards Part C
3) Although slang and colloquialisms are acceptable, excessive use should be discouraged and wherever possible good grammar shall be employed.
–from the Comics Code Authority 1954
We all have our unique survival mechanisms for the long dark days of winter. Mine include keeping a copy of the complete scripts for Monty Python in the bathroom, and choosing movies to review that give me lots of warm, nostalgic fuzzies. Case in point: Torontonian documentary filmmaker Ralph Mann’s 1989 Genie Award-winning Comic Book Confidential.
Comic Book Confidential has great potential as a cure for the winter blues. The soundtrack alone would keep anyone smiling. From a couple of funky tunes about comics:
Diggin’ my kicks
When they plant me six by six
Long gone comic book craaazy…
to a kind of condensed history of popular music from the time comic books first showed up in 1933 to Haight-Ashbury in the Sixties and into the post-Punk beyond, the music adds a solid third dimension to Ralph Mann’s portraits of some 22 artists and their works.
For anyone who grew up with Mad magazine, EC horror comics, Marvel superheroes, the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, or the antiheroes of Frank Miller, seeing and listening to the artists who created those characters is an unalloyed joy. One of the most heartening things is seeing how good many of the old-timers look. Dire warnings of comics’ corruption of morals aside, most of these people seem to have found a tremendous satisfaction in creation and it’s kept them young at heart.
Speaking of corruption of morals, Mann gets a lot of mileage out of old footage of anti-comic book propaganda. This stuff is as good as Reefer Madness. There’s always the earnest, dark-suited, clean-shaven sonorous-voiced narrator warning of the deadly threat to the nation’s youth (“This comic book shows a sexual aberration so shocking I couldn’t even mention the scientific term on television”). Then there’s the risibly melodramatic footage of innocent young boys driven to thoughts of lurid violence as they flip through comics far away from the eyes of responsible adults (Ooooh, watch the young boy put down his comic, take out his pen knife, and stab a tree repeatedly as newly awakened, twisted Oedipal fantasies lurch through his brain!!). To top it all off, there are the shots of the enthusiastic mass burnings of comic books.
Unfortunately for artists such as William M. Gaines (whose father invented the comic book with the first issue of Famous Funnies in 1933) and Al Feldstein, who were on a tongue-in-cheek and pre-Twilight Zone/pre-Hitchcock roll with comics such as Weird Fantasy, Tales From the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, and Crime Does Not Pay, anti-comic hysteria morphed into legislated reality (to this day, crime comics are still proscribed by the Canadian Criminal Code, Section 163, ‘Corrupting Morals’). Ghouls, gangsters and femme fatales were out; Nature Boy and Young Brides were in. We get to see Gaines’ appearance before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency in 1954, and listen to the heavily-accented warnings of doom of Dr. Fredric Wertham, author of the classic Seduction of the Innocent (Wertham blamed comics for juvenile delinquency, endorsing homosexuality, and—thanks to Wonder Woman—giving little girls the wrong ideas about a woman’s place in society). The end result was the Comics Code Authority, which “cleaned up” comics the way the Hays Office “sanitized” movies in the early Thirties. As Gaines bemusedly points out, virtually every word—“horror,” “terror,” “weird,” even “crime”— he used in his titles was banned or restricted. A representative of the Code is shown enumerating the 126 stories which have just been rejected under the new guidelines, and the 5556 individual drawings which have been eliminated and replaced with less dangerous fare. Gaines tells a great story of finally drawing the line when asked to remove beads of sweat from a drawing of the face of a black astronaut.
Although the Comics led to the production of some lamentably forgettable fare such as Cowboy Love and Racoon Kids, and did a lot of damage to artists and companies producing cutting-edge comics, there might have been a positive spin-off. The Code probably forced artists to be creative in new ways, and may ultimately have led to some of the great superheroes of the Sixties.
Before and after the Comics Code, a common theme of the artists interviewed is their pleasure in being able to do exactly what they wanted to do with their medium. Will Eisner said, “I can tell a story at two levels—I can deal in writing and I can deal in acting. There’s a completeness to it that satisfies me.” Al Feldstein was proud of writing up to his readers, many of whom he knew to be adult veterans returning home from overseas service in World War II. Stan Lee of Marvel talks of how his wife convinced him that, since he was at one point thinking of quitting the profession and had nothing to lose, he should do some comics the way he thought he should be done and damn the consequences. The result was the new generation of superheroes with defined characters, realistic challenges, and psychological complexes. And with John F. Kennedy in the White House, heroes were once again welcome after the paranoid years of McCarthyism.
The ultimate end of the evolution in plotting towards psycho-social realism would be Frank Miller’s psychotic Batman and his sell-out Superman, in 1986’s The Dark Knight Returns—a comic book that has as much to do with Archie & Jughead as a Hallmark greeting card has to do with The Brothers Karamazov. Miller is also interviewed in Mann’s film, along with other major contemporary artists such as Jaime Hernandez, whose Love and Rockets chronicled life in East L.A.; Sue Coe, who tackled political issues head on with work such as How to Commit Suicide in South Africa; Art Spiegelman and his 250-page Holocaust memoir Maus; Howard Pekan’s American Splendor, an autobiographical look at life as a filing clerk in a government hospital; Lynda Barry and her mockumentary Girls & Boys; and Charles Burns with Big Baby and his “more personalized, internalized horror…[about] a kid who becomes aware of the horror of the adult world.”.
