“When you strip everything away, what you’re looking at is a stranger in a strange land who doesn’t want to be isolated from the world,” says comic book writer Mark Waid, in summing up what a superhero is all about in a remarkable PBS series, “Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle.” Viewers will be able to watch all three episodes in one feature length presentation tonight, 8pm/7pm Central. Go to PBS for more details here. And, don’t forget, there are super treats after the show: you can purchase the DVD or Blu-ray, with plenty of bonus features, and you can purchase a gorgeous hardcover book companion with a treasure trove of additional material (review here).
Superhero comics are always up for a good fight, especially when it comes to survival of the fittest. As this comprehensive documentary makes clear, it didn’t take long before such early creations as Superman and Batman gained popularity. Once on top, it’s hard to see yourself anywhere else. And so the race was on to stay on top. However, comics aren’t a simple product that you can easily manipulate for maximum profit, or else that wasn’t exactly the plan. For example, when Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, a couple of lonely and poverty-stricken teenagers in Cleveland, created Superman in 1934, they weren’t thinking about demographics. No, they were thinking about heroics in the very best sense of the word. It is that kind of spirit that has made its way through this rather complex world of superhero comics. Yes, it is a business but it is also married to art. Sometimes it’s a happy marriage and sometimes not so much.
The thrust of this documentary, its inevitable center of gravity, spins around this odd mixture of commerce and creativity. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just sell funny books at a handsome profit and keep everyone happy? A win-win, right? But there are no clear-cut win-wins in life. As we progress from the early golden age, we get a greater sense of the challenges that lay ahead for superhero comics. In this documentary, the timeline is split into three: “Truth, Justice, and the American Way (1938-1958),” “Great Power, Great Responsibility (1959-1977),” and “A Hero Can Be Anyone (1978-Present).” This is tidy way of making sense of the evolution of the industry for general audiences. It loosely follows the comic book eras that collectors and fans acknowledge, based on the dominant artists, writers, and trends of the times: Golden (1938-1950), Silver (1956-1970), Bronze (1970-1985), and Modern (1986-Present). Given all the potential detours, this documentary sets a clear path. It tends to be upbeat but it is also honest. Creators are key to getting a product out to market but creators aren’t always appreciated or compensated accordingly.
A very good example of a creator forced to fight for his rights is Jim Steranko. There are plenty of others like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. For the purposes of this documentary, Steranko has been enlisted to represent the A-Team. Steranko proves an eloquent soul with killer chops as an artist and visionary. At just the time when the Pop Art movement was recontextualizing superhero comics, Steranko was using those very same artistic techniques to create groundbreaking comics that undoubtedly rose to the level of art. Without a stitch of dialogue, or captions, he created panel after panel of comics narrative. However, when it came time for payment, Marvel Comics wanted to hold back payment related to writing for any pages without actual text. Steranko had to resort to a macho man confrontation. Marvel Comics chose to pay in full. Ah, the giddy ’60s, a time when you could still threaten to use your fists to settle a dispute and get what you rightly deserved.
While all of us that follow comics are more than a little familiar with how superhero comics have shifted to a more mature audience, despite its apparent roots as entertainment for kids, what this documentary helps put into perspective are the factors that led to that shift. To the credit of Marvel Comics and DC Comics, commerce and creativity can and do meet in interesting ways. One shining example is at a point in the culture when drug use had reached alarming levels. Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams, at DC Comics, were keen to do a story that spoke to the dangers of drug use. But, at the time, the Comics Authority, a holdover from another era that still policed comics, did not allow any mention of drugs. Stan Lee, at Marvel Comics, also wanted to tackle the topic–and he did in a landmark Spider-Man story. It was a game changer and bust the doors open wide. No more Comics Authority. A new relevance for comics. In time, this new freedom would lead to further experimentation, and bring forth another player into the business, Image Comics.
It is to the credit of filmmaker Michael Kantor for tuning in as well as he did to his subject. You can think of this documentary as on par with a Ken Burns documentary. In other words, it’s a stellar job that digs deep and rewards the viewer with greater insight. Be sure to tune in tonight, same Bat time, same Bat channel, on your local PBS station. Go to PBS for more details here.