Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
During my teen years in the early Eighties, I simply adored comic books. I liked them all through childhood, really, but 1981 brought a major interest in the superhero mags I previously avoided for the most part, and I gobbled up everything I could find from DC and Marvel. This obsession didn’t last, of course, but I maintain an affection for the form.
Because of this, I felt interested when the DVD release of Comic Book Confidential arrived on my door. The 1988 film offers a loose history of comic books. It starts back in the Thirties when the format originated and follows the field’s growth and setbacks through then-modern times.
Confidential does this in two ways. Most significantly, it offers scads of then-current interviews with scads of folks in the business. These include older giants like William M. Gaines, Will Eisner, and Stan Lee, and we also hear from relatively newer artists like Art Spiegelman, Frank Miller, and Jaime Hernandez. They reflect on their work and the field as a whole.
In addition, we see a lot of archival material and examples of the comics. In the former domain, we find some cool footage. For example, we get melodramatic propaganda films intended to paint comics as an evil force that will lead kids to become amoral criminals, and we also see excellent shots of hearings at which Gaines and Frederic Wertham - a noted anti-comics force - spoke. I also really like the snippets of the Comics Code process, in which we watch as they censor some work.
As for the latter category, Confidential films comic pages and provides voice-overs to “act out” the stories. Much of the time, the artists involved do the performances. This seems clever, though it leads to some rather stilted readings of the material.
While Confidential indeed covers the whole history of comic books through the late Eighties, it doesn’t provide an objective view of the field. Underground, independent and obscure works receive a great deal of emphasis, while the mags from Marvel and DC barely register. This means we hear much more from someone like Bill Griffith than we do from Stan Lee, and it seems odd. After all, most people equate superheroes with comic books, so it comes across as weird that we learn so little about that domain.
In addition, we hear almost nothing about other mainstream genres. Archie comics have been around for many decades, but we get virtually no information about them or other comedic mags. Clearly director Ron Mann wanted to emphasize the more obscure works, and that’s fine to a degree. However, I don’t think the project should have maintained the façade that it offers a general history of the format since it skirts over so many major subjects.
I also feel that Confidential focuses too much on the comic book samples. To a degree, these seem interesting since they illustrate the work in question. However, they go on too long, and the film includes too many of them. Combined with the poor acting, they become fairly tiresome once the novelty dissipates.
Confidential does include a number of positive elements, though. While frustrated with the lack of editorial balance, I did enjoy the look at less-known material. Yes, this warps the view of the business as a whole, but it offers information that most people won’t know. Occasionally, the film takes on an aura of propaganda, as though Mann touts the underground works mainly to publicize them, but it still seems interesting to have a look at more obscure comics.
The interview segments provide some fairly useful tidbits as well. Most of those appear during the segments that deal with older comics, though; the newer artists tend to come off as somewhat pretentious and self-congratulatory. Gaines offers the most compelling commentary, especially as he discusses the anti-comics efforts he endured in the Fifties.
Overall, Comic Book Confidential fails to provide a full documentary about the field, but it includes a reasonable amount of interesting material. The combination of cool historical footage and occasionally stimulating interviews helps carry the day. It can drag at times and the lack of balance becomes irritating, but Confidential manages to seem fairly interesting much of the time.