By Joel Keller
The Huffington Post
(Excerpt) Director Andrew D. Cooke does a good job of mixing talking-head interviews — with the likes of Jules Feiffer, who worked on “The Spirit,” Spiegelman, Miller, Michael Chabon, and even the late Kurt Vonnegut, among other notables of multiple generations — with audio tape interviews Eisner did in the eighties with the big comic artists of the early 20th century, including Milton Caniff and Harvey Kurtzman.
He also gives non-comic viewers a good indication of what Eisner’s work was like, from the brightly-colored, cinematic drawings of “The Spirit,” to black-and-white biographical drawings that show how Eisner was able to draw characters that were cartoonish and realistic all at once.
The movie drags in a spot or two, mostly when Eisner and others are exploring why many comic artists from that time period were of Jewish heritage, but a fascinating exploration of Eisner’s use of Ebony, a very stereotypical African-American character in “The Spirit,” makes up for it. In this day and age of ultra-PC sensitivity, seeing a minstrelized character like Ebony in a mainstream comic is shocking. But Cooke effectively explores the from both sides; Eisner felt he was just going along with the times, while slightly younger and more liberal artists like Feiffer expressed discomfort with having to draw such a character.
The sign of any good documentary is if it makes a person who wasn’t a die-hard fan of the subject or genre it’s exploring want to learn more. And Portrait does just that. I definitely plan on seeing the movie version of “The Spirit” that Miller is set to direct. And, because of this, I may even read the comic first. That’s saying a lot.
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