The 'Spinal Tap' of Comic Books: Mark Hamill Directs 'Comic Book: The Movie'

Thu, January 15th, 2004 at 12:00am PST

TV/Film
Beau Yarbrough, Columnist

It's a sight that attendees at Comic-Con International in San Diego probably didn't bat

an eye over: Mark

Hamill, Luke Skywalker of "Star Wars," prowling the convention floor,

camera crew in his wake.

He is, after all, a regular guest of comic conventions and a

self-proclaimed comic nerd.

But this time, Hamill was up to something different: When he and his film

crew attended the world's largest comic convention in the summer of 2002, he

was in the process of directing his first film, "Comic Book: The

Movie." The film premiers on a two DVD set at the end of this month.

"I think of it as a movie about fans, by a fan, for fans," Hamill told

CBR News on Wednesday. "In other words, I've been on the inside of the hobby

as a fan as long as I can remember. It seems to me that whenever we were

portrayed on the screen, it was always as outsiders."

The largely improvised "mockumentary" stars Hamill as comic shop owner

and fan Donald Swan, who is out to stop the disastrous

film adaptation of his favorite comic book series, Commander Courage.

Comic readers don't have to squint very hard to see the parallels to real

world film adaptations.

"It's about people being true to what they believe in, and going up

against forces much larger than they are, and prevailing because of

what they believe in."

In contrast to Comic Book Guy on "The Simpsons," Donald Swan is a

more realistic and sympathetic character, Hamill said.

"The tone of it I thought was interesting because one of the things

the comic book con was nervous about it was that we were somehow going to be

putting people on or taking an ironic view that would somehow hurt their

enjoyment of the con," he said. "That's been done to death, and doesn't

interest me."

The featured guest of many comic book convention and the voice of the

Joker in the 1990s Batman cartoon series Hamill describes himself as a

lifelong comic fan, and in the 1990s, created "The Black Pearl," published

by Dark Horse

Comics.

"Well, I've always loved them. I was one of seven children of a career

naval officer, and he wasn't someone who welcomed them into his house, which

I think made me love them even more," he said. "Peer pressure and various

other factors made me give up comic books completely, and I didn't really

rediscover them until I was in college.

"They reflect history in a way that's interesting to me … whether it's

the patriotic comics of World War II or the slightly paranoid comics of the

1950s and Cold War, I think they reflect the sensibilities of the period in

which they were made."

Which brings us back to "Comic Book: The Movie" and the character created

for the film, Commander Courage. A fictional patriotic superhero in the

Captain America mold, he fills niches occupied in the real world by both

Captain America and Superman. And that provided a convenient jumping-off

point for the real world entertainment industry types and fans to improvise

their dialogue.

"A lot of the people who are interviewed are talking about their own real

life experiences, but they translate it into the Commander Courage universe.

So when Kevin

Smith is talking about writing the Superman film, that's a real story,

but he just inserts the name 'Commander Courage' into it instead." And thus

Smith's real stories of the bruising process he went through becomes the

process of writing a "Commander Courage" movie.

But given that many of those interviewed are telling real stories about

their own lives, Hamill found it hard to know how to edit things down for

the movie.

"I don't know what to cut out of Hugh Hefner's

interview, or Bruce Campbell's or Kevin Smith's." The full-length

interviews find a home on the DVD's second disk.

All films shoot more footage than they end up using, but working in an

unscripted environment just exacerbated things for "Comic Book: The Movie."

"I heard it was slightly over 100 hours. I know, wow. That would include

guys who forgot their cameras were on, and we got six hours of wall. We had

a blueprint for what we wanted to shoot, but without knowing where we wanted

to end up.

"We came away from the con with an enormous amount of footage," Hamill

said. "After assembling a rough really rough cut of the footage we had

so far, we were able to figure out what we still needed to shoot to make it

all work."

Even so, the mostly unscripted nature of the film was akin to walking a

tightrope mostly without a net.

"It was very exciting. I'm not used to working like this. I'm part of the

business where everything is signed off on, and a committee has approved

everything," he said. "To do it this way, it was really kind of exciting and

dangerous. … You're on a toboggan careening down the mountain, gathering

speed."

"Comic Book: The Movie" is Hamill's first time in the director's chair,

but like many actors, it's something he's been interested in doing for a

while."

"I've been trying to make that leap for the longest time, but it's all a

matter of, I think, all the stars being in alignment. I at one point had a

deal to make 'The Black Pearl' with me as the director all set up," with

Aaron Spelling Productions' film division. "A big investor came in and

shuttered their film department. … That was the end of that. It was very

frustrating.

"You're at the whim of circumstances and your relative position on the

entertainment food chain. Creative Light was the first company that stepped up and

showed confidence in me." Hamill originally approached them about doing "The

Black Pearl," which they ended up deciding was beyond the scope of what they

could do at that time. "It just sort of transmogrified into this project. I

wanted to keep it in the realm of what I know and the fan world, as one of

them.

"I think it's fun in the sense that you have the historical pedigree, but

it's not real. In a facetious way, I once said that I wanted to make a

documentary unencumbered by reality … someone called it 'Spinal Tap for

comic book nerds,'" a label that Hamill emphatically applies to himself.

Hamill says fans have been after him for years to do his memoirs or an

autobiography, something he feels he isn't ready for, personally or

professionally. But in the meantime, "Comic Book: The Movie" covers some of

those bases.

"They can look at this project, and it's riddled with autobiographical

material. All the details are filled with allusions of either projects I've

done or things that are a part of my life. When you look at the credits of

those who contributed to the film, if you could see annotated credits, you

could see how much of my history is in there," he said. For instance, "the

person who does the Don Swan hair is the person who created my Trickster

hair on 'The Flash.'"

"Comic Book: The Movie" is filled with Hamill's friends, people he's

worked with and people he knows, all coming together in a labor of love

about the community that they are all a part of.

"It's like one of those old MGM movies: 'Hey, let's put on a show!'"

"Comic Book: The Movie" will be available on DVD on January 27.

 
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