SDCC: "World of Comic Books" Doc Chronicles 1978 in Comics

At Comic-Con International in San Diego, attendees dissect every trailer and analyze (overanalyze) every behind-the-scenes video shown throughout the four-day event. But on the con's first day, it wasn't an upcoming trailer that was studied -- it was a never-before-screened 1978 documentary on the comics industry that was getting the Zapruder treatment.

"The World of Comic Books" was a Canadian production, created as part of the TV series "Behind The Scene" and narrated by Jonathan Winters. John Siuntres, host of the Word Balloon Podcast, moderated the event and said a cartoonist friend of his discovered the 16mm film during a library sale in Chicago. Because Siuntres hasn't been able to figure out the rights for video, the panel marked the first public screening of the 20-minute "time capsule" that showed the inner-workings of Marvel and DC at the time, featuring many familiar faces and a few not-so familiar ones.

"It's been great to find out who these people are, because a lot of time they'll just come and go without being credited," said Siuntres, explaining he showed writer/artist Walt Simonson stills from the movie to find out the identity of some of the film's lesser-knowns.

Siuntres also showed the film to one of the bigger personalities featured, Jim Steranko. "I showed him, and he said, 'God, why are you showing this,'" recalled Siuntres. "I was like, 'Dude, it's like a high school yearbook,' and he was like, 'Yeah, there's a reason these things are buried in attics.'"

The film sets the stage for the conflict between the industry's two biggest publishers, Marvel and DC Comics. In the Marvel offices, Archie Goodwin and Stan Lee ("looking like Hal Linden," Siuntres commented after) were pouring over character designs for "The Human Fly," while at DC, Neal Adams, Denny O'Neil and Julius Schwartz were breaking down beats for "Superman vs. Muhammad Ali."

After the screening, Siuntres confirmed the DC Comics footage was definitely recreated. The documentary also leaves some interesting questions as to when exactly it was filmed, as both publishers were going through a significant boom-bust phase. It was also noted after the panel that it's possible the video contains the only footage of Goodwin at Marvel, as he was replaced by Jim Shooter as Editor-In-Chief the same year.

Of note is how the film treats comics as an art form, a rare feat back then. It showed an art collector breaking down some of Jack Kirby's techniques, and later, an example of anamorphosis was shown: Neal Adams' "Hey A Jim Steranko Effect," famously hidden in a "Strange Adventures" #216 panel.

"The World of Comics" also illustrated the difference between the Marvel Method and DC's house production style, and showed a then-17-year-old Trevor Von Eeden going over an issue of his creation, Black Lightning. Siuntres said that until recently Von Eeden had never seen the video and had to show it to his mother after.

The film visited a comic book convention of the era, complete with a costume contest featuring participants dressed as spot-on versions of Infectious Lass and Walt Simonson's Manhunter, shoulder pads and all. Also touching on issues of sexism in comics and of the contest itself, the narration asked, with a touch of sarcasm, whether the winner would be a man. (It wasn't.)
Also showcased was the DC Hotline, featuring Joe Orlando's voice, "pimping what the new books were," explained Siuntres. The podcast host admitted he would call the hotline every week for 50 cents to get two-minute pitches on what the new books were. A very "pre-Internet idea," added Siuntres. "The World of Comics" ends with a final snipe from Stan Lee, calling DC's hotline "a real cute idea" that Marvel didn't need because they're tapped into their audience already. Lee concedes after a beat, with a smile, that it's a good idea and wishes he would have thought of it.

The documentary leaves plenty of questions unanswered, but the most important one is who holds the rights to it. Siuntres explained that a phone call to the production company turned up nothing. "The World of Comics" was a privately made film, which eliminates getting answers from CBC, Canada's large, government-funded broadcaster. With Canada having stricter copyright laws, Siuntres stressed the importance of finding the owner before releasing it.

"I don't want to make money. I want people to see it," said Siuntres, who also added he'd like to gather as many people involved in the film and get their personal recollections as well.

While the future is uncertain for the film, it certainly offers a fascinating glimpse into the past for fans of comics, the creators featured, and the larger community surrounding the medium.

Marvel Announces Conan-Led Savage Avengers Series

More in Comics