A love letter to Mark Hamill’s great Comic-Con set mockumentary.
When I was in college, some friends and I had a ritual we’d do on nights where several of us were bored. We’d grab my friend Joe’s high-8 camera and wander into the bowels of the library to shoot our own improvised movies. These were all done with editing-in-the-camera, meaning we shot in sequence, one shot at a time with no post-production work. We never started with a script, though by the end we were bringing along an array of costumes and props.
None of these were great films, but there was an infectious energy about them. The first film was just myself and Joe, and we took turns holding the camera depending on which of us was in the shot. We had fun but wouldn’t have repeated the experiment had the friends we showed it to not said, “When are you doing another one? Can I be in it?” This goofy time-waster looked like so much fun that its energy transcended its low production values and creative constraints.
Mark Hamill’s 2004 directorial debut, Comic Book: The Movie, is the closest I’ve ever seen a feature film duplicate that energy. It’s an improvised mockumentary in the tradition of the Christopher Guest films like This is Spinal Tap and Best in Show. This is a shaggier effort than those films. CB: TM was apparently shot on digital video, but I’d swear the visual quality isn’t much more impressive than High-8, particular when displayed on an HD screen.
Its subject matter also makes for a somewhat narrow target audience. Hamill plays Don Swan, a superfan of a WWII-era superhero called Commander Courage. After a few decades of prominence, the character fell into disuse until a recent post-9/11 reboot revived him as a darker and grittier anti-hero known as Codename: Courage. Now, some film producers are set to announce their new feature project based on this relaunch at San Diego Comic Con, and Don is determined to use the trip to lobby for his preferred retro incarnation by any means possible.
Even in an era where comic book superhero movies are one of the more frequently produced genres of film, this is rather inside baseball. And that’s without even revealing the fact that Hamill’s repertory company of players is largely made up of voice actors whose work you’ve heard in shows like Pinky & The Brain, Futurama, Animaniacs and many, many more. But that’s all part of the infectious joy of this film. It really feels like Hamill was hanging out with his buddies and said, “Why DON’T we make a movie about something we all love? And let’s do it in a place we love: San Diego Comic Con.”
And that’s the other thing that Comic Book: The Movie makes abundantly clear to this geek – Hamill is one of us. Other actors who’ve experienced mass adoration through association with sci-fi fandom often seem bewildered by it, or at least not completely within it. In virtually every memoir and documentary William Shatner has made (and I’ve seen and read them all) you can sense his bewilderment at the devotion fans show to Star Trek. Even as he learns more about it, and gets that they’re not all weirdos, it’s clear that he can’t fully process what fandom is. He’s might be able to go Jane Goddall on fandom, but he doesn’t have the capacity to become John Dunbar. Meanwhile, Harrison Ford is comfortable keeping his distance and while Carrie Fisher knows how to play to the crowd, you can never quite see her IN a Hall H crowd.
But Hamill’s a different case. So much of this film feels like a glorious inside joke. Commander Courage’s history draws from several Golden Age heroes, while the modern reinterpretations owe a lot to the post-Frank Miller era of comics. There might be a version of this film where Shatner plays Don Swan, but only in a completely alternate reality would Shatner be capable of writing a character like Don Swan and his history.
Hamill shot the film on location at San Diego Comic Con back in the days before the show sold out in an hour. It’s almost quaint to see the performers walking the aisles with several feet of space between them and other convention guests. Of course, Hamill takes advantage of the setting, dropping in cameos from geek icons like Stan Lee, Batman: The Animated Series writer/producers Bruce Timm and Paul Dini, writer Peter David, and actor Bruce Campbell.
This film is a love letter to fandom. Don Swan is a bit of an odd duck, but Hamill invests him with such earnestness that you can’t help but like the guy. In the wrong hands, Don could have been more of a Comic Book Guy character. Instead, even the sad sack aspects of Don’s life are handled in a way that makes him less the butt of the joke, and more in service to understanding why this comic character means so much to him. It’s a more well-rounded depiction of the passionate fanboy than we generally find.
That earnestness is native to Hamill himself, which is clear to anyone who follows him on Twitter at, uh, @HamillHimself. More than any of the other “legacy” players in Star Wars, Hamill seems to be tickled to death at everything surrounding the Star Wars revival. His feed radiates an infectious amount of goodwill. He’s not lapping up the fan reaction as the object of that adoration so much as he feels like a fellow fan exclaiming, “Yeah, I know! Isn’t this cool?” with each new development.
I’m not gonna pretend Comic Book: The Movie is going to be a hit with every audience. It’s the sort of film destined to be embraced by a cult audience rather than a mainstream one. But that same passion and joy that made my college friends want to participate in subsequent library films is what I see when I watch Hamill’s movie. It’s clear that Hamill and his friends were tickled as hell to be working together, and that joy is infectious enough to overcome many of the film’s shortcomings.