Ron Mann on the Making of Comic Book Confidential

The filmmaker behind the seminal documentary, which just celebrated its 25th anniversary, talks to Hazlitt about how the project came together, underground comics in Reagan-era America, and a memorable call to Mad magazine.

September 27, 2013

Chris Randle is a writer from Toronto who has written for The Globe and Mail, The National Post, The Comics Journal, Social Text, the Village Voice an...

In 1988, years before the founding of Drawn & Quarterly, Art Spiegelman’s special Pulitzer Prize for Maus, the Ghost World movie, or some other seminal cartoonists-taken-seriously event of your choice, the young Canadian director Ron Mann summarized and celebrated the history of American comic books in one 90-minute-long documentary. Telling this story impressionistically, through interviews with dozens of integral artists, panel-by-panel “readings,” archival footage and kitschy animation, Comic Book Confidential captured a moment of strutting transformation, placing veterans like Jack Kirby or Harvey Kurtzman alongside the unlined likes of Charles Burns, Lynda Barry and Jaime Hernandez. (Mann’s film was prescient in other ways, too: he included a number of female cartoonists, and credited Françoise Mouly’s often-ignored role as co-editor of RAW magazine.) In lieu of marking the documentary’s 25th anniversary with a chromium or foil-embossed cover, we just talked to Mann.

Where did the idea for the film come from?

I was working as a screenwriter for Ivan Reitman, and I went to the San Diego Comic Con in 1985 with Charles Lippincott. Charlie at the time was working for Lucasfilm, and was a comic nerd [laughs]...This was a time when comic books were considered to be more adult-oriented. RAW magazine was starting, independent artists like Harvey Pekar and the Hernandez brothers, Frank Miller was doing Dark Knight Returns—I started to get into comic books. I finished writing a screenplay for Ivan and went to New York, and was working on a press kit at the time, on a film they were doing called Legal Eagles. With the budget of the film—you know, Robert Redford and Daryl Hannah and Debra Winger—it filmed during the day, and at night I started to film interviews with comic book artists. One of the first artists that I filmed was Jules Feiffer. Feiffer was very helpful in getting me, like, a grant, to continue doing what I was doing. Then I filmed Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman, and a lot of the original interviews were done by Charlie Lippincott, who became one of the producers of the film.

What I remember is that I was in an airport in Chicago, reading Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and getting sneers from passengers, and it was at that moment that I thought, I’m doing the right thing, because I thought of taking comic books seriously. At the time, comic books were just dismissed as children’s literature. I always thought of comic books as something more than that. You know, I grew up with Mad magazine, and I think that was the most influential on me, in terms of looking at culture. It just had a very irreverent attitude, and inspired underground cartoonists who I read growing up as well. I make films about my heroes, and Robert Crumb was a hero of mine. Harvey Kurtzman was a hero of mine. Will Eisner was a hero of mine. I set on a course to do an anthology history of comic books, from the beginning to 1988.

When I came back to Toronto, I hooked into a comic book store here called the Silver Snail, and Mark Askwith was working there at the time. Mark Askwith I’d known because I made a film about Coach House, where he used to work. That input from Mark was really important, as was Barry Nichol, bpNichol, the poet—

Who also drew comics, which a lot of people don’t know.

He was one of the first—the first underground cartoonist in Canada was Barry. But what Barry taught me is that it’s not oil and water between the underground and mainstream comics. What’s exciting about comics and what’s alive about comics is ... comics [laughs]. So I actually stopped working for Ivan at the time to go back to making documentaries, and filmed over a period of a few years artists who had never been filmed before. It was Gilbert Shelton, one of the creators of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, who I interviewed—and it was incredibly difficult [laughs], he was very shy. And so instead I had him read his comic book, one of his strips, and then I came to the thought that his performance of his strip was very much like—it brought his strip to life, because you could hear the character’s voice in his voice.