But we’ve gotten a little ahead of ourselves. Let’s, ever so appropriately, flash back to the Sixties. Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein incorporate comic book elements into modern art. Robert Crumb gives up drawing insipid greeting cards in Cleveland and heads out to San Francisco. Underground comics are born. Absolute freedom. Zap Comix. Mr. Natural. The Freak Brothers. Fritz the Cat. Scatological and pornographic and irreverent and political and very, very painfully autobiographical. In Crumb’s words, “You had to break every taboo first, had to get through that, then you could really get down to business.” The spirit was shared by other artists like S. Clay Wilson, Spain, Gilbert Shelton, Dan O’Neil, Shary Flenniken. Their creations: Trashman, Young Lust, Slow Death, Snarf, Wimmen’s Comix, Tales of Toad, Trots and Bonnie. The groundwork for The Simpsons and South Park. For better or worse. Robert Crumb was the Post-Modern Spiderman, a geeky nerd bitten by the radioactive spider of artistic inspiration to be able to spin neuroses into mythology.
Comic Book Confidential isn’t just a talking heads documentary. I’ve already mentioned the excellent soundtrack. Mann also uses a technique called “filmograph,” which glides the camera over individual frames of a comic book to “animate” them as the artist who drew those frames reads the dialogue. Filmograph works because it isn’t schlocky or sensationalist—it emphasizes intelligence and artistry.
If there’s one thing a documentary about comic books can’t quite nail down it’s the Myth-making with the capital “M”. At their best, in Thor and Strange Tales and Superman and Magnus Robot Fighter and The Haunted Tank and Classics Illustrated and Tarzan and Nick Fury and in dozens of others, artists created whole worlds that were boundlessly inventive and freighted with all the significance their inventors could pour into them. They were, and are, splendid. As Will Eisner states so clearly at the end of Comic Book Confidential, the artists Mann interviewed were proud of working in an art form far more permanent than its deriders could ever have imagined. Last month, Frank Miller’s Dark Knight returned again after a 15-year absence. The Dark Knight Strikes Again was under my Christmas tree. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
I’m not sure how Comic Book Confidential would play someone for whom comics had no more than a peripheral interest, but I have to say that, as a lifelong fan since elementary school in the early 1960s, the chance to spend some time with almost two dozen of the greatest comics artists of all time is the cat’s meow. In roughly chronological order, we get to see and hear William M. Gaines, Will Eisner, Al Feldstein, Harvey Kurtzman, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Robert Crumb, Victor Moscoso, Spain, Gilbert Shelton, Jaime Hernandez, Shary Flennikan, Dan O’Neill, Bill Griffith, Harvey Pekar, Lynda Barry, Art Spiegelman, Françoise Mouly, Charles Burns, Sue Coe, and Frank Miller. If some of these names don’t ring a bell, the works they created likely will: The Spirit, Tales of the Crypt, Mad Magazine, Marvel Comics, Mr. Natural, Fritz the Cat, Zap Comix, Trashman, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, Trots and Bonnie, Zippy, American Splendor, Love and Rockets, Miss Marfet, Raw, Big Baby, Maus, and The Dark Knight. Had the film included interviews with Steve Ditko, Jim Steranko, Bob Kane, and Alan Moore, the pantheon would have been complete.
Comic books have been part of the zeitgeist since Famous Funnies first hit the newsstands in 1934.
Comic Book Confidential takes the viewer through the next 50 years of creative fire, from Superman’s appearance in Action Comics in 1938, to the EC horror comics of the 50s, to the rise of Marvel and the Underground comics of the 60s, to the graphic novels of the 70s and 80s. Director Alan Ross also makes good use of the absurd “Reefer Madness”-style documentaries from the 50s that warned youth of the nefarious moral effects of unbridled comic book reading.
In the decades following the release of Ron Mann’s film, there has been an explosion of brilliant work in the long-form comic medium of graphic novels, as well as the proliferation of Japanese manga translated into English. Several of the artists featured in Comic Book Confidential have been the subjects of documentaries devoted to them and to their work. Stan Lee, of course, became a Master of the Universe, with the Marvel juggernaut showing no signs whatever of losing momentum. On television, The Big Bang Theory used the unlikely premise of a hot girl and four comic-loving geeks to generate 12 seasons of first-rate comedy. If there was hope for them, there was hope for all of us.
Although one critic called Ron Mann, who was born in Toronto, “the most famous Canadian documentary maker of the last 20 years,” I have to admit I had forgotten he was Canadian until I researched this entry. I actually used one of his earliest documentary projects, Poetry in Motion (1982), in my high school English classes. I hope to be able to check out some of his other work, if I can track it down. Of particular interest are Twist (1992), Grass (1999), Tales of the Rat Fink (2006), and Know Your Mushrooms (2008).
For anyone who hasn’t dipped their toes into the comic book universe, here are some personal favorites:
From the 1960s:
Thor & Tales of Asgard
Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.LD.
Not Brand Echh
The Haunted Tank
Magnus, Robot Fighter
M.A.R.S. Patrol: Total War
Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos
Tales of Suspense, feat. Iron Man
Star Spangled War Stories
Howard the Duck
The Dark Knight
Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography
anything by Osamu Tezuka
Available on YouTube? No, but available for rent or purchase through iTunes, and on Amazon Prime