Comic Books Unbound
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Comic Books Unbound

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No matter where you grew up there was one thing all of us had in common; parental rules. One of the most common for those of us born in the early fifties was ‘put down that stupid comic book and finish your homework’. It seemed that parents had the same feelings for comics that a cobra would have for a mongoose; hatred. It is not as if such parental distain would deter us from reading them. We just had to become more resourceful in hiding them from the prying maternal eyes. Most of us had stashes of comics in make shift club houses shared with our friends or in the back of our closets. If our parents realized at the time that a dime comic could one day bring in thousands at auction perhaps they might have changed their view on these little paper treasures of your youth. The premium cable network Starz produced and aired a great documentary of comics called ‘Comic Books Unbound’. Since reading comics is practically a rite of passage that has been around since Grandpa was little boy this is a film that transcends the generations and will be interesting for all. The basic premise of this documentary is to chronicle comic books from the dime treats we had as kids to the source of some of the highest earning films in history. Featured here are some of the most influential people responsible for creating the best comic heroes and villains to the actors and directors who brought them to the big screen. This is not only something that will greatly entertain people it is incredible in how it lays out the history of something most of us have taken for granted all of our lives. Something that was once the bane of our mother’s existence has become incredibly big business so there is a touch of vindication for all of us that hid our comics. Starz has released this to DVD through their partner Anchor Bay and it is something that will delight all.

The executive producers for this documentary are Gregg Backer and Evan Kanew. They have worked together on other Starz behind the scenes documentary and for other similar projects on VH1. I have seen several of their previous works and they have not only a fine grasp of the material they cover but an interesting way of presenting the material. What matters most is the people they get to act as the talking heads in the interview segments. Some of obvious must have personalities but they mix things up with some unexpected experts in the field under consideration. This film doesn’t just look at all the most popular characters from comics; they include some of the less known and definitely non super characters.

The documentary begins with a fast cut montage of some of the people who would later provide more in depth interviews. They main points used to start things off are the similarities between making a film and the format of the comic. Most directors will story board a film with set by set break downs of what is to be filmed. This is the same as the panels of action on a comic book page. There is also a need to have material that can showcase the amazing special effects that computers have brought to Hollywood. Using comics as a source opened an entire new field of films and added to the financial stability of the studios. Comics represent our modern take on fairy tales and mythology. There has always been a need to believe in something greater than us mere mortals and comics have been that outlet for decades.

The consideration of comics starts on the set of Hellboy 2; one of the fastest growing comic book inspired film franchises to date. Unlike some of the earliest tries to bring a comic to life this film is indicative of the modern comic movie. It has a huge special effects budget, a well established director and a cast of stars. These movies are now the top of the line for the studios. Unlike many comic books that have resulted in blockbuster hits Hellboy was a rather obscure comic that had a smaller but very loyal fan base. Comic books and their grown up brother, the graphic novel, are the most important talent pool in film today. One very interesting interview here is with Selma Blair, co star of both Hellboy films. She is amazed at how beautiful the stories are in comics. This has become a new director for these films. It is not enough to just provide non stop action. Audiences now demand a genuine story with emotional character arcs. The writer and director of Hellboy, Guillermo del Toro, notes that the worlds that comics create are some of the best possible to translate to film.

Some of the historical information revolves around the fifties and how attitudes where changing with regard to comic. With the growing concern of communism and its perceived threat to the American values some comics can under fire. There was one notable brand, EC, who were well known for their horror themed comics. Back then there was a concerted effort to remove these comics form the shelves. Word was spread that reading comics would turn your children into juvenile delinquents. This went all the way up to formal investigation by the United States senate. This would come up again in the sixties and seventies when counter culture comics that would highlight sex and drug use. This increased the divide between parents and the comic world but the kids flocked to them in increasing numbers.

Characters like Batman and Superman are no strangers to film or television. Usually the productions were as cheap as possible with little if any attempt to show the wondrous abilities of these heroes. It was just the imaginations of the creators of the comics were far beyond what could practically be displayed on screen. In 1978 all of this changed with the release of ‘Superman’. Its tagline was ‘you will believe a man can fly’. This would usher in the new golden age of comic movies. Also shown in this documentary are some of the old tries at doing a live action superhero included the much lamented version of the ‘Fantastic Four’ done by Roger Corman. It was so bad money was paid to keep it from being screened. Other types of comics that are concerned with non super characters are investigated here. Comics like ‘Ghost World’ which shows a disenfranchised girl trying to cope. Names like Frank Miller have become majo0r players with their film treatments of comics like ‘Sin City’ and ‘300’. Of course no consideration of the world of comics would be possible without including the master of the Merry Marvel Marching Society; Stan ‘the Man’ Lee. He has been responsible for most of the Marvel universe of characters and helped to bring a touch of humanity to superheroes.

This is one of the best considerations of comics that I have ever seen. It is fast paced but doesn’t loose its way. It provides an in depth look at something we all have owned and loved. This is part of the Starz continuing series ‘Starz Inside’ and by the looks of things this is a series to keep watching. Many may consider this series something that the network squeezes in between hit movies. Next time you seer this series take the time to watch it. In the mean time get this DVD and enjoy.

Posted 10/23/08

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