Comic books have largely been misunderstood for years, viewed by the average non-comic reader as a product for children featuring the escapades of caped crusaders. Needless to say, this outlook misses some of the finer points of comic history, and the entire movement of underground comics. In 1988, along came Comic Book Confidential, which cleared the air and presented some of the great major and underground comic legends of time past. Harnessing kitschy music and visual elements borrowed from the books themselves, the film contains interviews of industry giants and showcases some of their most compelling work.
Comics have a fascinating history and various genres, including romance, western, crime and horror. Each genre with their respective time in the sun. In the 1950’s, crime and horror comics were at the heart of a moral panic. The Comic Book Code was thought up to better protect the children of America from what was in-between the pages of their favourite reading materials. The Code made it so various words, such as ‘terror’ or ‘weird’, could not be used and potentially offending art was removed entirely from the page. Eventually, regulations were eased up enough for comic creators to draw and write to their hearts content.
The film interviews many a big name in the comic industry, including Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Will Eisner. We also get to hear from indie darlings such as Art Spiegelman, Lynda Barry, Robert Crumb and Harvey Pekar. We get to see each creator’s art and writing style, receive insight into their work and learn what drives them to write their stories.
The way in which the creator’s work is displayed is both the film’s strongest and weakest element. Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of this documentary is how it truly adopts the look of comics and brings them to life. Comic Book Confidential achieves this by highlighting character cutouts, animated panels, comic book style typography, and having creators present dramatic readings of their work. This distinct visual style sets the tone for the documentary, which is as interested in the medium as in the creators themselves. Unfortunately, the film suffers from too much of a good thing. As more and more creators are interviewed, I felt bogged down in their work, and although it highlights their talents, it ultimately slows the pace of the film. The tactic becomes tired, and I longed for the film to switch it up a little, and perhaps offer a few more in-depth interviews instead.
Although the film touches on the popularity of superhero comics and mainstream titles, the ultimate focus of the film is on underground comic books. Here is where the most daring and intellectually challenging work thrives. Shary Flenniken notes that her ‘innocent’ art style allowed her to write more freely about topics such as sex and capitol punishment. Books such as Spiegelman’s Maus, about his parent’s incarceration in concentration camps, Sue Coe’s How to Commit Suicide in South Africa, a visual history of apartheid, and Charles Burns’s work on the horrors of everyday life, are just a few examples of the variety of subjects underground comic creators have tackled. Comic Book Confidential casts a wide net, and though its interviews are brief, it presents a fairly cohesive look at underground and mainstream comics from the 1940’s to the 1980’s.