By Arlen Schumer
Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist, a documentary film biography of the legendary artist/writer, had its world premiere at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival in New York City April 26th. The first film directed by Andrew Cooke, who has been toiling in the trenches of the NYC film industry his entire professional life, and written by his older brother Jon, the editor and designer of Comic Book Artist magazine, the premiere trade journal of the industry, the Eisner doc represents an absolute triumph for the comic book medium. It shows us not only how far it’s come in its quest for respectability from the mainstream culture, but how far we still have to go to secure and increase that acceptance.
When the film bio Crumb came out in 1994, about the great underground cartoonist Robert Crumb, it was hailed by comic book and mainstream critics alike as the first great documentary film about a cartoonist, and was richly deserved. Directed by longtime Crumb compadre Terry Zwigoff, it achieved its brilliance by showing us how an artist actually sees the world, and then how he gets that down on paper (recall the sequence about driving around Los Angeles for its street detritus). More than a documentary about “just” a great cartoonist, it was perhaps the best documentary ever made about a great artist, period. It quite unintentionally set a standard for all future film bios of artists in general, and comic book artists and cartoonists in particular.
But those films never came. While Zwigoff went on to direct the well-received Ghost World (based on Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel) and eventually the poorly-received Art School Confidential (again based on Clowes’ work), and superhero movies have become Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters, not one doc film about a comic book artist or cartoonist has been made since (with the exception of the barely-seen Frazetta film). And look at how many potential subjects–living witnesses and oral historians–have passed away, undocumented for posterity, since Crumb’s debut: Jerry Siegel, Curt Swan, Bob Kane, Vince Sullivan, John Broome, Gil Kane, Charles Schulz, Julius Schwartz, Martin Nodell, Dave Cockrum, Arnold Drake and most recently Johnny (comic strips B.C. and Wizard of Id) Hart—and this is not a complete list. Living legends like Steve Ditko, Carmine Infantino, Mort Walker, Joe Kubert and the ubiquitous Stan Lee are all in their late 70s/early 80s, and no one is making documentaries about them. Even once-young turks Neal Adams and Jim Steranko are both nearing seventy!