The 'Spinal Tap' of Comic Books: Mark Hamill Directs 'Comic Book: The Movie'

It's a sight that attendees at Comic-Con International in San Diego probably didn't batan eye over: MarkHamill, Luke Skywalker of "Star Wars," prowling the convention floor,camera crew in his wake.

He is, after all, a regular guest of comic conventions and aself-proclaimed comic nerd.

But this time, Hamill was up to something different: When he and his filmcrew attended the world's largest comic convention in the summer of 2002, hewas in the process of directing his first film, "Comic Book: TheMovie." The film premiers on a two DVD set at the end of this month.

"I think of it as a movie about fans, by a fan, for fans," Hamill toldCBR News on Wednesday. "In other words, I've been on the inside of the hobbyas a fan as long as I can remember. It seems to me that whenever we wereportrayed on the screen, it was always as outsiders."

The largely improvised "mockumentary" stars Hamill as comic shop ownerand fan Donald Swan, who is out to stop the disastrousfilm adaptation of his favorite comic book series, Commander Courage.Comic readers don't have to squint very hard to see the parallels to realworld film adaptations.

"It's about people being true to what they believe in, and going upagainst forces much larger than they are, and prevailing because ofwhat they believe in."

In contrast to Comic Book Guy on "The Simpsons," Donald Swan is amore realistic and sympathetic character, Hamill said.

"The tone of it I thought was interesting because one of the thingsthe comic book con was nervous about it was that we were somehow going to beputting people on or taking an ironic view that would somehow hurt theirenjoyment of the con," he said. "That's been done to death, and doesn'tinterest me."

The featured guest of many comic book convention ­ and the voice of theJoker in the 1990s Batman cartoon series ­ Hamill describes himself as alifelong comic fan, and in the 1990s, created "The Black Pearl," publishedby Dark HorseComics.

"Well, I've always loved them. I was one of seven children of a careernaval officer, and he wasn't someone who welcomed them into his house, whichI think made me love them even more," he said. "Peer pressure and variousother factors made me give up comic books completely, and I didn't reallyrediscover them until I was in college.

"They reflect history in a way that's interesting to me … whether it'sthe patriotic comics of World War II or the slightly paranoid comics of the1950s and Cold War, I think they reflect the sensibilities of the period inwhich they were made."

Which brings us back to "Comic Book: The Movie" and the character createdfor the film, Commander Courage. A fictional patriotic superhero in theCaptain America mold, he fills niches occupied in the real world by bothCaptain America and Superman. And that provided a convenient jumping-offpoint for the real world entertainment industry types and fans to improvisetheir dialogue.

"A lot of the people who are interviewed are talking about their own reallife experiences, but they translate it into the Commander Courage universe.So when KevinSmith is talking about writing the Superman film, that's a real story,but he just inserts the name 'Commander Courage' into it instead." And thusSmith's real stories of the bruising process he went through becomes theprocess of writing a "Commander Courage" movie.

But given that many of those interviewed are telling real stories abouttheir own lives, Hamill found it hard to know how to edit things down forthe movie.

"I don't know what to cut out of Hugh Hefner'sinterview, or Bruce Campbell's or Kevin Smith's." The full-lengthinterviews find a home on the DVD's second disk.

All films shoot more footage than they end up using, but working in anunscripted environment just exacerbated things for "Comic Book: The Movie."

"I heard it was slightly over 100 hours. I know, wow. That would includeguys who forgot their cameras were on, and we got six hours of wall. We hada blueprint for what we wanted to shoot, but without knowing where we wantedto end up.

"We came away from the con with an enormous amount of footage," Hamillsaid. "After assembling a rough ­ really rough ­ cut of the footage we hadso far, we were able to figure out what we still needed to shoot to make itall work."

Even so, the mostly unscripted nature of the film was akin to walking atightrope mostly without a net.

"It was very exciting. I'm not used to working like this. I'm part of thebusiness where everything is signed off on, and a committee has approvedeverything," he said. "To do it this way, it was really kind of exciting anddangerous. … You're on a toboggan careening down the mountain, gatheringspeed."

"Comic Book: The Movie" is Hamill's first time in the director's chair,but like many actors, it's something he's been interested in doing for awhile."

"I've been trying to make that leap for the longest time, but it's all amatter of, I think, all the stars being in alignment. I at one point had adeal to make 'The Black Pearl' with me as the director all set up," withAaron Spelling Productions' film division. "A big investor came in andshuttered their film department. … That was the end of that. It was veryfrustrating.

"You're at the whim of circumstances and your relative position on theentertainment food chain. Creative Light was the first company that stepped up andshowed confidence in me." Hamill originally approached them about doing "TheBlack Pearl," which they ended up deciding was beyond the scope of what theycould do at that time. "It just sort of transmogrified into this project. Iwanted to keep it in the realm of what I know and the fan world, as one ofthem.

"I think it's fun in the sense that you have the historical pedigree, butit's not real. In a facetious way, I once said that I wanted to make adocumentary unencumbered by reality … someone called it 'Spinal Tap forcomic book nerds,'" a label that Hamill emphatically applies to himself.

Hamill says fans have been after him for years to do his memoirs or anautobiography, something he feels he isn't ready for, personally orprofessionally. But in the meantime, "Comic Book: The Movie" covers some ofthose bases.

"They can look at this project, and it's riddled with autobiographicalmaterial. All the details are filled with allusions of either projects I'vedone or things that are a part of my life. When you look at the credits ofthose who contributed to the film, if you could see annotated credits, youcould see how much of my history is in there," he said. For instance, "theperson who does the Don Swan hair is the person who created my Tricksterhair on 'The Flash.'"

"Comic Book: The Movie" is filled with Hamill's friends, people he'sworked with and people he knows, all coming together in a labor of loveabout the community that they are all a part of.

"It's like one of those old MGM movies: 'Hey, let's put on a show!'"

"Comic Book: The Movie" will be available on DVD on January 27.

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