It’s easy to forget in 2014 that there was a time when comics weren’t really that close to the center of the cultural zeitgeist. But, though someone under twenty may not believe it, there was a time before comic book movies (save for a few tentpole productions such as 1989’s Batman) and before comics were a common topic in any manifestation of popular culture. For example, Friends ran for much of the 1990s on television, but the characters weren’t discussing the latest issue of Sandman on that show, unlike, for example, on Community or The Big Bang Theory. Comics in the ‘90s were still a niche medium, appealing to a relatively narrow swath of the demographic. One of the few filmmakers of the era who brought comics and popular culture into the films he made was Kevin Smith, and he should get his proper share of the credit for featuring not just comics, but comic creators – and, more than that, female comics creators – in his 1997 film Chasing Amy.
Smith, of course, by the late 1990s had become a symbol of an entire movement in independent cinema, undergoing perhaps its fullest blossoming in that era. His 1993 film Clerks broke new ground by simply showing “gen-X” young people talking about the issues that interested them, such as Star Wars and, of course, sex, with rare candor. But many seem to have forgotten that his 1995 follow-up, the ill-fated Mallrats, featured an extended cameo from Stan Lee and a peek into the world of comic nerds. Released in 1997, Chasing Amy upped the ante by making all of its main characters comic book creators, making it one of the few feature films set in the world of comics that isn’t, strictly speaking, a “comic book movie”. That might seem like a very small target with a lot of caveats, but it’s worth contemplating.
By way of nerd orientation, 1997 was two years before the release of The Phantom Menace, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was in its first season, and the top TV shows were Seinfeld and ER. The internet was still predominantly the medium of nerd culture, though that was changing fast. Most people didn’t have high-speed internet at home. (And many didn’t have it at home at all.) If you used a laser printer, you were lucky. In the world of comics, 17 of the top 25 titles, in terms of sales, were X-Men comics, although Spawn was also a big seller that year.
Kevin Smith, having had a spectacular flop with Mallrats, could only secure a budget of $250,000 for his follow-up film. (Ironically, the script for Chasing Amy had been circulating through the film industry for some time, and it attracted enough respect and attention for Smith to be offered work as a script doctor, most famously on the ill-fated Superman Reborn.) Budgetary constraints forced Smith to work with a talented cast of friends who would work for very little, shoot the movie on 16 mm film, and improvise many of the sets and costumes. Despite this, the film feels no less polished than Mallrats and much closer in spirit to his original Clerks.
Amy was a much more personal script for Smith than Mallrats, a story fundamentally about being intimidated by a girlfriend’s sexual past. Jason Lee, who had made his debut in Mallrats, makes a star turn in Chasing Amy as Banky Edwards, one of the co-creators of the comic book “Bluntman and Chronic”. His partner, Holden McNeil, is played by a goateed Ben Affleck, sporting not only the beard but the flannel-and-baggy-jeans-look so prevalent in the ‘90s. Their comic is based on the adventures of the fictional characters based on the two famous pot dealers who hold court outside the “Quick Stop”: Jay and his “hetero life mate” Silent Bob (played respectively by the infamous Jason Mewes and Smith himself). The film’s plot concerns Holden’s love affair with Alyssa Jones (Joey Lauren Adams), a lesbian comics creator who they meet at a comic convention.
Though Chasing Amy opens at a comic-con, has many scenes of comic creation, and has some discussion of the challenges faced by those in the comics industry, it isn’t a movie about comics at all. Comics are simply what the characters do for a living. All of the comic content is strictly a “bonus” to the main romantic-comedy plot about sexual experimentation. This is rare if not unique, to my knowledge. When the characters converse about comics, for example, in an early scene where Banky gets in a ferocious argument about Archie with fellow comics creator Hooper X (Dwight Ewell, who steals almost every scene he’s in), it’s simply a plot device to set up a situation in which Holden and Alyssa can be alone. Later, when Holden and Banky take a meeting with some film industry types (one of whom is a young Matt Damon) about producing an animated series based on their comics, once again the comics material is largely an excuse to get the characters talking about the central issues of gender and sexuality that comprise the plot. For a film that isn’t specifically about comics, this is a great deal of time to spend within a relatively little-known world.
