Monday, December 7, 2009

Caveman: V.T. Hamlin & Alley Oop written and directed by Max Allan Collins (comic strip documentary)

Before watching Caveman: V.T. Hamlin & Alley Oop, my knowledge of the comic-strip cave-dweller was limited to the hit single by the Argyles (with a few additional raunchy lyrics I heard from my dad). But Max Allan Collins has produced quality indie-film work in the past — mostly crime-genre films like Mommy and Real Time but also another documentary, Mike Hammer's Mickey Spillane — so my interest was definitely piqued.

Caveman (originally shown at special screenings and on PBS affiliates) combines Collins's nearly career-long work in comics and his passion for independent filmmaking. Collins wrote Dick Tracy for 15 years, created Ms. Tree, and wrote the original Road to Perdition graphic novel. (He finally meshed comics and mystery novels in books like Strip for Murder.)

Collins was first intrigued by Vincent Trout Hamlin when he discovered that the artist was a fellow Iowan. To this Midwestern kid aspiring to a career in writing, knowing that someone else nearby had made a success of it provided a boost of confidence.

Caveman approaches its subject, and to a lesser extent comics in general, from the viewpoint of the uninitiated. Narrator Michael Cornelison (Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life) gently delves into the history of Alley Oop for the benefit of neophytes, tracing comics (aptly enough) from their beginnings on cave walls.

The film touches on Hamlin's beginnings and covers his life and that of his creation through his huge success, his antagonistic relationship with his assistant (Dave Graue, who would eventually take over the strip), Hamlin's eventual death, and how Alley Oop has carried on into the modern day through the writing and artistry of husband-and-wife team Jack and Carole Bender.

Following on the success of films like The Lost World, Hamlin created Alley Oop as an alternative to popular futuristic strips like Buck Rodgers. Caveman even suggests that Hamlin was responsible for getting modern children interested in dinosaurs by including factual information along with the entertainment, and he also used the platform to introduce kids to other historical figures like Shakespeare and Cleopatra through his use of time-travel storylines.

A documentary is made in the editing room, and Caveman skillfully splices interviews and narration with still photos to great effect. The interviews are the real meat for viewers and comics fans and include talks with Graue and the Benders, along with Will Eisner (creator of The Spirit), George Hagenauer (Collins's long-time research associate), Russell Myers (Broom Hilda), Teddy Dewalt (Hamlin's daughter, who doesn't shy away from her father's faults), Stan Sakai, Sergio Aragonés, and many others offering wonderful insight from the perspective of the industry. (Collins took his camera to the San Diego Comic Con and was thus able to get a lot of material for relatively little money.)

Under all this great material is a flows an appropriately upbeat rock score by composer Chris Christensen. Also featured throughout is a new Alley Oop song with music by Christensen and lyrics by Collins.

The extras on the Caveman DVD are numerous, with probably the most spectacular one being the 45-minute interview with Will Eisner, where he discourses on comics, history, the educational use of what he calls "sequential art," The Spirit, and his own influences among other various subjects. This was the last on-camera interview Eisner gave of any length, so it's a special keepsake for comics fans.

Also included are two commentaries, one by Collins and another by Jack and Carole Bender; a morning show feature on/interview with the Benders; and a nearly hour-long panel discussion (filmed around the time of release of Collins's novel Red Sky in Morning) celebrating Alley Oop's 75th anniversary. (Caveman was also shown that day.) The panel includes Collins, the Benders, and producer Mark Lambert. They go into some detail on the making of the documentary, including some problems and other information that will interest those curious about the behind-the-scenes process of independent filmmaking.

Collins obviously has a real affection for the material (he also calls it his "secret biography of Chester Gould"), and this comes through in the viewing. Fans of Collins, Hamlin, Eisner, comics in general, documentaries, or just a well-told story should give Caveman: V.T. Hamlin & Alley Oop a look.

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