Look, up in the sky. It's a bird! It's a plane! It's…
Comic books have infiltrated almost every nook and cranny in today's popular culture. The amusing part is that most people don't realize that tiny fact. A clear and concise example of that is evidenced in a rundown of some of 2002's hottest summer movies: Men in Black 2, Road to Perdition, and Spider-Man. While the last obviously stems from the comic book genius of Stan Lee, few outside the "comic book know" realize that the other two also stem from graphic novels / comics. Comic book characters are everywhere in popular entertainment, but they also inhabit more "socially respectable niches" as well. Back in the day, comics were also used as means to surreptitiously promote political and social positions.
I am not a big comic book fan. Of course, I've enjoyed many of its bigger stars on Saturday morning TV and in their transitions to the big screen, but I've never had the urge to want to buy any comics. So, aside from that limited base of knowledge, I am not all that familiar with the intricacies of the genre. Thus, please forgive me for any unintended faux pas.
Facts of the Case
Ron Mann (Twist, Grass) is a man who loves to make documentaries, and this one looks to have been the one that put his name on the map. In this film, Mann attempts to present the history of comic books. We start with how they broke free of the confines of the Sunday newspaper and move forward through the years to their use as a political tool. This movie presents a rather thorough history, at least from my perspective, that wisely does not solely focus on the big name stars: Superman, Batman, X-Men, Spider-man, et cetera.
Using older interviews from people that directed the growth of comic books, the film shows the many phases of comics. It all starts innocently enough in the thirties when comics were simple extensions of the humor found in the Sunday newspaper. With the war going on, we saw the first entry of the superhero come to being. Soon after the end of the war, the hero focus faded and the comics shifted to a different audience by taking a darker edge with the emphasis on gore and death. Then came the fun of the '50s with comic books being called subversive Communist propaganda. Comics changed again in the '60s with a return of the superhero and also a good dash of satire and political activism thrown in. And over the last thirty years, comics have meshed all of its previous incarnations and there are hundreds of publications to suit all of the different desires of its readers.
Comic books are misunderstood by the masses, as most believe them to be aimed at the juvenile/adolescent male audience. Only in the '80s, when the popularity of comic books reached its peak, did a wide audience begin to realize all the different forms and positions of comic books.
There's no easy way to say this other than flat out saying it—this movie is boring. The pacing and flow of the movie are uninspired, mundane, incoherent, and sloppy. Interviews and archival footage are jumbled together with no sense of direction (aside from chronological, that is). One minute we're listening to a historical overview by a narrator, then we slip into an interview with a comic book writer, and then we cut into him (usually a "him") reading from a comic he published in that time period. While that seems to make sense, it doesn't come across that way in the finished product. The pieces don't interconnect nor, believe it or not, do they seem to relate to one another. From time to time, notably the '50s and '60s, that style does work, but most of the time it's a jumbled mess. Instead of being immersed in the historical ebb and flow of comics, it comes across as a disjointed, stunted narration.
The transfers for this disc are disappointing, even for something that's thirteen years old. Of course, the problem derives from the source material. All of the interview footage is grainy and dirty; further, the colors are dull and muted. There is nothing good to say about the video. Additionally, the audio track is sub par with an unfocused and tinny soundtrack.
Bonus features on the disc include: a boring eight minute interview with director Ron Mann on his thought on comic books—which was obviously recorded at the same time as his interview for the bonus interview in Grass; a very disappointing three minute introduction by comic book guru Kevin Smith; some trailers for Mann's DVDs; comic book artist bios; and a very lame comic book archive—which purports to show a respective comic from each writer but sucks the life out of the comic because of the way it's displayed.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This disc interviews the best and brightest of the comic book genre. It's a rich and fascinating look at the changes in comics over the decades, and offers new insights into the development and growth of the medium. Any fan of comics will be richly rewarded with this absorbing documentary.
While purists and fans will enjoy the behind-the-scenes look at some of their favorite artists, I found this historical overview to be a complete waste of time. As always, I picked up a few interesting morsels along the way, but even at an hour and a half, it was time utterly lost that I wish I could get back. Thus, I am not recommending the disc. The documentary, the transfers, the bonus features are all unworthy of your attention.
Guilty. Ron Mann did not do the medium justice, and may end up doing more harm than good with his film finally making the leap to disc. Fortunately, his method does improve with age. Case adjourned.
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