From the Boston Phoenix (September 15, 1989). — J.R.

comic book confidential

This enjoyable documentary about American comic books takes up a subject so fruitful and entertaining, it’s surprising no one has ever made such a film before. Canadian filmmaker Ron Mann — whose previous cultural investigations include feature-length documentaries about avant-garde jazz (Imagine the Sound) and North American poets who sing and chant their works (Poetry in Motion), and who is currently preparing a feature about the Twist — dives into his chosen turf with the zeal and affection of a voracious fan.

Starting out with the inception of comic books, in 1933, Mann gives us breezy surveys of the superheroes (such as Superman, Batman, and the Fantastic Four), EC Comics (which produced the best horror and sci-fi comics in the 50s and spawned the original version of Mad), the underground artists (such as Robert Crumb and Spain Rodrigues) who emerged in the 60s, and more recent figures such as Art Spiegelman, Sue Coe, and Lynda Barry, as well as the deliberations and operations of Raw, a contemporary publicatiin with a somewhat more self-conscious notion of the comic book as art.

Some of Mann’s funniest material is archival footage of anti-comic-book propaganda from the 50s, when Dr. Fredric Wertham carried on a virulent campaign spearheaded by the book Seduction of the Innocent (shades of J. Edgar Hoover), which led to a Comics Code — a form of censorship that eventually put EC out of business. Mann also employs an arsenal of jazzy graphic and narrative devices throughout in an attempt to represent comics cinematically. Some of these are more successful than others. There’s a certain aptness in blowing up frames and having the original artists read the captions aloud. But some of the simplified animation, and a live-action re-enactment of Zippy the Pinhead’s antics, is a bit strained.

The meat of this movie, however, lies in the interviews with pioneers like William M. Gaines (publisher of EC), Harvey Kurtzman (inventor of Mad), Stan Lee (whose prolific writing career first took flight in the 60s), and more recent figures like Rodrigues, Harvey Pekar, and Spiegelman. There’s a genuine sense of discovery in the way that Mann pumps his subjects, and they’re clearly delighted to hold forth.

— Jonathan Rosenbaum


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