It’s hard to imagine a time when comic books were ever dangerous, that they so threatened the status quo – the very order of things! – that something had to be done about them. To today’s youth, in this much more open-minded cultural climate, the very idea of this happening now in the era of hardcore pornography is probably laughable and absurd. It defies logic, really.
But in the 1950s, smack dab in the midst of overwhelming Cold War panic over Communists both real and imagined, comic books represented the antithesis of all that is good and decent about America. Well, actually, it was the often comically graphic horror titles that rattled their fragile cages. These deliberately overwrought tales of murder, cannibalism and decapitations so worried the self-appointed conservative guardians of the time that because children are impressionable and can’t tell the difference between reality and fantasy (ha!) the big fear was that they would readily imitate all the artistic depravity depicted in these pages all the while never once recognizing the consequences of their actions.
In Ron Mann’s excellent documentary Comic Book Confidential, the freedom to be as provocative as possible is just as essential as having a good idea for a story. We meet artist after artist who have used satire as a lacerating tool against societal standards that are too rigid, too ridiculous and oftentimes, too cruel.
Late in the film there’s a fantastic segment on Art Spiegelman, the creator of the highly acclaimed Maus. His parents were Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust. Spiegelman reimagines their traumatic experience by pulling an Orwell. All the characters in Maus are animals. Persecuted Jews are mice while authoritarian Nazis are cats. Shown samples of his finished work are startlingly poignant. By portraying both victims & murderers as animals Spiegelman deftly conveys the utter inhumanity of war, as powerful as anything seen in Schindler’s List.
A bit earlier, there’s Sue Coe, who sees the value of propaganda in comics. She created a graphic novel about Apartheid South Africa that ended up being smuggled into the country’s ghoulish prisons and giving hope to the persecuted black men there who felt their quiet cries of anguish went unheard in the rest of the world.
Shary Flenniken’s visually accessible and seemingly kid friendly Trots & Bonnie slyly snuck in explosive adult subject matter like rape and capital punishment while the legendary Robert Crumb fiercely challenged the taboos of his time with unvarnished sexual & racial content, most notably in Fritz The Cat.
These fearlessly daring artists easily defied the restrictive uselessness of the Comic Code Authority, the “solution” to all those misunderstood horror comics in the 50s. Instead of just sending new issues right to the press, they had to be approved beforehand by this new censor. As a result, for a considerable time, comics got bland and the business started to suffer.
William M. Gaines, whose father created the comic book concept in the 1930s just by folding the funny pages like an ordinary book, tells an incredible story about how he couldn’t even show sweat on a black astronaut’s face in one of his science fiction tales. It was only after he threatened a lawsuit that they backed off and let him do it.
There’s amazing archival black and white footage of some guy using liquid paper to eliminate something “objectionable” from an unfinished galley page. And, in an even more ridiculous moment, we get a Before and After with a female character from a horror comic. In the Before, she’s a hideous monster. In the After, a beautiful woman, effectively ruining the idea.
But that’s nothing compared to an actual snippet of a film that shows what happens when “gangs of kids” decide to get together in the woods to read horror comic books together. It hilariously argues that doing so motivates an impressionable lad to immediately jab a tree with a knife and another to devilishly contemplate hitting his pal with a rock.
In spite of the imaginary threats conservatives screamed these creations represented back in their time, perhaps the most fascinating thing about the comic book universe both then and now is just how much of a big tent medium it truly is. (That said, it would’ve been nice to have seen more artists of colour represented here. With the exception of one, everybody is white.) Besides the cutting edge radicals hoping to make big political statements with their work, there are mainstream legends like Stan Lee, Will Eisner and Jack Kirby who ushered in the era of the superhero.
To learn that American soldiers in World War II read issues of Captain America to boost their morale while hunkered down in muddy barracks in between heated battles with Nazi Germany is utterly fascinating. (The creators of these particular titles wanted to do their part during the war since they couldn’t serve.) Amongst the many gloriously eclectic covers of various titles covering six decades of work showcased lovingly throughout the film, there’s a memorable one showing Captain America slugging Hitler in the face.
