When, in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Jackson Whitney created Commander Courage
, the story of a mild-mannered teacher lamed by polio who was transformed into a patriotic superhero by the power of Native American mysticism, Whitney little knew the impact his character would have on the comic book world. For decades, home-grown boys and girls thrilled to the adventures of Commander Courage and his sidekick, Liberty Lad, as they made the U.S. of A. safe from menacing villains like the Commie Swami. Then, in the 21st century, as the world’s fears turned to terrorism and home security, Commander Courage, by now waning in popularity, got the obligatory “updated hero” treatment, transforming into Codename: Courage, trading his jaunty quips for bitter sarcasm, his mystic powers for an arsenal of high-calibur weapons, and upgrading from Liberty Lad to . . . Liberty Lass.
Of course, in an age of cynical cash-ins, the Codename: Courage
incarnation was what finally attracted the attention of Hollywood. But the producers of the movie nonetheless felt that, for the sake of PR and buzz, they needed to get the blessing of Donald Swan, a comic store owner, publisher of the Once Upon a Dime
fanzine and acknowledged expert on all things Commander Courage.
The indie documentary Comic Book: The Movie
is the David-versus-Goliath story of Don Swan’s attempt to get Hollywood to honor the legacy of the late great Jackson Whitney’s Commander Courage.
What, you’ve never heard of Commander Courage or Jackson Whitney? Perhaps it’s because you’re too young to remember (or to care about) the Golden Age of comic books. Perhaps its because Commander Courage’s fame has recently been limited to the cult following of the more intelligent and knowledgeable tier of comic fans.
Or perhaps it’s because Commander Courage and his creator Jackson Whitney are complete fabrications, an old Jedi Mind trick cooked up by Comic Book: The Movie
director Mark Hamill.
Hamill, who was a comic book geek long before he starred with Carrie Fisher in George Lucas’ three Shakespeare-influenced comedies of mistaken-identity and near-incest, uses the San Diego Comic-Con as a back-drop for his winking minutia-filled fanboy jape. The movie works best when it hews most closely to the documentary format, with voice-overs, black-and-white footage, images of various Commander Courage comic books, the short-lived Commander Courage cartoon, and faux facts about Jackson Whitney and Commander Courage swirling blithely together with the true history and details of comicdom.
The sight of comics’ jolly headmaster Stan Lee enthusing about Commander Courage as if it were a real book is, in its way, as much pinch-me fun as seeing Mick Jagger and Paul Simon opine about the careers of The Rutles
in Eric Idle’s brilliant rock mockumentary (which, for the record, was made a good five or six years before anyone ever heard of Spinal Tap
). Watching Mark Hamill, as the nebbish comic expert Don Swan, interviewing Star Wars
uber-fan Kevin Smith, has an undeniable kick, even without the extra layer that Kevin Smith’s bit about his fizzled Commander Courage screenplay (“They wanted a giant spider in the third act”) probably bears a more-than-passing resemblance to the saga of his binned Superman adaptation. But even funnier is the less-worshipped Bill Mumy’s (Will Robinson from Lost in Space
) rather bitter remembrance of his involvement with the failed Commander Courage live-action television show, accompanied by a doctored photo of a young Mumy in the Liberty Lad costume.
When all these details are being thrown at you, it’s easy to go along for the ride, but Comic Book: The Movie
wants to be more than a faux documentary. It also wants to be a farce on the queasy alliance between the comics community and Hollywood, and so we have the continuing story-line of Don Swan’s struggle to gain the ear of two Hollywood types, along with characters like “the stoner cameraman” and “Jackson Whitney’s long-lost grandson”. The plot and character sequences are improv’d scenes that range from hilarious to slightly dull to nearly embarrassing.
