AFED #16: Comic Book Confidential (US, 1988); Dir. Ron Mann

The difficulty of writing about a subject close to your heart is how to adequately express the wealth of memories and emotions it invokes without parylysing the critical faculty.

It's one reason that I'll probably avoid re-viewing any of my favourite films for this blog. For the main part they're bound to a particular place and time, a point in my life; indirectly they become a means of revisiting that period even though the film itself might have been made many years earlier.

And for me much the same applies to comics, although it's a nebulous subject. The affair started when I was five or six years old when my mum picked up a copy of the Incredible Hulk Pocket Book - a black and white British reprint of the character's origin - at a school jumble sale. It probably wasn't the first comic I'd seen but certainly the first to grab my attention; the bold Jack Kirby visuals conjuring up a dark, strange world inhabited by a sinister brute more fearsome than heroic.

I must have enthused about it because more Marvel comics followed; first Spider-Man and then the Fantastic Four, who've remained my favourite characters ever since. In those early days they were still the British reprints but a few years later I moved up to the original American product; it was like mainlining the experience and I was irrevocably hooked. Halfway through my teenage years I would briefly kick the habit but, like they say, once an addict always an addict.

Yet one of the things that frustrated me was the esoteric nature of the comic-book culture; the lack of information about the people and history behind these publications. I remember being thrilled when, in the school library, I found entries for Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in Isaac Asimov's Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, but in an age before the internet facts were hard to come by.

So you can imagine my excitement when around 1989 or '90 Channel 4 screened Ron Mann's documentary Comic Book Confidential, a whistle stop tour through the history of American comics. Featuring interviews with numerous infuential writers and artists it paints a picture of the scene up to that point; from superheroes to horror comics, the underground movement of the sixties and seventies to the blossoming independent scene of the present.

The first time around the thrill had been in seeing the likes of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Bill Gaines and Will Eisner speaking, after a fashion, in the flesh. Any one of these figures could have been a subject of a film in their own right and the brevity of the excerpts was irritating. There are stories beyond the stories, tales of lengthy litigation and disputes over ownership, that aren't even touched upon here.

Twenty years on and that impression still holds; Mann has pretty much dispensed with a vast chunk of the history within the first thirty minutes, giving as much if not more attention to the underground movement in interviews with Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton and the late, great Harvey Pekar. Whether this was dictated by the availability of subjects or that Mann felt these to be more artistically worthy is difficult to ascertain. Not that these aren't important figures, even if I wasn't so appreciative the first time arouund.

Certainly at the time the film was made there was a feeling the medium was evolving beyond its spandex origins although the progress since has perhaps not been as rapid as expected. Conversely Batman revisionist Frank Miller's declaration that the superhero genre is dying failed to anticipate how comic characters would find a new medium to populate.

But nonetheless Comic Book Confidential's a quirky, affectionate little film and enlightening to novice and comics reader alike. A flawed work, yet nice to catch up with again.


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