There’s also room for feminists like the aforementioned Flenniken and Lynda Barry, who reads a very amusing snippet from one of her graphic novels about a terribly misleading educational film about menstruation. Despite so many white men dominating this industry (Flenniken notes that they even wrote so-called “girl comics” despite not relating in any way to women), there is still enough space for alternative voices to be heard and for audiences to embrace their work, most especially in the decades following the release of this very film.
Which brings up another important point about the inclusiveness of comics. You don’t have to be a superb artist to do superb work. You just need an original idea, a way to realize it and a reliable method of distribution after its completion. (In 1988, the year this film was released, a Xerox was an aspiring artist’s best friend.) Put simply, comic books are the punk rock of modern literature.
Long before the writers of Seinfeld mined seemingly minor incidents from their real lives for numerous storylines on Television, frequent Letterman guest Harvey Pekar was doing the exact same thing for his famed American Splendor. In Confidential, he notes his obsessional personality as he recaps a story shown in illustrated form about stealing Jazz records from a radio station. It’s better than anything I saw in his overrated 2003 biopic.
Love & Rockets, which inspired the famous British band, is about two Latina friends who flirt with lesbianism. Jaime Hernandez, one of the three brothers who created the influential comic (he’s the only one who appears on-screen or is even mentioned, for that matter), reads a slice-of-life snippet from an issue involving one of the women struggling to find 50 bucks to buy some much coveted boots.
Besides horror, direct parody also threatened the establishment. While playing pool with a couple of babes, Dan O’Neill recalls how his racy Air Pirates parody of Mickey Mouse so infuriated the Walt Disney Company they sued him for copyright infringement. (The story involved incest and Mickey literally going down on Minnie.) Like he did in court (when he wasn’t recorded snoring during the proceedings), O’Neill persuasively argues to the audience that you can’t do a proper parody of a famous character without drawing the actual likeness of that character. Otherwise, no one gets the joke.
The case, which definitely deserves its own documentary, dragged on for almost a decade before it was finally settled. Like Crumb (who actually did get his own acclaimed film), O’Neill is as colourfully eccentric as you would expect a comic book artist to be.
Speaking of parody, Harvey Kurtzman talks about his contributions to Mad Magazine which went out of its way to slay as many sacred cows in politics and pop culture as humanly possible. Gaines compares the thunderous impact of the publication’s initial popularity with that of the Marx Brothers arrival on both Broadway and in the movies. And Bill Griffith’s cheerfully disconnected Zippy The Pinhead comics (he actually dresses up and briefly raps as the character in a weird segment) makes its own social comments as the surreal free spirit freely interacts Gump-like with famous figures both real and imagined.
Despite being nearly 30 years old now, hairstyles and technology aside, Comic Book Confidential doesn’t feel the slightest bit dated. Often scored with appropriately thematic and catchy pop songs of the past, the relentless display of frequently vivid comic art will seduce even the most hardened cynic. (I wonder how many dreams and careers were inspired by it.)
When Sin City creator Frank Miller, whose darkly compelling reimaginings of Batman are shown, talks about the 80s being a terrible time because of Reagan’s America, he could easily be talking about Obama’s America today. The issues that these talented artists grappled with in their time haven’t gone away. In fact, they’ve greatly intensified. The difference now, long after the film’s theatrical run, is that comic books have greatly expanded their reach. Numerous superheroes and graphic novel anti-heroes have been continuously adapted into enormously lucrative film franchises & TV shows both animated and live action. Hell, for a time, there was even a Broadway musical about Spider-Man! As a result of all this corporatization, the unthinkable has happened. Comic books are now part of the establishment.
But if this film teaches us anything it’s that there will always be insubordinate troublemakers in this world, particularly in the always fertile underground, more than eager to gleefully stab the invisible bubble of the powerful to expose their very real and very vindictive paranoia, and to keep pushing the limits of their own seemingly boundless creativity. Best of all, you don’t even have to be a fan of the medium to appreciate this, most especially this wonderful film (which won the Canadian Oscar for Best Documentary). Comic book artists’ full-on embrace of free expression both safe and dangerous, a right we always take for granted and are in the serious process of losing, is at the heart of everything they do.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Wednesday, February 11, 2015