PBS is airing a new documentary series tonight and re-broadcast October 22 focusing on the impact of comic book superheroes on America and American culture, in Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle. It’s a good history lesson in the creation of the modern comic book and the development since the 1930s of the comic book art form. Packed with interviews with key creators and industry professionals, and comic book page and TV and movie clips, it tells a history of America as much as the comic book medium.
Not surprisingly the documentary, funded by both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, focuses on U.S. comics and comic stories tied to patriotism across the past 100 years. Written and directed by Michael Kantor, it covers how changing times is mirrored in comics, but also dictates the stories of comics, from the Great Depression, to World War II, McCarthyism in the 1950s and the Cold War in the 1960s to 1980s, the psychedelic 1960s, drugs in the 1970s, to Watergate and terrorism.
Hosted by actor Live Schreiber, the documentary provides a chronological history of comic books in three one-hour segments. Part 1, “Truth, Justice, and the American Way,” covers the first 10 cent comics, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster and the creation of Superman, early comics reprinting previously published works leading up to DC Comics and Marvel Comics, The Shadow, Bob Kane and Batman, Captain Marvel, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby and the creation of Captain America, and women in comics as creators and characters. The good and bad side of comics is discussed, including the Comics Code, how comics dealt with racism and violence, and Frederick Wertham and his book Seduction of the Innocent and how it impacted the buying public.
Part 2, “Great Power, Great Responsibility,” keys in on Stan Lee and Spider-man, the Fantastic Four, and the Avengers, The Flash, pop art, the Batman TV series and comic books as camp, the development of action figures and tie-in toys, artist Jim Steranko and surrealism in 1960s and 1970s comics, Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., Luke Cage, Hero for Hire, Neal Adams and Denny O’Neil and their groundbreaking Green Lantern/Green Arrow series, “issue” comics and “event” comics and the myth of new comic books as rare collectibles, comics in TV series like Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk, and vigilante justice in books like The Punisher.
Part 3, “A Hero Can Be Anyone,” wraps up the documentary with the rise in popularity of comic book conventions, superheroes on the silver screen, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, the 1989 Batman movie, Alan Moore’s Watchmen, The X-Men, Todd McFarlane and his work including the Spawn series, the marriage of Superman and Spider-man and the death of Superman, and the current world of mega-movie franchises.
Faults of the series include an over-emphasis and possibly too much screen-time in each of the three segments devoted to Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Spider-man, to the exclusion of major segments of comic books like crime comics, horror comics, romance comics and Western comics, as well as hardly any emphasis on women in comics, with no mention of the first female superhero and its creator, June Tarpé Mills. Independent comic book publishing barely gets mentioned, and animated comics, video games, and digital and online comics are all but an afterthought included at the end of the series.
Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle is still a good overview of comic books and their growing impact on pop culture and ultimate inclusion in the mainstream culture in the past few decades. Few comic book documentaries have previously covered comic books this well before with input from so many key comic book industry professionals. Check out With Great Power… The Stan Lee Story, for another documentary focused on Stan Lee and Marvel Comics, reviewed here at borg.com last year.
Superheroes tracks the benchmarks of comic book history you’d expect to see in a general overview, including key issues Action Comics #1, Detective Comics #27, Amazing Fantasy #15, and Green Lantern #76.
Look for commentary on various segments of comic book history from a broad range of comic book talents, old and new, including Joe Kubert, Jerry Robinson, Carmine Infantino, Michael Chabon, Mark Waid, Neal Adams, Stan Lee, Denny O’Neil, Grant Morrison, Joe Simon, Phil Jimenez, Joe Quesada, Jeph Loeb, J. Michael Straczynski, Jim Lee, and Andrea Romano.
Check local listings for airing times and possible future airings. Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle is also available on DVD and Blu-ray at Amazon.com and a tie-in book, Superheroes!: Capes, Cowls, and the Creation of Comic Book Culture, is available at Amazon.com here.