SUPERHEROES: A NEVER-ENDING BATTLE (PBS)
Writers: Michael Kantor & Laurence Maslon
Narrator: Liev Schrieber
A Review by Bob Reyer
On 15 October (and opposite Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. no less!) PBS rolled out Superheroes, their 3-hour documentary about the uber-folks who inhabit the four-color fantasy world, and which covers the history of super-hero comics from their Golden Age and pulp magazine beginnings, right through the digital comics of today. There are long-boxes worth of information presented here-in, and in an entertaining way for the most part, but criticism has already sprung up about errors of omission, commission and general theme, so I thought as resident historian I should chime in on this subject, too! (Not that I need much excuse to ramble!)
As someone who has been reading comics and about comics history for a long time, there was virtually nothing on this program that I didn’t know going in. That said, I tend to agree with those who were pleased that PBS would present such a thing in the first place, and that under the mantle of “educational television”, the documentary might cause some to re-assess the medium of comic books. For those just beginning to look back at comics of the past, Superheroes is a fine primer, with scads of interviews from creators and industry executives, and copious usage of actual art from the books referenced. The documentary stops at all the expected stations, making a decent attempt at creating a context for the rise and fall of the comics industry, and does speak to some of the major controversies through the years (Dr. Wertham, the Spider-Man and Green Lantern “drug” issues, the “new relevance” of the Sixties and Seventies, etc.), but sadly without breaking any new ground, or with any great depth, preferring to lightly touch on virtually every topic.
For example, during the Silver Age segment, although they’re correct at some level regarding the dominance of Marvel and DC, there were other companies who were publishing super-hero comics throught the period: Charlton, whose characters would form the basis for Watchmen; Gold Key, whose Magnus, Turok, and Doctor Solar are about to be dusted off for a new audience; Tower Comics had the Thunder Agents; the Archie Comics roster of The Fly, The Shield and The Jaguar. For those of us reading comics then, these were all minor characters, but they were read, and probably in greater numbers than some best-selling books of today, so certainly deserving of at least a passing mention.
Speaking of “passing mentions”, the show is very spare on including super-heroines, and female creators are only represented by the “talking heads” of Trina Robbins and Ramona Fradon, who are both quite eloquent, but it would have been nice to discuss their work, as well as the many women who came before. The segment about Wonder Woman begins with a glimpse of earlier heroines, finishing with Miss Fury, so wouldn’t it have been pertinent to mention Tarpe Mills, if only by way of citing her as the creator? The Wonder Woman bit is OK, but runs for only about 5 minutes, which is woefully inadequate considering the character’s importance. In a later sequence describing the Seventies and “relevance”, the Denny O’Neil “de-powering” comes up, and a point gets made about how male writers have handled her character through a series of images up-to-and-including Deodato’s thong-wearing Diana, followed by some cogent comments from Ms. Robbins regarding comics paying “lip service to the idea of strong female characters, but that they are still mostly sex objects”–you have to love Trina!
As the Modern Era is spotlighted, there isn’t enough discussion about how Image Comics affected the other companies’ approaches (with no mention of the “Bad Girls” phenomenon!), and no talk about how the Wizard-fueled “speculator boom” has left the industry in the mostly-marginalized, but IP-generating state that it finds itself in the aftermath. Additionally, to my way of thinking, when they declare that the “grim’n’gritty” era of comics was coming to an end, and that 9/11 prompted stories such as “Civil War” seems a wrong-headed leap of logic. I think the current darker tone of many current comics is simply that today’s creators are mostly by inspired by the comics of the Nineties they read whilst growing up, as opposed to a reaction to external forces.
During the third hour which covers the Modern Era, there is nothing said about the decline in sales, the narrow-casting to a singular audience (despite the stats cited earlier in the program regarding 95% of girls reading comics during the Golden Age!) or diversifying the market to help correct those issues, nor any look at the rise of the “new indies”, from whence flows so much of today’s creativity. I would imagine that with most of the great characters having been created during the eras covered in the first two hours, they were left with too much boring “business stuff” to cover in the last, and might have shied away from any in-depth study of those topics, although they certainly warrant discussion. As there wasn’t much depth in the opening two hours either, perhaps I shouldn’t expect anything more in the finale, and I’m just being over-critical?
Concluding, and with all things considered, Superheroes is a fine piece of work, and who would have guessed just a few years ago that PBS would devote their resources to create a documentary on this topic. For me, despite my carping about certain missed opportunities here-in, I have already purchased a copy for myself, and will most assuredly watch it again, and in short order, too. What rankles though, and what is the saddest thing about Superheroes: A Never-ending Battle, is that it was very well done, and it seems with a loving touch, but with a few tweaks (and an extra hour, maybe?) it could have been the definitive piece of exploration on the comics medium!
VERDICT: If I were reviewing it (which I guess I’m doing!) Superheroes would receive 3 stars for a general audience, as it does present a ton of useful information for someone seeking a historical framework, and enough context to perhaps drive a viewer into doing some research–or read some comics–to flesh out the skeleton and correct some of the oversights. (For those with a greater background in the history of the medium, it is a well-produced and researched piece, with insights from folks you don’t usually get to hear from, such as Jack Kirby, Jerry Robinson, Jim Steranko, Neal Adams and the aforementioned Ms. Fradon, but as it treads long-familiar turf, my personal final grade: 2 1/2 stars, but well-worth watching!)
The DVD & Blu-Ray release features extended interviews with Stan Lee, Joe Simon, Linda Carter and Adam West, among others!
There is also a companion book, entitled Superheroes!: Capes, Cowls, and the Creation of Comic Book Culture by the documentary’s writers.
My favorite bit of weirdness: near the end, “Man of Steel” director Zach Snyder discussing Marvel’s Avengers movie, describes how its “innocent fantasy helps keeps comics alive!”, without the slightest tinge of how riduculous he sounds saying it, considering the sturm und drang dreck he put on the screen—in my opinion, of course, so keep those cards and letters, please! rrr