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Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

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Comic Book Confidential (1988)

“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.
Dr. Strange
Not Brand Echh
Classics Illustrated
Captain Marvel
Enemy Ace
The Haunted Tank
Ghost Rider
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
Mad Magazine


National Lampoon
Howard the Duck

Graphic Novels:

The Dark Knight
Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography
Lady Mechanika
anything by Osamu Tezuka


Available on YouTube?   No, but available for rent or purchase through iTunes, and on Amazon Prime

Movie Information

Genre: Documentary
Director: Ron Mann
Year: 1988
Original Review: January 2002



A diverting grab bag of movie reviews, Netflix info, trailers, movie & television news, video game news, interviews, etc.  I checked out “Every Best Director Oscar Winner of the 21st Century Ranked from Worst to Best” (Worst: Ron Howard – A Beautiful Mind; Best: Bong Joon-ho – Parasite), “Daniel Wu on Playing a Seductive Villain in ‘Reminiscence’ and His Favorite Jackie Chan Movie and Stunt” (a 4-minute interview on video); “The New Wave of Indonesian Horror: 9 Terrifying Films to Watch Right Now”; “The 75 Best Horror Movies of All-Time”; “’Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster’ Documentary Trailer Revisits a Horror Icon with Guillermo Del Toro, Joe Dante & More”


What Babylon Berlin Sees in the Weimer Republic


Nazis, noir, and Weimar decadence: Babylon Berlin recreates an era for TV detective drama

From The New Republic, the first link is an in-depth review of the German television series by Adrian Daub, a Professor of German studies and Comparative Literature at Stanford University.  Daub sees the shows narrative as, in part, a cautionary tale for the contemporary political scene.  Babylon Berlin is currently playing on Netflix, and I recommend both the series and the novels by Volker Kutscher on which it is based.  An excerpt from Daub’s review:

Rather than being the story Germany tells itself about its own history, the show comes across as the story about its own history that it tells others….Rather than being framed as particularly German, or as unique to the 1920s, the show’s overriding concerns seem likewise packaged for ease of transfer. There are communists pointing to the violence of “so-called democracy,” and police and politicians who seem hell-bent on proving them right. There is paramilitary violence on the street, and a military unwilling to put up with civilian control. The president is disgusted by the very democracy he is sworn to protect. The social democratic establishment cooks up fake news in smoke-filled backrooms, while communist rabble rousers disseminate their propaganda outside. And big business appears happy to sacrifice democracy if it gives them a bit more control over trade unions—the show’s villainous Alfred Nyssen is fairly obviously Fritz Thyssen, one of Hitler’s largest financial backers for much of the 1920s….Babylon Berlin is not only concerned with making sense of what Friedrich Meinecke once called “the German catastrophe.” It wants to make broader points about democracy and its institutions, how they survive staggering inequality and a general loss of faith in them.

The second link, from the Guardian, provides a little more background on the production and the actors.


Hey Fox News and Other Killers of Hope, This Week You Failed

From the award-winning British Columbia website, The Tyee, another passionate review by Dorothy Woodend, from October 2018.  Ms. Woodend tackles Alex Bloom’s Divide and Conquer: The Roger Ailes Story and Roger Moore’s Fahrenheit 11/9.  From the review:

Long before he decided he was “bigger than America,” Ailes was a scrappy kid from Warren, Ohio. Director Alexis Bloom charts the course of Ailes’s career from his high school yearbook to his final humiliating removal from Fox headquarters. What emerges is not simply a portrait of toxic, bullying masculinity, a culture as cloistered and protected as that of Carmelite nuns, but also entrenched patterns of behaviour kept in place by money, power and fear.

In this Bloom’s film forms a companion piece to Michael Moore’s new documentary, Fahrenheit 11/9. Both works are ostensibly stories of powerful men, but what they reveal is more complex. They trace a network (quite literally with Fox & Friends) of connection and complicity, a vast rotten iceberg that runs beneath media and politics.

This intermingling is longstanding in the U.S., but Ailes came to an understanding of its succubus power early. While working as a producer on The Mike Douglas Show Ailes witnessed the 1960 election debate, wherein a dashing young John F. Kennedy squared off against a Richard M. Nixon so sweaty and pale his own mother called the TV station and ask if he was okay. Ailes warned Nixon that he ignored television at his peril and offered to serve in his newly dreamed up role of media advisor. Ailes went on to do the same for George H. W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, as well as other political hot potatoes like Rudy Giuliani. Still, Ailes’s most horrifying legacy may be Donald. J. Trump.

