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Telling Stories: The Comic Book Creators -- Off to See the Wizards

With the rise of DVD commentaries, mass media programming dedicated to entertainment, and specialized Internet news sites, it seems that audiences have more access than ever to the behind-the-scenes process of making art. Broadly, there are two ways to look at this phenomenon. On the one hand, it’s possible that too much intimate knowledge of the “how” can strip art of its mystery and spontaneity, revealing the seams for everyone to see and turning something magical into something mechanical. There’s a reason the Wizard doesn’t want anybody peeking behind the curtain. And, frankly, there’s some art that’s really not worth talking too much about.

On the other hand, added knowledge of the “how” can increase one’s appreciation for the artistic challenges that were overcome, or aid in grasping the underlying aesthetic sensibility that was missed the first time around. In some cases, there are artists who are interesting to listen to simply because they are able to share in the enthusiasm or love of their art, or at least articulate the various emotions that go into the act of creation. Hearing them talk about their work can be as interesting as the work itself. And, frankly, there’s some art that’s just fun to talk about.

Hero Video Productions’ Telling Stories: The Comic Book Creators DVD steps into this broadly defined divide, obviously leaning more towards the latter position than the former and largely succeeding. Nine different comic book creators were interviewed on video, with the resulting footage spliced together to produce this DVD. The creators in question are Bruce Timm, Greg Rucka, Trina Robbins, Jimmy Palmiotti, Geoff Johns, Adam Hughes, Steve Englehart, Arnold Drake, and Howard Chaykin — a veritable who’s who of comics talent from the past 50 years.

Comics are words and pictures working in tandem, and the creators involved represent pure artists (Adam Hughes), writer/artists (Bruce Timm, Howard Chaykin, Jimmy Palmiotti, and Trina Robbins), and pure writers (Greg Rucka, Geoff Johns, Arnold Drake, and Steve Englehart). The collective resume for these creators are independent and creator-owned as often as they are corporate-owned bestsellers from Marvel and DC. Arnold Drake and Howard Chaykin represent those who have been working in comics since the 1950′s, while Geoff Johns and Greg Rucka represent the very latest comics talent and often influenced by other creators on the disc. The selection of the interview subjects ensures an interesting mix of opinions on the art and craft of comic book creation, while simultaneously demonstrating the variety and longevity of comics as a medium.

This variety of interview subjects means there is a refreshing disagreement between them on what inspires their art and how they go about producing it. Asking three artists working in a field the same question will often yield at least seven answers, and this is no less true on this DVD. Hearing two successful creators in the field answer the same question in fundamentally different ways ultimately underscores the reality that there is no simple formula to the act of creation or the motives to become a writer and/or an artist.

All the creators come off as articulate and gracious in their interviews, but Steve Englehart tends to dominate the disc, diving deeply into his ideas on how to write and how he has approached writing the myriad characters he has touched over the years. If nothing else, the enthusiasm and love these creators have for their medium of choice shines through. Many describe their occupation as a dream job, with Geoff Johns coming off as a particularly enthusiastic individual dead set on providing entertainment worth coming back to month after month. Howard Chaykin is the exception that proves the rule, demonstrating his sardonic sense of humor that evinces an underlying pride in the field and his contributions to it, tempered with a strong sense of self-deprecation and denial of worth of himself or his artistic medium of choice that runs as an undercurrent through creators and consumers of comic books.

The entire disc is two hours of different artists talking about their art, which can be a bit much to take all in one sitting for even the most dedicated. Fortunately, Hero Video has organized this disc into eight chapters divided by topic with little continuity between the chapters, meaning a viewer can easily view them in any order or across multiple viewing sessions. With nine creators involved, Hero Video is to be thanked immensely for identifying the interview subjects throughout the entire disc, easily solving a problem that plagues many documentary films that interview many unfamiliar subjects. Other than the documentary footage itself, there are no other extras on this disc. The interview footage presents clean audio and video, although there is some barely audible background noise during one clip with Geoff Johns.

In some sense, the title of the disc is a slight misnomer. While all the people appearing on the disc have worked in comics at one time or another, a number of them spend the lion’s share of their time speaking about working in other fields. Bruce Timm speaks more about working with corporate-owned comic-book superheroes in television animation, revealing a good amount of information without repeating himself from prior interviews. Adam Hughes talks mostly about doing comic-book covers, although he also expresses his frustration over the lack of offers to do more sequential comic book artwork. Trina Robbins talks about her drives as a comics historian and critic who chooses to focus on women as both characters and creators; it is a bitter irony that she comments directly on the poor coverage of female comics creators in the field, but does not give very much insight into her own career as a comic book writer and artist.

The creators get mostly even face time, although fans of Trina Robbins, Adam Hughes, and Howard Chaykin may end up disappointed at the relatively low amount of screen time these three get compared to the others on the disc. It is also a shame that Arnold Drake doesn’t get more screen time — while he may not be a name-brand comic creator on the scale of Stan Lee or Siegel and Shuster, he is an engaging and interesting interview subject with plenty to say that’s worth hearing. One can still see the spark of quirky imagination that managed to range so widely across subjects, stories, and genres in his body of comic-book work. Drake dominates the penultimate chapter (titled “Legacy”), and it is unsurprising that this is one of the most interesting chapters on the disc.

Many of the creators point out that comics and jazz are artistic fields which were created in the United States, but remain under-appreciated in their country of origin while they achieve great success internationally. Comics are still widely regarded as juvenile junk, unworthy of any serious critical thought in high-art circles. This attitude greatly demeans the skill and talent required to create good comics, and also shortchanges the impact comics have had on America in the 60+ years since their origins as an industry. Talking and arguing about comics is a time-honored tradition, moving from newsstands and drug stores magazine racks to comic book shops to Internet discussion groups and comic book conventions. This DVD from Hero Video Productions provides a great number of interesting thoughts in sequence rather than any truly large-scale intellectual or aesthetic insights, but that does not detract from its value as food for thought for anybody interested in the creation of comics, and especially for dedicated fans of any of the interview subjects.

Besides, some art is just fun to talk about.

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