Tuesday, June 2, 2009

"I'm Zippy! Who are you?"

The source of this clip,1988's Comic Book Confidential, was on the Ovation Channel on Sunday night. If you haven't seen the Ovation Channel, think of it as a sort of an A&E Lite: Highbrow programming combined with the usual basic cable commercials for quickie loans, herbal male enhancement, and other dubious pursuits. What might be easily overlooked on, say, the E! Channel is rather jarring when intercut with a performance of Bizet's Carmen.

The movie starts off as a fairly comprehensive history of American comics, right up to the Congressional investigations of the 1950's. The best parts, really, are the interview segments with William Gaines, publisher of EC's horror comics, like Tales from the Crypt, and later, MAD Magazine. Combined with footage of said hearings and a piece of "investigative journalism" linking comics and juvenile delinquency (replete with a good ol' fashioned book burning), one gets a clearer idea of how much comics as a medium were stunted and censored just as they were beginning to move beyond superheroes.

That story alone would have made for a great movie, but, alas, that wasn't meant to be. Instead we get the longest piece of the film (or did it just seem to go on forever?) revolving around the underground comics scene of the 1960's. I got the impression that the entire movie was leading up to this.

So after spending time with Harvey Pekar and Robert Crumb, I would have been content and ready to move on to the next subject, with Art Spiegelman as an extra treat.

But sadly, no. This was not meant to be. I mean, you also need to see Lynda Barry! And Victor Moscoso! And Sue Coe! And more and more!

Mainstream comics rate an occasional "meanwhile" as the indie parade marches on. I admit that I boiled a little when I saw titles like Matt Wagner's art deco crime drama Grendel: Devil by the Deed and Mike Baron and Steve Rude's slick science fiction saga Nexus being lumped in (via montage) as more of that silly superhero stuff. The project seems to quickly devolve into promoting a film student's vision of the future of comics: Artsy, experimental, and often impenetrable to the casual reader.

Needless to say, it gets old with a quickness. Pity, too. It was such a promising start.

There's unintentional irony at the end, where Frank Miller pronounces the inevitable doom of the superhero, this two years after he helped change the game with the publication of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.

The Dark... Knight? I seem to have heard that somewhere before. Oh, what does it matter, twenty years after the predicted demise of superheroes...

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