Chasing Amy (View Askew Productions/Miramax Films, 1997)

 

Chasing Amy: Or, How Indie Comics Are Tugging On Superman's Cape

I had two reasons for wanting to write this review for Valentine's Day:

1. Chasing Amy, although it is not exactly a romantic comedy, is a good movie to watch with someone you love. (If, instead of thought-provoking bittersweet comedy about geeks in love, you prefer thought-provoking romantic comedy about geeks in love, snuggle up with your sweetie to watch Desk Set. I want to be Katherine Hepburn in that movie when I grow up)

2. I completely understand how comic books can lead to love, because Alan Moore -- although he doesn't know this -- played Cupid for me and my boyfriend. Okay, so it is a little disturbing to think of the man most often described as a demented Rasputin (isn't that redundant?) as some sort of short, winged kid with a bow and arrow playing Yenta. Perhaps now you can understand why I consider Valentine's Day and Halloween interchangable. Well, that and the fact that they both involve fear, chocolate, and interesting costumes...

What does any of this have to do with Chasing Amy? Chasing Amy explores that territory often left to comic books and rituals like Valentine's Day and Halloween, where we express what is best -- and worst --about ourselves. In comic book terms, it's about what happens when the cool mask slips and the people we love get to witness our secret identity. See? More fear and costumes.

Holden McNeil (Ben Affleck) and his best friend and partner, Banky (Jason Lee), are co-creators of an indie comic book called Bluntman and Chronic. Writer/director Kevin Smith has used references to comic books in previous movies, but in Chasing Amy he seems to have tapped into some of the reasons that comic books appeal so strongly to adults. Despite the public perception of comic books, or graphic novels, as icky kid's stuff, most comic book stores make their profits by selling to adults. It was not, after all, kids who nominated Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay for a Pulitzer, or kids who read Nick Hornby's review of graphic novels in the book section of the December 21, 2002, issue of the New York Times. Movies such as Unbreakable and Free Enterprise explore how our identification with heroes -- and villains -- affects the way we interact in the world well into adulthood. (Coincidentally, today is the debut of another comic book-related movie starring Ben Affleck as Daredevil, a blind
superhero.)

So why is it that we're seeing "serious" writers like Michael Chabon and Nick Hornby in the funny papers, discussing what Hornby refers to as "personal narrative"? Perhaps it is the "personal" which -- so to speak -- draws us. Alyssa (Ben Affleck's love interest, played by Joey Adams), the artist/writer of her own comic book titled Idiosyncratic Routine, attempts to argue this point with Holden when they first meet during a convention. Unfortunately, the personal nature of comics as art becomes subsumed by Holden and Alyssa's personal relationship, though, in the end, she has this same argument with Holden again, this time about their relationship. Chasing Amy -- which Kevin Smith admits is based on one of his own failed relationships -- does for movies what indie comics do for mainstream comics: it takes the cliches and turns them topsy-turvy, revealing that it is not the cool outer costume and the superpowers which make us real to each other, but the flawed mortals beneath.

If you have read Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (the title alone sums up the tension between the cool clothes and the human underneath), or if you are already a comic fan, you are familiar with the reasons why indie comics split from mainstream comics. The characters in Chabon's novel are based upon real people, recognizable to comics fans. For decades publishing companies not only controlled the storylines in comics -- sometimes dictating absolutely ludicrous storylines for the artists to produce -- but also insisted on owning everything the artist created, even down to the characters themselves. Read even a few paragraphs about the litigation Stan Lee has been forced to pursue, and you will understand why many artists such as those in the movie would rather do their own self-promotion, spend half their time traveling the comic book convention circuit, and stuff envelopes with their own hands, rather than hand over their creative work to the big publishing companies. Creative control is also not an insignificant issue when it comes to the subject matter of indie comics. Many portray experiences and lifestyles which do not play in Peoria. Banky makes references to the cliches of mainstream comics when he claims, "Over and underweight guys, they're our bread-and-butter," and dismisses Alyssa's work as "chick stuff." Though Alyssa is the only female artist in the movie, she represents the strong appeal comics have for women as both creators and readers. One of the graphic novels of the '80's still cited by many artists of today as a major influence is Love and Rockets, which was written by a couple of brothers but is about young Hispanic punk girls in a contemporary urban setting.

As Alyssa's Idiosyncratic Routine demonstrates, autobiography remains one of the strongest elements in indie comics, whether the setting is almost pure memoir (such as one of Nick Hornby's favorites, One Hundred Demons, by Lynda Barry) or a world which is simultaneously foreign and familiar, such as Carla Speed McNeil's Finder. This comic presents one of the richest tapestries of world mythologies and legends, in addition to much of the artist's own mythos. Look at any of the indie comic Web sites and you will find artists use everything from childhood friendships to dreams to a parent's flight from pre-World War II Germany as material for their work. This self-exploration is part serious and part self-parody. You can see this in Chasing Amy when Kevin Smith appears as Silent Bob, upon whom Holden and Banky have based one of their comic book characters. When Silent Bob finally speaks, he reveals not only the mystery of the title but a secret about who he is, insisting on pursuing self-expression despite the scorn and insults of his best friend. Pay attention to the man behind the curtain, friends: Kevin Smith is giving you the key to the kingdom. Superpowers pale in comparison to the human power of expressing what's most personal to each of us, and Chasing Amy is both personal and heroic.

[Kestrell Rath]

For more about comics than I could ever remember, check out Alexx's Comics Page.