Review - Starz's Documentary, Comic Books Unbound

Film critic Richard Roeper hosts Comic Books Unbound on the Starz Network Tuesday, June 10 at 10:00 p.m..

Is it me or are was starting to not only see a lot of movies based on comic books, but a lot of documentaries about movies based on comic books?

I guess the whole thing started with the film Comic Book Confidential back in 1988, which to this day still strikes me as one of the most balanced histories of the medium ever. What I also noticed is that since Marvel and Bryan Singer’s X-Men trilogy, the history has started to change. Talk of highly influential magazines like MAD and the underground comic movement are pushed into the background, if mentioned at all. Instead we get a ton of all things grim, gritty and with lots of kevlar and spandex. It would make you think that the powers that be would want you to forget comics/films like V for Vendetta, Men In Black or even Road to Perdition. They want you to concentrate on bright shiny toys like the latest Iron Man or the upcoming Batman, Hulk or Hellboy.

I mean, how many times do you need to hear Denny O’Neil, Frank Miller and especially Stan Lee say the same damn thing over and over again?

The latest entry in this ongoing series debuts on the Starz Network this Tuesday, June 10 at 10:00 p.m. Entitled Comic Books Unbound, it’s part of a series hosted by noted critic Richard Roeper. Past efforts have included examinations of anime and manga. Future episodes will look at lowbrow humor and fashion.

Yes, like many docs of the past, for some reason the researchers here leave we viewers with the impression that comic books really started with Action Comics #1. Then, after World War II it ran into the antichrist, Dr. Wertham and his version of the Necronomicon, Seduction of the Innocent (forgetting that comic book sales had been on a schnide for the previous nine years). From there we get the usual lip service of the Mighty Man himself, Mr. Lee, “saving” the comic book industry, the refusal of the pop world to recognize comics until the first Superman films. Then comes Tim Burton and his first two Batman films and now, tad dah!, the new X-Men and Spider-Man movies have saved the industry.

Let’s see. They forget More Fun, give the barest of lip service to EC and don’t even mention MAD at all. Did I hear the name Julius Schwartz? No. What about Robert Crumb? Well, Ralph Bakshi is given a pause for his film Fritz the Cat, but not the guy who created the comic the film is based on. Not a word on the influence of the mag Heavy Metal either. You would think comic book animation began and ended with the Fleischer’s version of Superman, too. No Persepolis either. Hey, these guys only have an hour. Still, the redundancy of the same half-baked story is getting annoying. You’d do just as well to see if The History Channel version on the same subject is floating around.

Then again, I’m left with the impression that if the producers had an extra hour to play with, this would have been a much more special, well, special.

Proof is the amount of time they give to directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, which is considerable. They even dissect some of the production decisions Berman and Pulcini applied to the making of the film. Now it would have been nice if they gave something like History of Violence more than a quick few seconds in a collage, but that’s personal opinion.

Another area it doesn’t truly cover to satisfaction is its look at Dark Horse. Yes, it gives the publisher its props for hit films ranging from The Mask and Time Cop on through Sin City and 300, but it really doesn’t expound too much on that house’s main creative force. Mike Richardson is a very intelligent man on both comics and film. He deserves a lot more than he got here.

The other interesting note is the growing awareness of Michael Uslan. The man’s face and opinion is included a lot in this latest documentary. I would even go on a limb to say more so than any doc on comics in the past.

Uslan also makes some interesting commentary besides his usual tirade of how the industry treated him when it came to getting the Batman franchise off the ground. Especially note his comments on manga. For those alone this doc earns additional respect in my book.

Still, when you get down to it, while this documentary has its moments, when you put it up to the gold standard of Comic Book Confidential, the now much older film still carries a lot more weight than Comic Books Unbound. The former is better and more comprehensively researched. It also has a wider and more informed bunch of talking heads to illustrate its points. Hell, I’d even go so far to say the independently produced CBC just looks plain better.

So while I’m not going to totally dis this attempt at retelling the history of comic books (again), I’m also not giving it a true thumbs up. It makes some moves, but in total didn’t tell me anything I hadn’t heard before. To top it, I get the impression it really didn’t tell the general public anything truly new and eye opening. There it fails completely.

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