Most of the actors are both talented and funny (among them are Jess Harnell a.k.a. Wacko Warner, Tom Kenny a.k.a. Spongebob Squarepants, and Billy West a.k.a. Stimpy and practically every character on Futurama
). But the humor and timing is scattershot. As a result, the vignettes are sometimes crisply paced, organic, laugh-inducing, or believable, but rarely all four at the same time. Not one of the actors has the improvisational skill of a Fred Willard or Eugene Levy, and as a result, the characters don’t have much true flesh to them.
It’s also telling that the movie comes alive when minor characters (like the genial lunkhead who’s hired to wear the Commander Courage costume) are on screen, and drags during major plot points. Entertainment and plot only rarely intercept, as when Don Swan attempts to influence Bruce “Evil Dead” Campbell, the leading candidate for the part of Codename: Courage, and manages to sway the actor to favor Commander Courage over Codename: Courage, mostly by leveraging the actor’s vanity.
In the DVD materials, Hamill says more than once that the movie is a love-letter to the comics and fan community, and it’s that energy and knowing enthusiasm that makes this uneven and low-rent project enjoyable and almost memorable. Just as I was getting listless or annoyed, there’d be a gem like the guy who convinced his wife to go to San Diego for their anniversary, even though he had no intention of actually doing anything in San Diego except the Comic-Con. Or an in-joke like when Don Swan was given the cold shoulder by David Prowse (Darth Vader), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca) and Jeremy Bulloch (Boba Fett).
Ultimately, Comic Book: The Movie
is a comic-head’s junk drawer: inside jokes, a travelogue of the San Diego Comic-Con, improv scenes and cameos strung together. Is it fun? Yes sir. But is it a movie? Not so much.
Two discs. With lots and lots of talking. Which will bore you or thrill you depending on where your geek sensibilities lie.
For example: The second disc’s major component is a “Behind the Voices” featurette, which turns out to be nothing more than a videotaping of a panel at the San Diego Comic Con, complete with a slow start and occasional momentum-deflating lulls, but the people on the panel are a rogue’s gallery of the best voice acting talent in animation. It’s enough to make a cartoon lover’s head spin, even if they never do break out into the full-on in-character riffing session you’re hoping for. Winnie the Pooh, Stimpy, Powdered Toast Man, Spongebob Squarepants, Wacko, and Pinky and the Brain, all on the same platform. Wow.
The same vibe pervades extra features like the Commander Courage radio show program (voiced by some of the above-mentioned talents), and the cast commentary track (Hamill, by the way, has been doing mostly voice-work since his brilliant characterization of The Joker in the various incarnations of the 90s Batman
cartoon). On the commentary, it gets to the point where you don’t know who’s talking any more, because three or four people are doing their impression of the same person. Just imagine: Luke Skywalker impersonating Captain Kirk.
Among the deleted scenes is one of an undiscovered and grouchy guy, Devin T. Quin, hawking his self-published comic book Robots R. Cool. Zombies R. Jerks
like a starving carnival barker on acid. It’s possibly the funniest two minutes on the disc. Go to his web-site and buy his comic book
. I haven’t read it yet, but according to Devin, it’s got a transcendental muffin, a banjo-playing frog, a butterchurn, and an ad for “chock full o’ mystery” morning beverage.
As for the rest of the extras, there’s a really helpful (but not entirely comprehensive) guide to the dozens of cameos in the movie, an art gallery, and a short “making of” doc.
But wait, there’s more talking. Stan Lee talks about comic books, plus there are full versions of Don Swan’s interviews with Kevin Smith, Bruce Campbell, and Hugh Hefner (The interview with Hefner is, surprisingly, the most educational. Learn things you never thought you wanted know about Mad Magazine, Plastic Man, and inking and publishing back in the day), plus quickie interviews with industry luminaries like Peter David and Paul Dini. The fact that all this material veers wildly from fascinating to tedious shouldn’t scare you away from wading through it. Just find something else to do while you listen to it.
Oh, and I forgot one of the extras: more Bill Mumy on the perils of being Liberty Lad.
As a Love-Letter to the Comics Community:
8 out of 10
As a Movie:
5 out of 10
The DVD Extras:
8 out of 10