I recently got the chance to watch Comic Book Independents: The Creative Power of Graphic Novels, a documentary directed by Chris Brandt which is about more than just the lives and successes of Independent Comic Creators. That’s covered at great length, but the film has more to it than that. It also attempts to break down creativity and possibly map out where ideas come from. Dr. James Kaufman, a cognitive psychologist, explores the mind of an artist and breaks down the creative process from concept to completion. Add in a look at the history of American comics as an art form, and you’ve got the many streams of information that make up this film.
This film was many years in the making, and it shows from the huge of base of independent creators that featured in interviews throughout the doc. And when I say featured, I mean featured. There are no short sound bites from buzz worthy artists. Every comic book creator that is shown in this film gets a great deal of face time on screen and lets their thoughts be heard. The list of creators is very impressive: Kevin Eastman (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), Scott McCloud (Understanding Comics), Craig Thompson (Blankets), Wendy Pini (Elfquest), Erik Larsen (Savage Dragon), and Eric Powell (The Goon) just to name a few. Over 30 Comic Book Creators are showcased within the film. The artists and writers that were not in film for whatever reason are not left out in the cold either. Any independent work that made an impact, whether it be in the 1930s, 1970s, or present day, is covered. The attention to detail is this film’s greatest strength.
The “scientific” side to this exploration of the indy comic medium is also well mined. Dr. Kaufman lays out how the creative mind works and attempts to find a theoretical answer to the question “Where Do Ideas Come From?” He, of course, does not find an answer. This is deliberate, as this part of the film is all about the journey of the creative mind and to show that creativity is something that lies beyond the realms of science. It is an entertaining experiment in try to explain the inexplainable.
A major problem this film meets is it’s attempt to present all this information in a manner that can fit into a 77 minute film. As I mentioned, they also attempt to present a brief history on the rise of the American Comic book and the independent comic’s place within that history. More Importantly, they try to show the important effect the independent scene had on the comic book industry as a whole. This brief history takes up about 25 minutes – basically a 3rd of the entire film. Trying to avoid compartmentalization of these three stories he is presenting, Brandt jumps around a lot to keep all three streams moving. This is not executed well. It feels jumpy because it is jumpy.
Another problem linking to the presentation of the film is the production values. The sound appears to all have been recorded on the stereo mic on the camera, and there seems to be no attempt in post to correct the levels. There are some scenes where a dog barking outside can be heard for the duration of an interview. This wouldn’t be so bad, except the interview goes on for about 3 MINUTES! If you’re going to go the trouble of shooting a documentary of this scale, would it be so hard to invest in a few lav mics or even a boom mic? Or maybe even shut the dog up by giving it a treat?
The problems with sound are addressed in some manner, but the solution is about as annoying as the barking dog. For 95 % of the film, there is music laid over the audio track. And as one song ends, the other seems to begin. I believe this was the filmmakers attempt to make a bunch of static-shot interview seem more inviting and interesting. I personally believe that the interview subjects are talking about something that is interesting enough that the audience will go with it. We don’t need you blasting muzak to make this feel more professional.
The Disc’s extras are pretty good. There are a bunch of deleted interviews that are pretty informative about the comic book medium. I really enjoyed these (partially due to the fact that the music is not there, so I can hear everything more clearly). There is also a few spotlights on some comic shops throughout the U.S. The places they cover are pretty unique and I would love to visit them. There’s also a really weird easter egg on the main menu page – Highlight the word “Creativity” on the screen and press enter. You will then be treated to a 3 minute short of two video game characters dancing to techno music. Not sure if it’s worth watching, but it’s there if you’re curious.
Overall, the film has a lot of interesting information that just wasn’t presented in the best possible way. I suggest checking this out only if you are interested in producing your own comics and would like to hear about the independent comic culture. There’s a lot of cool people in this doc. So it’s worth a watch if you’re into them.
And if you’re gonna geek out, GEEK HARD!