Critique du C-U: COMIC BOOK x 2

The following is a double-review originally written last year about a pair of recent student films from Bloomington-Normal. Enjoy!

“It’s the law. Every year, somebody has to come in here and make a movie,” Acme Comics owner Jim Schifeling said one afternoon in reference to the video I held in my hands. While shooting footage for a movie in the local comic book shop might seem unlikely except for the occasional throwaway scene, Schifeling has actually welcomed budding college-student storytellers twice recently to utilize his densely stocked pop-culture Mecca. The difference with COMIC BOOK ISSUES and COMIC BOOKS: THE SILENT KILLER is that the four-color medium, with its contemporary mythologies and historical baggage, provides context for these seriocomic micro-budget endeavors instead of merely enlisting the Normal, Illinois business as a backdrop.

COMIC BOOK ISSUES (Statuezilla Productions) and COMIC BOOKS: THE SILENT KILLER (Astrosmap Productions International)

Created by students attending Illinois State University, COMIC BOOK ISSUES certainly takes its title to heart, exploring what happens when an underclassman finds that he has suddenly gained legitimate super-powers. Jim Ferris (Michael Callahan) stumbles into his apartment after what initially seems to be an archetypal college-night bender; however, a subliminal mind tap between Jim and his jock roommate Alex (Justin Habenschuss) lets the proverbial cat out of the bag that something is amiss. Soon, the ability-enhanced student proves decisively to Alex and their friends – Sandra (Donnelle Fuller), Ray (Eric Rueffer), Jennifer (Christina Leinicke), and walking comic-book almanac Rick (C.J. Tuor) – with parking lot flight and “karaoke puppetry” that he’s not joking.

As the group deliberates what Jim might and shouldn’t do with his newfound prowess, our hero has already struggled with these gifts, particularly the hard-to-control telepathy that imposes upon him the private (and often uncivil) thoughts of those in his immediate vicinity. Rubs occur within the group and Jim decides to attend an apartment kegger populated by strangers so he can be “normal.” Here, he unabashedly locks lips with Paige (Julie Janus), a manic-depressive introvert who only hours before held a fistful of pills ready to pile down her throat. Breakfast in the cafeteria the next day brings about a couple of new mysteries; not only does Jim complain of a hangover despite his apparently indestructible make-up, but chemistry whiz Ray swears that he has seen a second human take flight – of the feminine persuasion.

The screenplay’s primary issues concern Jim’s relationships with the others parallel to an ill-advised fling with Paige. Admirable is the attempt that director R.J. Buckler and writer/actor Tuor make to explore the expectations inherent with super-heroism a la Superman in a movie that functions much closer to the real-world comics by Dan Clowes, Adrian Tomine, and maybe Terry Moore in Strangers in Paradise’s domestic situations. (To wit, Jim’s “origin story” is never really explained, probably since it would have felt superfluous here.) Being a student film, I wonder how much of the dialogue is scripted versus improvised, because it’s actually not bad even when peppered with too-obvious one-liners and steals from deep comic-shop conversations. Their characters feel realistic enough (if generally one-dimensional) that an audience could buy into their eventual plight.

Yet, it still is a student film and problems hammer ISSUES’ effectiveness faster than the “Zap!” and “Pow!” of a caped crusader smackdown. What dogs Butler and Tuor’s scenario might be best described as the STAR TREK effect, whereas the writer struggles to give all central characters at least something serviceable to do in the time allotted, if nothing more significant. With the de-emphasis on action set pieces or time-sensitive conflicts – given the dramatic aims of the material and a non-budget – the characters have little occupying their time beyond routine, save for the omnipresent Jim whom we encounter in practically every scene and through voiceover. Paige’s turbulence often plays more like a catalyst to test the mettle of the others or a conscious device to play off the minimal fantasy elements, at least until she and Jim “hulk out” towards the end in a rash of bad choreography and ADR. Tightening up that two-hour duration would have helped the film’s flagging momentum and possibly curbed its genre television episode-of-the-week resemblance.

Other aesthetic qualms with COMIC BOOK ISSUES, such as the ghetto camera work and nonplussed acting (excepting the likeable Callahan and tack-sharp, doe-eyed Fuller), I won’t dwell on further right now. Suffice it to say that Buckler, Tuor, and their real-life pals might actually consider revisiting these early twentysomethings and their mildly unearthly quandary once filmmaking experience is on their side.

Meanwhile … Erupting from a different solar flare in the Acme stratosphere is COMIC BOOKS: THE SILENT KILLER, a purported half-hour program in that vaunted “scare-film” vein pointing out the numerous vices enacted by your neighborhood Johnny and Jane Innocents upon partaking in those most heinous activities, the reading of comic books and patronization of “dork stores.” Given that its makers had spent much time on the clock as Acme Comics clerks before and during production, SILENT KILLER drops numerous confident gags that skewer the early Fifties paranoia and propaganda targeting popular culture in all its forms.

Opening with an alliterative rant by one Professor Phineas P. Phuckle (co-director Jeremie Geggus) about the evils these “vile volumes and polluted pamphlets” perpetuate, SILENT KILLER sucks us into an exaggerated black-and-white underworld holed up behind the wholesome façade of a pet supply store. Under the watchful eye of shop owner Jimmy (Geggus again), customers fondle action figures, ogle Vampirella comics, gamble with Magic the Gathering cards, do the deed in the “Pottie,” and even conjure Stan Lee (“Even though I’m not actually dead … on the outside,” deadpans Geggus in yet another role) within this hooligan hotbed. Our friends Johnny (co-director Jason Detloff) and Jane (Lucy Lebante) learn to let go of goody-goody inhibitions after their first visit here, but soon Johnny decides he’s not getting his money’s worth with trade-ins and catastrophe strikes.

In between shop shenanigans and phurther Phuckle pontiphications, Detloff and Geggins insert an amusing skit presenting “scientifical evidence” charting comics’ exponential damage to youthful readers, as well as a home visit with young Teddy, a.k.a. “Super Z,” a slow-witted lad (played hilariously by Jared Alcorn) born with the inexplicable desire to grow up a superhero. All these different elements merge together pretty well, although more than one punch line misses the bull’s-eye thanks to roomy editing and odd lulls in the soundtrack, while the scratchy “film-look” effect used throughout SILENT KILLER helps set the mood despite its obvious computer-generated origin. Still, there’s enough pop per minute in this humorously un-PC parody that I could imagine it gaining status in the underground, were it to escape the confines of a town deceptively christened Normal.

– Jason Pankoke


A Statuezilla Productions film
Directed by R.J. Buckler
2005, Video, Color, 115 minutes

An Astrosmap Productions International film
Directed by Jason Detloff and Jeremie Geggus
2003, Video, B&W, 33 minutes


Back to the fore, MacDuff…

Visit the Critique Cache

Return to Home Page

Comments closed.