If the long road to Trump is the backstory of Bloom’s Divide and Conquer, Moore’s Fahrenheit 11/9 places the orange goblin at the centre of the narrative, examining how the combination of media, politics, and power could metastasize into something monstrous.

After he was excised from Fox like a malignant growth, Ailes went on to coach Trump, before falling on his head and dying. But the culture that he coaxed from the dark soil of suspicion, rage and intolerance rolls on. Rolling Stone pundit Matt Taibbi described Fox Nation thusly: “We are a hate-filled, paranoid, untrusting, book-dumb and bilious people whose chief source of recreation is slinging insults and threats at each other online, and we’re that way in large part because of the hyper-divisive media environment he [Ailes] discovered.”

Holding On to the Farm

A short film from documentary filmmaker Lewis Bennett, in which he considers what to do with his family’s long-abandoned farm in Saskatchewan.  The film cuts deeply for me, as I still remember the sense of loss I felt when I learned that my uncles had sold my grandparents’ farm to some faceless buyer from Alberta.  My uncles had worked that land their entire lives, renting it out to a local farmer when they retired, and finally decided to let it go completely. Had it not been for the COVID lockdowns, I would have traveled to Saskatchewan to see if, by some chance, my grandmother’s house was still there on the farm. 

Films Worth Talking About:

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Thin Blue Line, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, Married to the Mob, Bird, The Bear (l’Ours), Another Woman, Trop belle pour toi!, The Accidental Tourist, Die Hard, Life is a Long Quiet River, Hairspray, Three Men and a Baby, The Big Blue, Big, A World Apart, A Short Film About Killing, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Dead Ringers, A Fish Called Wanda, Salaam Bombay!, The Accused, The Last Temptation of Christ, Camille Claudel, The Vanishing, Mississippi Burning, Rain Man, Working Girl, Dangerous Liaisons, Bagdad Café, Beetlejuice, [Distant Voices, Still Lives], la Petite voleuse, Young Einstein, Scrooged, Drowning by Numbers, Coming to America, Cocktail, The Lair of the White Worm, Running on Empty, My Stepmother is an Alien, la Lectrice, Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser, My Neighbor Totoro, Une affaire de femmes [A Story of Women]

The Bigger Picture

FilmsCrumb (1994). American Splendor (2003), Persepolis (2007), Tales of the Rat Fink (2006), Grass (1999), Poetry in Motion 25 (2007)




Books:  Les Daniels, Comix: A History of Comic Books in America; Sean Howe, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story

The Word on the Street

Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful! Lovely production values, highlighting–just like comics! Fancy that!–the power of wild, middling production values coupled with untrammeled creativity to speak simple, direct truths that touch your heart and free your mind.   [rzajak]

Snappy graphics and sample art combine to make the film a colorful celebration of an enduring and popular form of self-expression, with one drawback: most of the highlighted artists could have inspired their own full length feature, and the film simply isn’t long enough to examine them individually to the depth they each deserve. Also, parents please note: despite the subject matter this is certainly not a film for children.   [mjneu59]

A well made look at the history of comics, it really ignores superhero stuff and focuses on underground and indie comics for the last half. It’s clear they look at superhero stuff as artistically vapid (until the end with Frank Miller and DKR) which is a view I get, but there’s still lots to find if you dig. Could have looked more at Jack Kirby’s stuff, Gerber, Moore, etc. A nice primer, but overall a tad limited unless you really want to see semi obscure creators reading their stuff.   [jellopuke]

I’ve read comics before, but i’m not an avid comic book reader, and until this film I had no idea of the great history behind comic books. This film is tailored to educate and entertain everyone from the most avid comic book readers to the people that know nothing about comics. The film did a fantastic job at going through the history of comics and hitting on all of the aspects of comic books and comic book writers. I do, however, wish there was more about women’s involvement in comics.   [brittney-mcclellan]

Not being an avid comic book reader, I found Ron Mann’s insightful documentary to be revealing and informative. This film sheds light on how much of an impact comic books and their artist have in our culture, history, and society. From political satires, to old tales of classic superheroes, horror and action filled comics, Mann covers a base on all genres in the comic book world. The style in which Mann delivers this film has the viewer flying across the pages of some of the most cherished comic books.   [livdavison]