Telling Stories: The Comic Book Creators (DVD)

The documentary suffers from a severe lack of Rob Liefeld.

In a series of interviews, comic book professionals of varying ages, backgrounds, and sensibilities discuss their inspirations, their favorite characters, their work methods, and the business of being an artist.

Just what comic book creators are featured here? Let’s take a look:

• Howard Chaykin
As both writer and artist, Chaykin has had a varied career. His most famous work includes DC Comics’ Blackhawk and Marvel’s original Star Wars comics, as well as his own creation, the hard-boiled adventure series American Flagg. In Hollywood, he has worked on TV’s The Flash and Mutant X.

• Arnold Drake
One of the first pioneers of what is today called a “graphic novel,” Drake has written comics in many genres, including war, horror, romance, superheroes, western, crime, comedy, and science fiction. His creations include some of DC’s more notorious characters, like Doom Patrol, Deadman, and Stanley and His Monster.

• Steve Englehart
Not many can make the claim of being the “lead writer” for both DC and Marvel Comics, but Englehart can. During his career, he’s brought new life to characters such as Batman, Captain America, The Avengers, Dr. Strange, and Green Lantern, right at times when those characters were in jeopardy of growing stale.

• Adam Hughes
Making his living mostly as a cover artist, Hughes has built a name for himself through his depictions of strong, beautiful women. After gaining fame for his paintings of Wonder Woman, Hughes has become one of the most sought-after artists in the industry.

• Geoff Johns
A prolific writer for DC Comics, Johns specializes in high-adventure stories with large casts, notably his revival of DC’s The Flash and JSA, the creation of Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E., and his ongoing work on Teen Titans.

• Jimmy Palmiotti
Although he’s still known to many as an inker, Palmiotti has produced a large body of work in the last 10 years, including co-founding the “Marvel Knights” line at Marvel. He has written for X-Men, Hawkman, The Punisher, Blade, Deadpool, and Superboy. He’s also the co-creator of fan favorites such as Ash, Painkiller Jane, and The Monolith.

• Trina Robbins
A former cartoonist, Robbins now writes full-time, letting others handle the drawing duties. Her comics work is highlighted by the indie sensation Go Girl. She’s written several non-fiction books, including A Century of Women Cartoonists, The Great Women Superheroes, and From Girls to Grrrlz. She describes herself as a “feminist pop culture herstorian.”

• Greg Rucka
A novelist turned comic writer, Rucka has in recent years tackled some of the most famous characters in comicdom, including Batman, Wolverine and Elektra. He also created his own critically acclaimed spy thriller Queen and Country for Oni Press. His novels include the long-running Atticus Kodiak series.

• Bruce Timm
Known more for his work in animation, Timm has brought numerous comics characters to life with his own cartoony style in Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, Justice League, and more.

As with director Greg Jurls’ previous documentary, Terry Moore: Paradise Found, this one is a strictly a “talking head” doc. Only instead of aiming the camera at one person, the topic is broken up among nine individuals. The occasional shot of a comic book cover or footage from a convention are the only elements that add some visual variety to the proceedings. But other than that, you’d better prepare yourself for two hours of just talking.

If you’ve heard of at least some of the creators here, then chances are you’ll be interested in what they have to say. The film hits its highlights when the subjects discuss their creative processes, and all the thought that goes into each month’s issue. Chaykin talks about the hours of meticulous perfectionism that he requires for every page, all so the final result can have an “improvised” look. Englehart elaborates on writing long-running characters with a respect for the work others had done before him, while Rucka says it’s acceptable for one creator to write a character in a different way than another.

There’s a lot of talking here. There are also a lot of generalities. An aside: I was in a journalism class a few years ago, and one day the teacher started off the morning by asking about the first cars we drove in high school. Naturally, everyone in the class had some sort of teen driving disaster story to tell. One person had a car that couldn’t go in reverse, which made parking an interesting strategic experience. Another once tried backing out pf the garage, somehow forgetting that the garage door was still closed. One by one, we all told an anecdote, each one funnier than the next. As class wrapped up, I assumed that we had wasted the entire morning, but then my teacher revealed that he had a point all along. He said, “This is what you do when you’re conducting an interview: You get the other person to tell you a story.” Why do I bring this up? Because in a documentary called Telling Stories, I expected anecdotes. For example, Englehart speaks at length about how he approached writing Batman. But I wondered—how did he get the Batman gig to begin with? What was his reaction when he learned he’d be writing for one of the most famous characters around? Fear? Excitement? What was the reaction when his first issue hit the stands? These are the kinds of questions that go unasked here. There’s a lot of talk about creativity and comics history, but the personal, human element is lacking.

I’m sure that someone, somewhere, has plans to make a documentary about the lives of comic book creators that is a real in-depth look at their lives and at the business. One that showcases their various quirks and personalities, made for both fans and for casual viewers. This movie, however, is mostly for fans only. When someone mentions Grant Morrison, for example, the viewer is expected to know immediately who that is. Although Jurls wisely begins the doc with each creator giving his or her own bio, there is still a lot here that will just confuse non-fans.

But if you are a fan, there are moments to enjoy here. Each creator has something different to say, which keeps things moving along nicely. Some viewers might wonder why some of today’s biggest names (Brian Michael Bendis, Warren Ellis, et cetera) aren’t here, but this is a nice mix of personalities for what the film is out to accomplish. Several interviewees can arguably be called the “working stiffs” of comics. They’re not necessarily the headline names, but they’re the ones who churn out quality work each month.

The full-frame picture here is good, which is to be expected for a film made so recently. The audio track does its job, although the audio here is mostly the interviewees’ voices and the occasional musical break. There are no extras, but the main menu is combined with the chapter stop menu, which gives you the option to jump ahead to any segment you want.

It’s not the definitive behind-the-scenes work about comics. Instead, it’s nine pros talking about what’s on their minds. If you’re a fan of the creators involved, or if you’re curious about just what type of person works in the comics industry, give it a try.

The Verdict

We’ve got a hung jury here: Guilty for too many generalities and playing to fans only, not guilty for some interesting discussion and a nice mix of personalities.

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