Documentaries about comic books have become tremendously popular over the past five years, concurrent with the rise of the popularity of superheroes in the mass media. The most interesting fact revealed in director Michael Kantor’s (Broadway: the American Musical) extensive new film Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle produced by Ghost Light Films in association with Oregon Public Broadcasting, which airs on PBS starting Tuesday, October 15th, is that this recent rise is only the latest upswing in popularity for an industry that rockets from the heights of fame to the depths of near obscurity with alarming speed and frequency as well as the connections to real world events that influence it.
The three hour presentation is divided into three segments covering swaths of time roughly analogous to the three ages of comic books and is hosted and narrated Liev Schreiber (X-Men Origins: Wolverine). It features a long list of interview subjects, and apart from the familiar voices of current comic book industry stakeholders, actors who played heroes on TV, and the ‘go-to’ surviving creators, viewers will get to hear from – thanks to archived interviews – the voices of forever silenced comic book talent including Carmine Infantio (The Flash) and Jack Kirby (Um, too much to list). Complementing this footage are fascinating images including Superman co-creator Joe Shuster’s first sketches of The Man of Steel.
The first part, “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” covers the origins of the industry in 1938 until well into the 1950s with the re-prints of the “Funny Papers” giving way out of necessity to original stories like Shuster and Jerry Siegel’s corruption and street crime-fighting first Superhero. The segment also covers the interesting economics of the industry at the time, how the comic’s patriotic fervor in the war years was inspired first by the anxiety of their creators, the backlash of Seduction of the Innocent-inspired moral panic to the debut of Superman on television.
In “Great Power, Great Responsibility,” covering 1959 through 1977, the rise of the Marvel Comics style of heroes is chronicled with ‘real world problems.’ It shows how radical social change, race relations and drug use was reflected in comics and how the 60s Batman TV show’s massive popularity and flameout left lasting reverberations. Again the idea of how the lives of the creators of comic books in that era were living had an effect on the stories they told including how pivotal moments in the history of characters like Spider-Man and Captain America came about.
Finally part three, “A Hero Can Be Anyone” (1978-Present), starts with the Christopher Reeve Superman movie. It moves into how filmmaking technology and box office receipts bring comics into the bright, global spotlight while independent comics find a foothold. It then discusses the idea that comics are able to tell sophisticated stories and shows how that finally took hold in the public perception. It also touches on how positive superheroic iconography has begun to transcend American borders and taken root in minds worldwide.
Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle is complemented by Superheroes!: Capes, Cowls, and the Creation of Comic Book Culture, a hardcover volume of with interviews, character biographies and illustrations penned by series co-writer Laurence Maslon and filmmaker Michael Kantor, from Crown Archetype, a division of Random House. The films don't break much drastic new ground for superfans, but will undoubtedly at least help fans of all stripes discover something new throughout the three parts. It's a watershed moment of sorts to have the medium of comic books and superheroes be covered by a PBS documentary, as well, truly showing how far into the mainstream they've come.