I’d made a film about poetry called Poetry in Motion, which was poetry in performance, and thought of illustrating the artists’ work through their performance. This was pre-digital, remember, so the selections of the artwork were shot analog in tradition animation style. But I didn’t want to adapt the work into animation, I wanted to use the actual panels and artwork. Part of what Mark Askwith helped with, and Barry, was sourcing a lot of the stories, and it was a lot of work to restore the colour, because comic books were printed on cheap paper and faded away.

The film premiered at the Toronto film festival, I guess it was 1988, and one of the great moments for me of any film festival—there was a standing ovation, and a lot of the artists came up, like Bill Griffith and Art Spiegelman and Will Eisner. Will came up to me afterwards and said: “We no longer have to apologize about comic books.” [laughs] That was quite memorable and meaningful for me. You can tell over time how things have changed. I remember interviewing Stan Lee, and he said one day, before he died, there was going to be a Spider-man movie. He foresaw back in ‘85 or ‘86 when I interviewed him the whole transformation of film, how Marvel could be adapted to film. I guess Superman came before that, he was just really pissed that DC got there first [laughs]. It was very joyful, making that film, meeting people like Jack Kirby.

You get this sense that he’s a battler in that interview. I mean, he was on the frontlines in World War II…

Jack at the time that I interviewed him, he had a faulty memory. I remember the first time that I interviewed him, the interview was almost incoherent. And I remember rolling down the window while I was on the Ventura Highway and exposing the film or throwing it out the window, because I didn’t want anybody to see that interview. But I managed to go back and got him to actually say a few things. One of the great artists, Dan O’Neill for example, was filmed at the O’Farrell Theatre ... that was interesting [laughs], because there were two strippers playing pool there. And the same day I interviewed S. Clay Wilson—I think I filmed him inside one of those peep show theatres.

This year I published the Blu-Ray restoration of the film, and included about 45 minutes of artists that were not in the original film, including S. Clay Wilson and more ... there’s a five-minute interview with Harvey Kurtzman, but a lot of artists who were not in the original film: Al Williamson, Bill Siekenwicz, who worked with Frank Miller at the time. There was Archie Goodwin, Sergio Aragones, Carl Barks. Nobody had filmed Carl Barks, he got absolutely no attention for his work with Disney comics—not acknowledged at all, except in the comic book world, his contribution creating characters like Uncle Scrooge. The funny thing about interviewing Carl Barks is that he talked like a duck [both laugh]. You look at the interview, you’ll know exactly what I mean. He actually talks like Donald Duck.

At the time the film came out, it was mind-blowing for many people, because it was right at the time when there was a resurgence of comic books and comic book artists, so it captured that time of transition.

I was going to say, it’s this amazing snapshot, where you must have gotten some of the final interviews with people like Kurtzman on film, but there’s also a really, really young Jaime Hernandez and Lynda Barry and Charles Burns.

Yeah, and a number of those artists were being published by Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly in RAW magazine—Gary Panter, for example, I met him in Brooklyn in a loft and he created a massive panel for us, which is in the bonus material on the Blu-Ray … I’m still friends with a lot of these people. Paul Mavrides is a close friend of mine. He wound up working on Grass, the film about marijuana prohibition that I made, doing the animations. In all of my work—Robert Altman [said] “I only make one movie,” and I kind of believe that. Whether it’s poetry or comic books or marijuana prohibition, or the movie I’m making right now about Robert Altman, it seems to me that it’s all one movie. To me it’s really about alternative culture. It’s the culture I grew up with. And documenting it not just for contemporary audiences but a hundred years from now, so there’s a record.

Now it’s a little different, you have people making movies on their iPhones. It was very restrictive back in the mid-’80s, because you needed film, which cost money [laughs]. There weren’t that many documentary films being made back then, and I just kind of caught people before they passed away. I mean, a lot of people in that movie ... Will Eisner is gone. Bill Gaines is gone. Kurtzman’s gone. Kirby’s gone. Spain [Rodriguez] is gone. Harvey Pekar. It’s important to have a record—I sort of believe that my responsibility was to document artists that I grew up with. There’s, what, two minutes of Charlie Parker? That’s all there is.

