I watched a couple of comic book movies this week. Not “Man of Steel” or “Iron Man 3” or “Mystery Men” or David Hasselhoff’s “Nick Fury, Agent of Shield.” Do you care about what I think of any of those movies, anyway? I’ll give you a hint — I liked some more than others.
No, I watched a couple of documentaries. One from last year that has recently received a DVD release and a slightly older movie that I didn’t even know about until I started falling down the rabbit hole of old issues of “The Comics Journal” and ended up listening to tape recordings of phone conversations featuring Gene Simmons.
I’ll get to that later.
But first, let’s talk about the better of the two documentaries — the portrait of a school and a group of students trying to figure out what comics are all about…
“Cartoon College,” directed by Josh Melrod and Tara Wray
Not everyone succeeds at the Center for Cartoon Studies, and there’s no guarantee that a Master of Fine Arts degree in means anything in a world where talented cartoonists struggle to get paying work, but filmmakers Josh Melrod and Tara Wray don’t ignore those harsh realities. They don’t quite emphasize them either.
“Cartoon College,” which follows a group of students at the small White River Junction school over the course of a year — and then goes back to revisit some of them a year or two later — is not quite a bittersweet story, but it’s close. It’s more sweetly bitter. Or whatever fits a narrative where the general rhythm tends to be something along these lines: “these are some creative individuals trying to figure things out and they might never be successful or even happy with what they do but they can’t stop doing it and it’s pretty charming to watch.”
It is a charming documentary, even if it’s not all happiness and sunshine. I actually think it’s charming because it’s not that at all. The cast of characters — again, real-life students at the Center for Cartoon Studies and their professors and guest speakers — is an obsessive group with varying degrees of talent. The oldest student, in his early 60s, can’t really even draw in any traditionally acceptable way, and he knows it, but he thinks that studying and practicing a year, intensively, will help him improve. It doesn’t. Not enough to his liking, anyway. And then there’s the Mormon student who tries to channel his family and religious experiences into autobiographical comics, but he lacks the discipline to actually finish the artwork in an acceptable way. His thesis is rejected. He walks away from the school without a degree.
But there’s redemption in the movie. That very student who failed has returned to The Center for Cartoon Studies by the second half of “Cartoon College” and worked on a new thesis project. It’s still a bit raw, but it’s far more confident than what he presented the first time. And though he still struggles to incorporate the feedback of others, he produces something complete, and personal, and his hard work and dedication has paid off with acceptance and graduation. And that older student who couldn’t draw very well ends up retiring from his job in the Boston area to return to White River Junction. Not as a student, but as a patron of the arts and as a man who wants to be inspired by them. He continues to draw and work on projects of his own, without the pressures of class deadlines and regular critiques.
There are two real stars of the documentary, though, and they are (1) the artwork of the students and their teachers, and (b) Jen Vaughn.
By showing so much artwork — and a tiny sliver of the process of creating hand-made comics — the documentary comes alive. It’s a movie about people, yes, but it’s about people making art. It’s about individuals trying to connect to this school culture they are in and trying to create something uniquely personal. They are embodied in their own linework and their own stapled minicomics, even as they struggle to make them somehow better and more true than they already are. By contrasting the work of the students with the work and philosophies of some of the teachers and guests — like James Sturm and Charles Burns and Lynda Barry and Steve Bissette — we can see how much farther the students have yet to go, but we can also see the passion with which they approach the art form, even as they content with the realities of the demands of the blank page.
And Jen Vaughn is the enthusiastic spokesperson for the group. As a student, she’s voted to give the commencement speech, even as she finds herself rejected by the thesis review committee. It’s a devastating and genuinely surprising moment in the film. Vaughn, who you can now see as an enthusiastic spokesperson for Fantagraphics Books at a convention near you, is a charismatic, likable woman who seems to embody the art comics aesthetic in her determination and self-discipline, working multiple jobs while attending the school. But she just didn’t produce enough comics in the time she was given, and she didn’t end up graduating with the peers she was chosen to represent. The movie deals with that conflict intimately, and it helps to push “Cartoon College” from “nice overview of the experience at the school” to genuine and profound personal drama.
Even though I’ve given away many of the major scenes in the documentary, you should still track it down. If you are at all interested in comics, or art, or schools, or humans, it’s worth your time.
