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Comic Book Confidential

Ron Mann 1988

The film includes profiles of twenty-two notable and influential talents in the comics field, such as Charles Burns, Art Spiegelman, Françoise Mouly, Frank Miller, Stan Lee, Will Eisner, Robert Crumb, Harvey Pekar and William M. Gaines. In interviews, the creators discuss their contributions and history, and read passages from their works over filmograph animations. Montages of comics through the decades, archival scenes of politically important moments, and a live-action Zippy the Pinhead are featured.


  • Filmmaker Mann interviews 22 artists who relate their mad affairs with pen and ink over the years and, with a technique known as filmograph in which the camera glides its way through the picture strips, Mann "animates" their work while the artists read their dialogue.

    It's also a pleasure to see the faces that made those crazy-flow images, many of them at least as strange as their creations. There's the wry, head-shaking Gaines who rebounded from the Hill hearings to found the relatively toned down Mad magazine, the legendary Stan Lee sporting mafioso shades, the soft-spoken Bill Griffith who describes his Zippy character as "a part of me that went astray in the '70s," and still-alive-after-Haight-Ashbury undergrounder Robert Crumb who created "Fritz the Cat" and the famous "Stoned Again" panel poster.

    There's a whole world out there that Mann has identified well. He's also done what the good comic strip aims to -- keep you absorbed from first frame to last.
    Desson Howe - Washington Post Staff Writer August 18, 1989
  • One thing I learned watching Comic Book Confidential, a documentary about the history of comic books in America, is the fact that the people who draw comics are, by and large, some strange cats. Also, that very same history of comic books is a long, strange trip that is closely entwined with the cultural history of this country. From the early days of Superman and Batman to the explosion of comic book commerciality today, the nature of the medium has reflected both the changes in and the dark side of America's psyche. At the same time that the surface of America in the Fifties was painted with the grayscale tones of Leave It to Beaver, Father Knows Best and popularity of Doris Day, the same people who were breaking rock-n-roll records and hunting Communists were burning comic books. There can't be much higher validation than that.

    Anyone who has interest in the history of this "literary" genre will find Ron Mann's film from 1989 fascinating. The current trend of comic book characters making the transition to mainstream movies such as Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and the upcoming Daredevil add a new level of relevance to this film. Although Comic Book Confidential covers a lot of ground, there is a nice, fast-moving mix of commentary from the comic book creators and montages of imagery from their creations. Like so many of the institutions today that have found a boon in merchandising, the roots of comic books demonstrate a time when people were compelled to communicate ideas by an inner voice. This need for expression often bounced up against the walls of suppression and convention.

    The tale is told intriguingly and stylishly by director Ron Mann. Several strips are shown panel by panel with reading of the dialogue by the author. The conventions of comic books are used to frame and drive the film. What emerges is a fascinating story that is told very engagingly with great humor and self-deprecating irony.

    Making appearances are such disparate comic book luminaries as Stan Lee, R. Crumb, William Gaines and Harvey Pekar, often filmed in their natural habitat. The various sub-genres of comic books are explored from the gross out horror styles of the Fifties to surrealistic graphic novels of today. Familiar icons of comic stardom like Mr. Natural, Zippy the Pinhead, Spider-Man, Captain America, Mad Magazine and more are analyzed and placed in postion in the pantheon.

    This documentary nicely achieves the twin goals of being interesting and entertaining. There is no doubt that watching this film will inform the comic book fan of some of the foundations of the publications he or she enjoys and, for the person who has never picked up a comic book, there is material here that might entice him or her to take a look at this popular art form.
    Jesse Shanks - digitallyOBSEDDED!.COM
  • No one had ever seen anything like it. The kids went berserk. They just loved it. It made fun of everything they loved to see made fun of...
    William Gaines, publisher Mad Magazine
  • Comic Book Confidential was a hot rental item when it came out on laserdisc; I remember renting it at least 3 times. Determined to not just celebrate comics, but to attract the artistic attention they deserve, Ron Mann's show places them in historical and political context. The great Bill Gaines got his wings clipped by oppressive censorship, when the entire industry put his E.C. Horror and Crime comics out of business. He bounced back with Mad Magazine, a much more mature and satirical variety comic that was the first major publication dedicated (perhaps unconsciously) to criticism of the consumer culture. Much of Mad's content, before it settled into mainstream blandness in the 60s, was genuinely unsettling.

    The docu is innovative in its use of sophisticated graphics to advance its narrative. Since comics is the subject, this was a natural idea, but the creative animation consistently shapes and comments on the flow of the story, and is never simple eye candy. The coverage of the Kefauver commission's anti-comics investigation, and Dr. Wertham's repressive campaign (I actually read his book once - what a rabid attack) is excellent. A key clip from a propaganda film shows kids becoming sullen, antisocial, and perversely interested in violence, just from sitting around reading some comic books.
  • Who says comics are all about superheroes in tights? Certainly not Ron Mann, who directed Comic Book Confidential, a funny and insightful documentary focusing on comics and the artists (yes, artists) who create them. The film chronicles the evolution of comics from 10-cent funny books (which blossomed from newspaper funnies) to the EC horror comics of the 1950s (which inspired a censorship board called the Comics Code Authority) to the superhero revival that began in the '60s and, finally, to the underground comics that began cropping up in the late '60s thanks to folks like Fritz the Cat creator Robert Crumb.

    The film documents the industry well into the 1980s, so it has a lot of material for an 85-minute film to cover, but it never suffers from information overload. Instead, Mann deliberately skims the surface on some material (superhero comics, for instance), while spending extra time delving into more interesting movements and artists (like underground comics and Crumb). This isn't done to slight the superhero comics, which are important, but rather to illuminate aspects of comic culture of which many people aren't aware. Most of the 22 artists interviewed (including Stan Lee, William Gaines, Sue Coe, Jack Kirby, and Art Spiegelman) are given due screen time, telling where they get inspiration and offering opinions on comics as an art form, and many even read aloud from their work as it's shown on-screen. Colorful animation, interesting (and often hilarious) archival footage, and a soundtrack spiked with rock 'n' roll oldies help keep things lively and engaging -- yes, this is a fun documentary.

    One of Comic Book Confidential's many highlights involves William Gaines (publisher Tales from the Crypt and other EC comics) recalling the formation of the Comics Code Authority. Gaines says, "The first thing they did was outlawed the words horror, terror, weird, and I think any word that I had in any of my titles." This was just the beginning of a movement that tried to keep many comics out of the hands of impressionable kids, who apparently needed exposure to just a few all-in-good-fun gruesome images to fuel their transformation into depraved monsters. An outrageous clip from a propaganda film shows a group of kids becoming increasingly antisocial and violent as they sit around reading comic books. As is often the case, entertainment takes the blame for the misguided among America's youth, instead of focusing on the root of the problem, which is usually poor or negligent parenting. Did I just say that? Indeed, I did.
    Michael Scrutchin - flipside movie emporium

Festival Participation

  • Chicago Interntional Film Festival - 1988
    Best Documentary
  • Sundance Film Festival - 1989
    Nominated Grand Jury Prize Documentary
  • Genie Awards - 1989
    Best Feature Length Documentary

Additional Materials

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