For Madmen Only is a documentary about the legendary comedian/improviser/instructor/comics writer Del Close, an utterly fascinating subject that I’ll get to in short order. But first, I want to talk about Mike Gold.
In the early 80’s, Gold co-founded the upstart publisher First Comics, an Illinois-based outfit that launched the year I was born. First Comics put out, arguably, the strongest line of comics of the era, cultivating emerging talent like Mike Baron and Steve Rude on Nexus, John Ostrander and Tim Truman on Grimjack, as well as giving established stars like Mike Grell, Howard Chaykin, and Jim Starlin a home for their original creations (if you haven’t read my colleague Billy’s interview about Dreadstar, go read that first, and then come back here). While there were many independent publishers that arrived in that era, as well as before and since, title for title, nobody was in First’s league. And Gold was the guy ringleading it all, serving as the company’s president until 1985, when he left to become a senior editor at DC.
I think about this fairly often, because this was the point that DC became THE comics company to read. Between Jenette Kahn (and Dick Giordano and Paul Levitz) basically pilfering superstar cartoonists like Frank Miller and John Byrne from Marvel and Karen Berger’s efforts to recruit 2000AD’s stable of writers from across the pond, DC was well on its way to kickstarting a huge revolution of unmatched quality in the medium. But, less heralded and yet no less important, was Gold’s arrival to those hallowed New York City offices. Once ensconced in the company, Gold brought over so much of the talent that made First one of the most exciting purveyors of adventure comics. So in comes Baron on The Flash, and Truman on Hawkworld, and Chaykin on Blackhawk, and Grell on Green Arrow. But most importantly for the subject of this review, was Ostrander on Suicide Squad. This is a debut whose praises I’ll surely beat into submission in a review I’m writing next week (hint-hint). 1987 was a banner year for DC all around, but it was an especially good year for Gold, whose mark made at DC is far too underdiscussed but should be held in similar regard as those of his contemporaries at the time.
1987 was also the year that Ostrander and Gold collaborated with Del Close for the creation of one of the best comics that many people have not had the good fortune of reading, Wasteland. A heady brew of autobiography, psychological dread, dark humor and surrealism, Wasteland was an anthology horror comic that was unlike anything in the mainstream comics marketplace at the time. It featured a rotating team of artists that included William Messner-Loebs, David Lloyd, Don Simpson, and Bruce Patterson. I was introduced to it by Michel Fiffe many years ago, and I was absorbed by its personal and improvisational energy. It felt like a book that was alive in your hands. And while I have great appreciation for many of the odd-duck corners of 1980’s DC, Wasteland is the one I return to more than most. Possibly even more than Thriller! I’m sad to say it’s never been collected, though plans were afoot a few years back. Thankfully DC finally digitized the great majority of the series, though I’d recommend you chase down the physical issues for all the great letter columns too. Plus, who doesn’t love ads from that era?
To get back to the central point, For Madmen Only, it’s important to understand the context of Wasteland, which I was shocked to learn was the centrifugal force of this documentary presentation of Del Close’s life and times. The film itself opens with longtime friend of the Beat, James Urbaniak, playing Close in a reenactment of a Wasteland writing session, with Matt Walsh as Gold, and Josh Fadem as Ostrander, furiously pulling together an issue’s script with fever dream-like logic. This acts as an entryway into the storytelling style of Close, with Wasteland’s stories and art acting as a compass rose throughout the journey viewers will take.
For those unaware, Close is a landmark figure in his own right, one of the leading lights in improvisational theater. He was best known as the director of Second City, where he instructed and directed many of the giants of comedy like Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, and John Belushi, as well as later work with future superstars like Tina Fey and Stephen Colbert. Close is the guy who honed the craft of the funny people you like, and that chain of inspiration stretches out pretty significantly into new generational talents, a point that Director Heather Ross is quick to note right away to hook those not in the know.
For Madmen Only is comprised largely of three core elements: general details about Close’s biography, interviews with a who’s who list of his students from throughout his career, and the aforementioned Wasteland creation vignettes. Much like Close’s own somewhat maddening, oft unpredictable, storytelling style, Ross attempts to imbue the film with a similar energy. And for a while it works. After being a bit disappointed in the hagiographic approach of the recent Sparks documentary, it’s fun to watch a doc take on such a dizzying effort at parlaying the inner-workings of its very unique, likely neuro-divergent, subject matter. Trying to make sense of the chaos that is Del Close is no easy task, but Ross does an admirable job in what can be a pretty stifling medium.
The struggle that For Madmen Only has is that it all becomes a little too much, and also not enough. When we’re learning about Close’s attempts to break into theater after his father’s suicide, we’re given at least an emotional core that will continue to inform the rest of the story. And when we’re later given a diagram of how his improvisational style “The Harold” is generally presented, it’s informative to have a greater understanding of his palpable impact on this theatrical format. But what if you don’t really care about improvisational theater? Or if you’re not really sure you get what we keep returning to these increasingly distracting episodes of a fictional Close writing a comic? Ross and her co-writers don’t really give you much grounding to grasp the whys and hows of so many of these important details. Watching how his improvisational method works in practice is far more interesting than just being told the method itself, and understanding why he wants to work in comics is just as valuable as understanding the haphazard nature by which the comics were created.
For whatever reason, maybe due to intense privacy on the part of Close himself, the filmmakers seem to shy away from anything touching too deeply on the personal, outside of the incredible traumatic impact his father’s end had on him. While they also take a broad “tell, don’t show” approach to his work itself, maybe in order to make room for all the talking heads (again, somehow another documentary with Mike Myers in it, at least this one makes sense), the Catch 22 of this is, those comedian interviews are the very hook to bring some level of immediate understanding of Close’s overall impact. It’s just hard to escape the sense that an approach couldn’t quite be settled on, and the after effect finds the film wholly losing steam until you’re left wondering what you even learned at all.
I recently watched the incredible Paul Schrader film Mishima, a biopic, but I was enthralled by its approach to its subject. Sure, he led a pretty interesting life, with an end that was jaw-dropping. But at its core, it was a film about the art as much as the artist, and how the work was a reflection of the different facets that made up the man. Ross and her collaborators seemed to maybe be on the cusp of that notion with For Madmen Only, but the need to serve too many masters ends up creating just an okay attempt at capturing what made Close such a giant in comedy.