Was there anybody you tried to talk to but they wouldn’t, or you couldn’t do it in time?

No, everybody wanted to be in it. My mentor Emile de Antonio, a political documentary filmmaker, made many compilation films. One of his films, Painters Painting, was about the history of abstract expressionism in the U.S., from de Kooning on, I guess. He once said that the only people who didn’t like it were the painters who were not in the film. Everybody wanted to be in Comic Book Confidential. There was a kind of snowball effect that happened. It wasn’t definitive at all, but people did think that it was an important project. This was the first documentary to look at the history of comic books. I had so much fun on that film, because everybody got caught up in the romance of working on an important project. It’s like an epic [laughs], it starts at the very beginning. There were a lot of choices that I had to make, and that definitely was influenced by Charlie [Lippincott] and Barry Nichol and Mark Askwith.

Yeah, it’s this impressionistic history where you’re telling it through people’s voices.

Yeah. The film represented artists’ works through the covers as well, so you did get a sense of people that were missing. We tried to represent the genres and subgenres and different creators as much as possible. I got the rights, I met with DC and Marvel, and they all understood—they were completely hands-off, they all were so helpful. Jeanette Kahn, who was running DC at the time, was a huge supporter of the film. Stan Lee ... I remember going to a premiere at the Eastman House with Stan Lee. He said to me: “Why’d you put all of these other people in the film?” [both laugh]

It was also I think eye-opening to see the undergrounds and alternative comics, the independents. It was starting to be big—Dark Horse, The Comics Journal, Fantagraphics. Everything was exploding at the time. The ‘80s were an interesting period. There was a kind of reaction too, with the repressive and conservative political movement in the U.S. Ronald Reagan was president. And it’s in times of repression that the great explosions of culture [happen], usually.

Is there anything in retrospect that you wish you had done differently? I’m sure you didn’t want to talk about European or Japanese comics, because it would’ve been twice as long…

I wanted to limit it to American comics, because it would’ve just been too broad. Interestingly, I thought, wow, this film would do great in Japan. And when the film was released, I couldn’t get a distributor in Japan, because they didn’t know the American comic book artists. They just knew the Japanese artists. They didn’t know who Spider-man was [laughs].

Who were the most memorable interviewees?

Talking to Will Eisner was very special, and we became very good friends. Walking through his old neighbourhood—you don’t see that footage in the bonus material, but just having him go through his life, those buildings that he drew, was so, so inspiring. Bill Gaines was interesting, because when I was a kid I had called up the Mad office—I must have been 14 or 15 years old, and I wanted to mount The Mad Show, which was a Broadway show that was produced in the early ‘60s, I wanted to get the rights to it at my school. I called after hours because it was after school, and when someone answered the phone it was the janitor. I said I wanted to talk to Bill Gaines. He said, “he’s not here, what do you want,” and I said, “I’m a student and I was hoping to get the rights to produce The Mad Show at my school.” He said, “Wait a minute, I’ll go through Mr. Gaines’ rolodex.”

I was told to call a company that would send me the script, they weren’t handling it. I didn’t think anything of it, and I never wound up producing the play, but when I walked into Bill Gaines’ office [for the documentary] and he started talking, I went, what the fuck, I know this voice [both laugh], it’s the janitor! He was a prankster. He would put goldfish in the water cooler and stand around to watch people’s reactions [laughs]. He was just a very, very funny, irreverent guy. His showing me the original [EC Comics] art before it was sold to Warner Brothers was just ... I couldn’t believe it. There was Basil Wolverton, Wally Wood, my God.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Chris Randle is a writer from Toronto who has written for The Globe and Mail, The National Post, The Comics Journal, Social Text, the Village Voice and the Awl. Along with Carl Wilson and Margaux Williamson, he is one-third of the group blog Back to the World.