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Movie Review : 'Confidential' Takes Shallow Look at Comics

June 23, 1989|CHARLES SOLOMON

For most of its 56-year history, the comic book has been treated as an unloved stepchild by critics of the graphic arts and literature.

Ron Mann's "Comic Book Confidential," which is screening at the Nuart Theater, is the first documentary feature on the subject. Anyone who is interested in the comics should plan to see it, but anyone who knows much about them will probably be disappointed by its lack of depth.

"Confidential" includes interviews with artists representing the superhero genre (Will Eisner, Jack Kirby), the underground "comix" of the late '60s and early '70s (R. Crumb and Gilbert Shelton) and contemporary graphic novels (Frank Miller and Art Spiegelman). But these artists really don't get a chance to say anything about their work; instead, Mann has them read pages of their comics as the camera pans slowly over the panels, a device that quickly cloys.

Although he has assembled an impressive array of comic book talent, Mann neglects some of the most important names in the medium: Bob Kane, who wrote and drew the first Batman comic; Joel Seigel and Jerry Shuster, the co-creators of Superman. No mention is made of Carl Barks, who devised the adventures of Uncle Scrooge, Donald Duck et al., or of the late Bob Montana, the originator of the Archie series. But the film does include Lynda Barry (Ernie Pook), Sherry Flenniken (Trots and Bonnie) and Bill Griffith (Zippy, the Pinhead), who draw comic strips, not comic books.

One of the key events in the history of the comics was the national clean-up campaign led by Frederic Wertham, which culminated in hearings by a Senate subcommittee on juvenile delinquency in 1954. Some "Reefer Madness"-style scare footage of adolescent boys reading comic books, then stabbing tree limbs with their pocket knives looks hilariously outre in 1989. But Mann ignores the questions of sex, sexism, violence and racism in comic books, which are being raised again today.

"Confidential" offers some truly memorable images: Crumb and Shelton at work in San Francisco during the heyday of Haight-Ashbury; Spiegelman describing how Maus reflects his relationship with his father; Eisner shyly confessing that he always regarded The Spirit as a significant work, but could never admit it to anyone.

These moments seem few and far between in a very slow 90-minute film. Mann devotes far too much time to cheesy animation of cut-out figures and montages of comic book covers set to inane songs. At a time when a record number of films based on the comics are in the production, he fails to explore the ties between comic books and film making (animated and live action).

As it's the only documentary on the subject, "Comic Book Confidential" (Times-rated: Mature for language and drug references) is perforce the best documentary on the subject. But people who want to know more about comic books will find that almost any issue of The Comics Journal contains more information--and doesn't bore them with those silly montages.

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