This next documentary, I’m going to recommend considerably less…
“The Story of Rock ‘n’ Roll Comics,” directed by Ilko Davidov
One of the current projects I’m working on has led me to a near-obsessive rereading of “The Comics Journal” from 1990 to 1999. And though I hadn’t forgotten about Todd Loren and Revolutionary Comics, I certainly hadn’t given them much thought in the past couple of decades, besides occasionally seeing an old issue of “Rock ‘n’ Roll” comics in a discount bin and flipping through it to see if it was drawn by Stuart Immonen, since I knew he began his career working on trashy black and white rock biographies.
But if “The Comics Journal” is the best chronicle of the comics industry, and it certainly is, Todd Loren is impossible to ignore. Gary Groth couldn’t ignore him, dedicating editorials to ripping apart the loathsome products of Revolutionary Comics and the very persona of Todd Loren, and Loren seemed to like it that way. Or at least, he didn’t back down.
Gary Groth appears a couple of times in “The Story of Rock ‘n’ Roll Comics,” a documentary about Todd Loren and Revolutionary Comics, and he seems full of contempt for the entire enterprise, wearing an expression that says, “Why are we still talking about this guy? He was a huckster who never produced anything interesting in his life?” Groth doesn’t exactly say those words, but he hasn’t seemed to change his mind about Loren since the October 1990 editorial in “The Comics Journal,” titled “Todd Loren: First Amendment Advocate or Lying Sack of Shit?”
You can imagine which side Groth was on back in 1990. Or today. (Or 2005, or whenever the interview was filmed.)
The thing about this documentary is that Todd Loren would probably never have been the subject for a movie had it not been for his gruesome murder in 1992. But the murder isn’t the subject of the documentary, because it really can’t be. Not enough is known about the how and why and who of his death. The murder remains unsolved, even 21 years later, and although some of Loren’s friends and family now suspect that notorious killer Andrew Cunanan was the culprit, there’s no clear evidence connecting the two on the night of Loren’s murder, even if there is reason to believe that they may have known each other and the crime scene, in retrospect, looks like the kind of thing Cunanan inflicted elsewhere in later years.
But, as I said, the movie’s not really about that. It’s mentioned, and it becomes the focus of the final third of the movie, but not the sole focus. Instead, the movie is structured around the rise and fall of Revolutionary Comics, and how Todd Loren shifted his interests from mail order music merchandise to comics production. And how he stood up to pushy lawyers and business managers who just wanted to protect their own wallets.
Here’s the gist of the story: Loren never made much money from Revolutionary Comics and their unauthorized biographies of bands and musicians. He and his dad built the company — the interviews with Loren’s father are the most revealing parts of the film — and then Loren stood up against the bullying and harassment of the record industry by proclaiming his first amendment rights.
The movie tries to provide some balance to the story by interviewing Groth and Denis Kitchen, both of whom are certainly no supporters of whatever it was Loren did, but Groth is, through context, lumped in with the direct market comic book industry which always looked down on Loren with scorn. And Kitchen is presented as a rival. Someone who secured likeness rights for a series of Kiss comic books and was annoyed at Loren for publishing unauthorized comics at a time when he, Kitchen, had to pay money to the band to produce the same kind of things.
While Loren’s friends do a nice job providing some perspective on Loren as a guy who just really liked hanging out with bands and being semi-famous and getting excited when Gene Simmons calls to try to prevent shelling out money for a lawyer to sue these guys, what none of them really confront is the reality of Revolutionary Comics: these were terrible, schlocky comics that were ridiculed and scorned not because they were unauthorized or different but because they were really just bad comics.
Okay, I shouldn’t say they don’t confront that, because the word “schlocky” is used and there’s a tiny measure of acknowledgement of how bad the comics actually were via the constant use of images from various issues, but the movie mostly presents Loren as a guy who tried to have an Andy Kaufmanesque sensibility about the absurdity of what he was doing while also presenting him as a pioneer in First Amendment rights. As a little guy standing up against the evil forces of the New Kids on the Block.
But Kitchen and Groth and some of the other Loren-haters, as overshadowed as they are in the documentary, are much more reliable sources than Loren’s best friends and co-workers and family members. So while the movie spends 90% of its 84 minute running time showing the complexity of Todd Loren’s psyche and the pseudo-heroism of his fight against trademark protection, the other 10% just seems more believable: he was kind of an unlikable guy who thought he could make money by producing cheesy comics about famous people and he didn’t like being told what to do.
That’s the core of “The Story of Rock ‘n’ Roll Comics,” and while it’s not a dull showcase of that story, it’s ultimately kind of shallow.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of “Grant Morrison: The Early Years” and editor of “Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes” anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.