Men in tights

PBS has a three-part series on the American comic-book superhero running now — from Siegel & Shuster to the recent summer blockbusters. I watched (minus dozing) tonight while doing some bookkeeping. If you get your comics history largely from Wikipedia and YouTube, like me, you’d say it feels sketchy. At times, seems not much more than a long commercial for the Marvel and DC media shops. It may be the work of a Ken Burns alumnus, but it’s some way from doing what Ken Burns does for Americana.

The story detours a little from DC and Marvel to cover the start of Image, twenty-odd years ago. It’s a margin note on Marvel, in a way. Dark Horse doesn’t come up; Hellboy’s a no-show, despite the title’s popularity. But that isn’t so strange, is it, really? The subject’s enormous. How much are you going to try to fit into three hours? Still, it would’ve been fun to see any hint of something like my Hellboy-as-bookend-counterpart-to-Superman bit of thesis in evidence there.

If anything, anyhow, the weakness of the series as documentary is that it spreads the subject thin. It doesn’t seem to know, for example, whether it wants to be about the evolving superhero idea or the media & social history. I’d have appreciated a scheme that stuck to the former: just focused, say, on seminal characters — Superman, Batman, Captain America, Spiderman — while rounding out judiciously with some female figures (none of whom is seminal, I think I’d maintain) and the emergence of team stories. That’d be plenty, and you’d still have a nice share of screen time for Stan Lee.

7 Replies to “Men in tights”

  1. “The first documentary to examine the dawn of the comic book genre” — yeaaaaah, right. Only if you discount Canuckle-head doc-maker Ron Mann’s Comic Book Confidential. You won’t see Red in his film either, but that’s because the film was shot some two or three years before Mignola started making any waves. The subject is enormous, as you say, but it sounds to me like Mann might have done the better job of it — some 25 years ago.

  2. How had I gone so long without seeing Comic Book Confidential? Anyway, I’ve corrected that omission now (via Amazon Instant). Many thanks for the prod, Darrell.

    Of the two, yes, Confidential is the superior work, no question. It’d be a good view if you had no great interest in the subject. (E.g., what Mann does with the soundtrack is as good as what he does with the graphics, maybe better.) He’s straddling serious interview doc and offbeat semi-animated jaunt, and he does it deftly, seems to me. Moreover, it’s clear what his subject is. He’s kind of nailed what I call above ‘the media & social history.’

    The PBS series uses some of Mann’s interview material, actually — in fact, the William Gaines interview that he leads off with. Maybe that’s an homage of sorts to Mann as the groundbreaker, but to my mind it’s clearer still, now, that they could’ve left out what he’d addressed already and focused instead on what they’d ostensibly come to talk about, the superhero thing itself.

    Best single scene of Confidential, I thought, was Gilbert Shelton reading the Freak Brothers strip. Interesting that this is apparently the interview that led to Mann’s using the author/artist readings throughout.

  3. I actually saw it in a theatre, back in the day. I had no clue just what a staple it was to become on late-night Canadian television — not that that would have changed anything. Where else was I going to see/hear my heroes being interviewed.

    “Blu-Ray” — I’ve been resisting. But Bill Sienkewicz, Carl Barks and even more Eisner? What’s keeping me?

  4. So: Blu-Ray extras — underwhelming, finally. But should I be surprised? This material is left on the floor for a reason, after all.

    Still, even the dross has its moments of glitter. Carl Barks supplies the best of them, of course. He’s an avuncular old chap, happy to reminisce about his creative decisions. He considers his characterization of Donald et al as an almost no-brainer: everybody else in comics fell in line with the Good Guy vs Bad Guy = Good Guy Wins program (“Even Mickey Mouse!” he says with seeming astonishment) he figured the way to bring a good game to the table was to mix it up just a bit (“Donald could be quite a stinker”). Then, when Barks is asked about attribution, his jolly face goes slack. “Oh, there was none of that. None at all.” He quickly qualifies that he thinks attribution would have had a deleterious effect on his art — to the effect that if he’d had fan mail at the time (as opposed to decades after he retired) it would have changed the tone and art for the worse. It’s an unconvincing argument, made all the more so by Barks’ uncharacteristic lack of cheer.

    As for Bill Sienkewicz, the footage is mercifully brief. He’s young and keen to shake things up, but he’s also a kid without a clue. He’s framed in a head-shot, so it’s difficult to discern what he’s clothed in, but he either went with a tank-top that scoops nearly to his navel, or he put on a pair of white overalls and decided he didn’t need a shirt. Either way, I doubt he’s happy to have this clip come to light.

    There’s also some footage of women artists, but the conversation seems a bit unfocused in contrast to the footage that made it to the film (each is asked what they think of Crumb, which seems like a wasted opportunity, frankly). Kevin Smith provides an “introduction” that is lazy and unfocused, even by his standards.

    The best extra of the bunch is an essay by Geoff Pevere — “The Balloon Pops” — which artfully explores the vibrant POV that comics lovers had at the time of the film, and contrasts that to the ambivalence most of us feel about the seeming “victory” that comic books have achieved in the larger culture. It’s a terrific piece that is, frankly, wasted on the medium (an essay? On a DVD?!?). Can’t seem to find it on-line, so I may just sit down with a laptop and transcribe it for public — or private — access.

    I haven’t checked to see if any of this is on YouTube yet. As it is, I can’t recommend the Blu-Ray on the strength of its extras alone. I’m happy to have the whole package, though.

  5. Thanks again for making Pevere’s essay available. Strange indeed that they chose to publish it that way.

    Interesting to consider that this contradiction of the two & a half decades since Confidential, comics’ commercial possibility being more fully realized than ever but an ‘artistic toll’ coming closely together with that, is exactly the context of Mignola’s success. Mignola, moreover, is perfectly conscious of the situation, I gather, manages not to be a cynic, cashes in to great extent, and at the same time doesn’t let their considerable exploitability determine how his stories/properties develop.

    I can’t help thinking that in some way it’s that enormous commercial exploitability that explains the funny digressive evolution of Hellboy, particularly, in stylistic & storyline terms — as if Mignola saw that if he ever let the stories cohere and be what they ‘want to be,’ at that point he’d have lost them, he’d no longer care about them. So that, while he hasn’t failed to capitalize on their commercial potential, at the same time he’s more or less deliberately kept them wandering, prevented them finding a way home. On this thinking, if the stories lack coherence, it’s just because he really likes these characters and doesn’t want to give up playing with them.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *