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Comic Book: The Movie

Two summers ago, Mark Hamill decided to capture the madness and the majesty of comic fandom. Okay, maybe majesty stretches the point, but let us have our dreams. At any rate, for his first time out as a film director, Hamill wanted to do what anybody wandering ComicCon wants to do: find something linear, a way through all the chaos even as he gloried in it.

Gathering many of his friends from the world of animation voice-over, Hamill hatched a plot (literally) that would celebrate what it means to be a comic book fan without simply confirming the stereotypes that non-fans hold. Part documentary "unencumbered by facts," part sweetly wicked Hollywood satire and all showcase for good comic actors that you normally don't get to see, Creative Light Entertainment's Comic Book: The Movie succeeds in its goals. If anything, a little too well, as it's almost overstuffed enough to warrant two films.

For all four days of the 2002 San Diego ComicCon, Hamill and his crew roamed the floor with videocameras. Sometimes they played out improvised scenarios. Other times they just captured what was going on. And when possible, Hamill, as comic book superfan Donald Swan, paid homage to those of his influences who happened to be there.

At the risk of geeking out here, it's a quick touching moment for fans to see Hamill chatting with Ray Harryhausen (producer of the good Sinbad films). The older gentleman seems a little unsure of what's going on, but he's humbly grateful to be thanked.

Mark Hamill and Tom Kenny, in character, hosting a panel for Stan Lee.
The film is dotted with little cameos like that, each with just enough explanation to keep it from being too much of an inside joke. Does the average viewer really need to understand what Kevin Smith means to fandom? Probably not, and the references to his rejected Commander Courage script are funny enough even if you don't know they're painfully true about his attempt to write Superman Lives for Warner.

As for the plot, it couldn't be more timely. In the midst of the Hollywood feeding frenzy for comic book based properties, Timely Studios (yes, homage to Marvel's original identity) believes it has the rights to the character Commander Courage free and clear. Post-9/11, the character has been re-imagined as something darker. The studio hopes to make a killing on a great violent cathartic film as Courage avenges himself on terrorists.

(Coincidentally and unknown to Hamill at the time, the 2002 ComicCon did have a booth for Civilian Justice, an independent comic and video with pretty much the same idea. It was horribly racist. Mercifully, it sank without a trace, though both it and Comic Book: The Movie have actor Dave Prowse in common.)

To forestall any residual fan outrage, the studio hires Donald Swan to be technical adviser on the film. With his childhood friend Derek Sprang (a magnificently dorky Tom Kenny), Swan has periodically published a fanzine, Once Upon A Dime, and he's considered the premiere expert on all things Commander Courage.

Daran Norris in the Commander Courage suit.
The studio executives, led by the weasely Taylor Donohue (Roger Rose) and Anita Levine (Lori Alan), hope to keep Swan on the edge and in the dark. But they didn't count on his taking his job so seriously, nor that he would find the only living heir to the rights to Commander Courage - naļve sheet metal worker Leo Matuzik (Billy West).

Along his journey, Swan gathers many unexpected allies, including Ricky (Jess Harnell), the cameraman assigned to document him for a DVD extra. With no time for rock and roll, Ricky makes do with the sex and drugs, and a visit to the Playboy Mansion with Swan is a dream come true. Except, strangely, the bunnies have all left for the day.

Luckily, the bunnies get represented later Donna D'errico shows up as a model hired to be the revamped Courage's sidekick, Liberty Lass. D'errico shows some good comic chops on the convention floor, particularly when playing with action figures. (Some readers just got dizzy at the thought - hot and plays with action figures?)

Occasionally the film takes detours into the history of Commander Courage, showcasing famous covers and interviewing comics professionals about the character's influence. They play it well for the most part, with Stan Lee doing one of his most convincing portrayals of himself ever. Though you, faithful fanboy, will treasure these scenes, they are the ones most likely to cause significant others to leave the room to wash dishes or something.

Call them back, because the film is genuinely funny, even in a couple of moments crowbarred in to allow these comic actors a record of their best bits. Harnell's explanation of how to do each individual Beatle is clever. Out of nowhere, Jim Cummings, the voice of Winnie-the-Pooh, shows up at a party riffing on absinthe and devolving from intellectual to obnoxious non-Pooh-like drunk. And though the film probably could survive without a scene between Sid Caesar and Jonathan Winters, we're the richer for it.

Yes, this fan gets in
on the action, too.
All of this rarely gets mean about fandom. The closest it comes is with Kenny as Sprang. You will believe that Swan can function in normal society, though he's intense about his interests. But Sprang is the guy we're all torn between being afraid and proud that we might be. When his young son refuses to open a DC Direct Shazam! boxed set of action figures because it's collectible, you may be able to see a tear of respect in Sprang's eye - or is that your reflection?

Comic Book: The Movie has a couple of obvious fanbases built in. Comic book fans, you will see yourself somewhere here, even if you aren't actually in it. (You might be, though. Were you there?) Those who follow animation need to see it to match faces to the voices they've come to know and love. In addition to the voice-over actors mentioned earlier, Nickelodeon stars Daran Norris (The Fairly Odd Parents) and Debi Derryberry (Jimmy Neutron) have sizable roles.

If any of this article's meanderings and side trips made sense to you, then you owe it to yourself to get this movie. For the rest of you, dip a toe in to comics fandom from the convenience of your own DVD player.

Review of the DVD extras...

(note: all the photographs in this article are our own from ComicCon 2002, though all of the people involved do show up in the finished film.)

Derek McCaw


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