A year ago, Ron Mann took a seat in a crowded airport lounge and began reading a comic book. He soon noticed that people were staring at him with open disdain. “It was really, really embarrassing,” recalled the 30year-old documentary film-maker. “They made me feel like a moron.” Mann, who was flying home to Toronto, had been in California filming subjects for the world’s first film about comic books and the artists who create them. After that, he said, “I realized that I had a mission—to convince people that comics are a legitimate art form, not just junk culture.” Mann’s Comic Book Confidential, which opens across Canada this month, offers exclamatory evidence in support of his claim. Funny, fascinating and bursting with cultural insight, Confidential takes a maligned medium out of the closet and magnifies it on the big screen with dazzling results.
The movie is the third in a trilogy of documentaries about artists who have generated new waves at the edge of North America’s pop mainstream. With 1981’s Imagine the Sound, Mann made avant-garde jazz accessible by getting four musicians to simply play and talk about their music. In 1982, Poetry in Motion presented 24 poets reading, chanting and singing their work. In those award-winning films, as in Confidential, Mann avoids the traditional torpor of the documentary form by surrendering to the spirit of his subjects. He lets the artists perform—and then works his own magic in the cutting room.
One of the performers featured in Poetry in Motion was Toronto’s b p Nichol, who died suddenly last week at 43. Nichol, who had a vast comic book collection, gave Mann the inspiration to make Confidential. Until meeting the poet, says Mann, he had never paid much attention to comic books. “I had no idea that they were a medium for artistic expression,” he said. “But, like jazz, they are an underappreciated American art form.”
A documentary romp through North American comic book history, Confidential flips from the early superhero fables of the 1930s to the high-art experiments of the 1980s. Mann brings the static images of comic books to life with vivid editing and camera movement, while the artists read from their work, backed by music and sound effects. Mann also interviews 22 pioneers of the art. Jack Kirby describes how he turned Captain America into a Nazi-smashing hero in the Second World War. And William Gaines recalls how his gore comics, including Weird
Science, ran afoul of a 1950s U.S. government censorship campaign. With such words as “weird” banned from comic book covers, Gaines turned his energy to Mad magazine, which became a basic primer for satirists.
Unearthing some startling archival footage, Mann shows how the censorship drive against comics amounted to a witch-hunt. His
movie includes clips from a TV show promoting anticomic hysteria in a tone reminiscent of 1936’s antidrug movie Reefer Madness. Showing images of glassy-eyed children, a stern narrator warns that “they are reading stories devoted to . . . sexual perversion, to the most despicable of crimes.” Mann also discovered footage of the 1954 Senate subcommittee sessions on juvenile delinquency—a forerunner to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist inquisition. Confidential cuts from clips of Gaines being interrogated by the committee to an older, greyer Gaines saying that the censorship had “a chilling effect on the art of the business.” In the 1960s, a new breed of iconoclasts turned comic books into an outlet for rebellion. A candid Robert Crumb—famous for
Mr. Natural and the phrase “Keep on truckin’ ”—recalls how he began his career by taking LSD and quitting his job at a Cleveland greeting-card company. An eerily introverted Bill Griffiths, creator of Zippy the Pinhead, quietly confesses that Zippy is “part of my alter ego that went astray in the 1970s.” And in the 1980s, such innovative publications as Raw—which calls itself “the graphix magazine that lost its faith in nihilism”— brought comics into the legitimate art world.
Comic books are now a $1-billion industry. But despite their rising popularity with adults, Mann had a hard time patching together a meagre $325,000 to make his movie. U.S. cartoonist Jules Feiffer came up with the first $5,000 from an American foundation. Canadian funding agencies provided most of the balance. Meanwhile, many of Mann’s crew members worked for no salary, agreeing to accept a deferred payment or a
share of the profits. And legendary New Orleans singer Dr. John (Mac Rebennak) offered a theme song free of charge.
Receiving wide distribution for a documentary, Confidential could gross up to 20 times its budget in foreign sales. Britain’s Channel 4 TV network has snapped it up, and six U.S. distributors are bidding for rights. It is also the only Canadian movie to be invited to next year’s Berlin International Film Festival. For Mann, the success vindicates his faith in the documentary form. “I don’t think it’s a submedium,” he said, “just as comics shouldn’t be perceived as a submedium.” Indeed, by sharing his excitement at exploring other realms of art, Mann has rejuvenated his own.
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