Chasing Amy is all the richer for its comics connections. As a romantic comedy – albeit one in which the romance is between a heterosexual man and a homosexual woman – it hits many of the proper emotional beats and has some moments of power but ultimately has been surpassed by any number of other films in the genre. What makes the film interesting, 16 years later, is the comics-related content that fills out the film’s mise-en-scene. Just to take one example, the characters refer to comics titles as “books”, as in “Sandman is a classy book”. To this day, I still use that phrasing, which I’ve found can bring out a person’s view of comics pretty quickly. I once asked a comic shop employee if they had “Harvey Pekar’s book about Israel”, and they looked at me quizzically and asked, “Pekar wrote a book?”, which to me only demonstrated their confusion of the nature of the medium.
There are many great images in Amy as well, which might be surprising for a filmmaker as verbal and almost resolutely anti-visual as Smith. In one scene, we see Banky and Holden working in their studio, no computers to be seen, simply two men with two drawing easels facing each other, hunched over and drawing by hand on paper. Their casual conversation with remarks such as, “That’s a great lamp that you drew in this panel,” made us feel privy to a candid glimpse into the world of comic creation. Even the issues that Holden and Banky have to deal with in the film, such as licensing to media companies, respecting their original inspirations and promoting their work at small comic conventions, seemed absolutely authentic and still ring true. Upon repeat viewing, it was these scenes that were compelling and keep viewers engaged long after they’ve tired of the central romantic plot. Chasing Amy may be the only film, or certainly part of a very small collection, that shows us the life of a comics creator. It certainly was very innovative and groundbreaking in 1997, in that respect.
But for all of that innovation, Chasing Amy sneaks in the real Trojan horse, which is that it shows diversity amongst comics creators. Diversity not just in racial terms, although Hooper X is a wonderfully colorful character, but in gender as well. At the convention that opens the film, there is a special panel on “diversity in comics” to which the female creators are assigned along with the gay creators, the creators of color, etc. In other words, it was a common presumption that female comics creators were common enough to be recognized as a visible minority, but rare enough to be shunted away from the main events at conventions, which, it should be said, were on a much smaller scale than they are today. Alyssa Jones is quite possibly one of the only female comics creators ever in the movies. (Please educate us in the comments section of there are any other examples, particularly pre-1997.) It’s a casual but significant aspect of the film that she is not singled out or treated differently by her colleagues due to her gender, except in some horribly off-color comments from Holden. She is simply another creator, out for beer and darts with her peers following a hard day’s convention signing. The final triumph of the film, the ending of which is bittersweet – unlike many romantic comedies – is that Holden aspires to her artistic level and writes the definitive comic book about the events of the film. A book that he, of course, titles “Chasing Amy”, thus finally producing a comic book of quality, as he sees it, rather than the standard superhero fare.
Alyssa’s comic, “Idiosyncratic Routine”, is also probably the best comic book shown in the film. There are three fictional comics featured: “Bluntman and Chronic”; Hooper X’s over-the-top “black power” comic “White Hating Coon”; and Alyssa Jones’ real-life book. Hers is the only one that is not a superhero comic, but rather in the tradition of Fingerman, Pekar or Will Eisner. It deals with adult issues in a complex way, rather than simply spinning a familiar genre in a slightly unfamiliar fashion as the boys’ books do. This could quite possibly be a deliberate ironic statement, demonstrating how much better a female creator has to be at her art just to sit at the same table as her male colleagues. Or it could be part of her character being positioned in the story with a great deal more emotional and intellectual maturity than the boys, which is a bit of a cliché. The fact remains that in this film we have a female comics creator whose (fictional) book is one that many would be curious to read. (Or perhaps not: there was a real Bluntman and Chronic comic book published in subsequent years, but not “Idiosyncratic Routine”, which says quite a lot about where the audience’s taste lies.)
Watching Chasing Amy again today, you can’t help but be struck by the 1990s-era setting in which no one has a computer or cell phone, and where indie music, cigarettes, and beer ruled the world. (People actually smoke in a bar!) But once you accept that dated setting, the grainy 16 mm photography begins to work its charm, as do the many other small auteur touches Smith has all over the film, such as playing Sega Hockey or his lovely homage to Jaws in an early scene. And then later you appreciate how Kevin Smith managed to get a film made in 1997 in which the characters create comics and one of those characters is a woman. If you haven’t seen it, or haven’t watched it lately, it’s certainly worth another look.