Comix Redux

Comic Book Confidential

CD-ROM by Ron Mann

reviewed by rachel k onuf for howard besser's winter 1996 class impact of new information technologies

The documentation about this CD-ROM, issued by the Voyager Company in 1994, asserts that now "[c]omic books finally get the respect they deserve". As someone who is not a rabid fan and yet has respected comic books for years, I am somewhat startled at this quasi-defensive statement, and bemused that the publication of a CD-ROM explaining the history of comic books and their makers is presented as comics' ticket to respectability.

Quality of Content

That minor quibble aside, Comic Book Confidential is a creation worthy of respect. The centerpiece is a 90-minute documentary film in Quicktime™ that contains over twenty author and artist talking heads. Many read from their work as the panels are brought to life through slow pans and sound effects. This engrossing documentary charts the life of comic books proper, which started in 1933 with Funnies on Parade, through the late 1980s, and includes entertaining clips on commercial, alternative and underground artists.

The original copyright for the film is 1988, and is owned by Sphinx Productions, a Canadian film production company. I believe that it was initially released on its own and then migrated to CD-ROM once the idea of a larger project was conceptualized. The overall production value is pretty high, but the slight disjunction between the heads and their voices and the overall graininess did interfere with my ability to pay complete attention. The soundtrack is marvelous and effectively reinforces the timeline approach to telling the history of comic books, slipping from big band through psychedelic to Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet.

My initial exploration of the other material included on the CD-ROM was disappointing. There is a brief biography and checklist of published works for each of the 22 featured artists. Also, there are an advertised additional 120 pages of comics, but it was difficult to tell from the menus what the *new* material was. In order to read some of the comic book pages, I had to enlarge them and read one half page at a time, arguably altering a crucial part of the experience of reading comics, i.e. being able to see the whole two page spread while reading each panel.

Most of the additional links to interviews and artists' projects shunted me back to the part of the film where the artist talked or their work was shown. In at least one instance, the film simply kept playing instead of taking me back to the specific artist page where I had been. Since most of the substance of the reference part of Comic Book Confidential is taken from the film, there is less information here than i initially thought, and after just viewing the film I was slightly irritated to find myself watching bits of it again, when I thought I would be getting further information about and work by these artists.

On the other hand, it enhances the research value of this "tool" to have some way of accessing the information included in the film, since one cannot search it directly. There is only a primitive tool bar for the film that allows the viewer to control the volume and jump forward or back, with little precision. It would be nice if there was two-way access and the viewer could pause the film and link directly to the biographical information, list of published works, and any additional work by the particular artist she is interested in.

Techno-gaga

Technological issues infiltrated the content section and I am sure that content issues will pop up here -- possibly due to my inability to structure essays, but more probably due to the intertwine-edness of the two when reviewing a multimedia product like a CD-ROM, where access to the content is so obviously mediated by technology. The user interface is not "unfriendly" (interesting that one is trained to automatically assign a program's "personality" a level of "friendliness"...) but I am a bit frustrated that even in the few hours I spent with Confidential I was not able to easily get a sense of the overall scope. This is primarily the fault of the clunkiness of the navigation capabilities.

It is telling that I keep referring to the user as a "viewer". This is primarily a CD-ROM to be viewed, full of information to be absorbed. There is quite a bit of information but it is presented in a rather linear, hierarchical format. There is little for the viewer to do but decide what information to take in. Moving between screens seemed to take longer than it should, and one has to back up in order to go forward in another direction. I was also dismayed that this package wasn't more attractive and flashy. Considering the subject matter, I thought the icons, fonts and layouts could have been more Street, or at least more sophisticated, more graphical. More something. The anticipated audience may be young comic fans or old 60s heads, but for any audience the presentation could have been more effectively hip.

Overall, the combination of biographical information and samples of work makes this a valuable reference source for information about these specific 22 artists. A copy of the Code of the Comics Magazine Association of America, Incorporated, adopted in 1954, is also included on the CD-ROM, but the majority of what I would call contextual information is embedded in the film, in the form of historical footage and explanatory voiceover. This requires users desiring to learn about the history of the comic book, and not just the careers of specific artists, to commit to 90 minutes of viewing. The film is well worth the commitment, but it might be better experienced on VHS.