I've watched and rewatched all three episodes of Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle, the documentary about comic book superheroes that premiered this month on PBS several times now. This is the newly-revised history of the genre, because it ignored a few big watershed events in comic book history...probably because they're not as relevant as they used to be, but if you know the history of superhero comics, then you were just watching for fun...I'm not certain if new audiences were aware if anything was missing.
There were some surprises. The Neal Adams-Denny O'Neill run on Green Lantern/Green Arrow is now regarded as high-end material, yet for a long time, was considered condescending, clunky, creaky, preachy "junk" - a form of lip service - ditto the "I am Curious (Black)" issue of Lois Lane; these stories were marketed towards parents buying comics reluctantly for their kids - "Maybe they'll learn something!" ...like learn that they should buy the books they want themselves?...;)
I knew they were going to bring up the 9-11 issue of Amazing Spider-Man..that's become law now...let me put it this way: that issue of that comic is no better or worse than other very special issues, only it's connection to a real-life tragedy keeps it relevant to the real world, so it's stuck around more than anything Marvel's done with Spider-Man in the last 30 years, an event keeping company alongside the faux "Wedding of Spider-Man & Mary Jane Watson" ceremony at Shea Stadium (a ballpark that no longer exists), or Todd McFarlane drawing Spidey's webbing like spaghetti (The spaghetti webs rival the nipples on George Clooney's Batman costume in terms of unimportant details that people with no lives obsess over).
So what did they miss? First off, they ignored Marvel's Secret Wars series. This wasn't the first time Marvel tried a big crossover storyline, but it was the first to capture the imagination of the audience and work well as a tie-in to sell toys. One of the first action figures I owned was a Doctor Octopus figure from Secret Wars; I let him have one last brawl with my Spider-Man figure before bidding it adios earlier this year. I'm well-aware that this series is panned nowadays for it's clunky writing and journeyman art (harsher words have been said about it), but it was a huge hit for Marvel in the 1980s.
Another big hit that was ignored by this program was Crisis On Infinite Earths. THIS is the one omission getting buzzed about across the web; it's still highly-regarded, DC Comics is still using it as a brand for various spinoffs that have capitalized on it/played off it, or given them the confidence to proceed with equally audacious events like The Death of Superman, Knightfall, Zero Hour, Kingdom Come, DC One Million, Batman: No Man's Land, Our World's At War, Infinite Crisis, 52, Countdown, Blackest Night, Flashpoint, Before Watchmen (an event that would have been unthinkable even when the film adaptation was made, for various reasons - long story) and MORE! Now, I'll be the first to admit that when I first tried reading this series I didn't really understand what was happening (or what, beyond the "Where's Waldo"-ness of it, was the story REALLY was about) until I read two or three tie-ins that were published sometime after, but I understand why was it important, and the effort put into it is something that we really won't see again and has not been equaled - an exhaustive effort, with none of the shortcuts that our current generation of wannabe-rockstar writers & artists can match...but I know why this program skipped it..
It's yesterday's news. Supergirl has been alive and well for almost a decade, the Earth2 concept is back in action, along with the whole "Mutiverse" concept, Barry Allen is the Flash again, the Huntress was just recently revealed to have been Helena Wayne all along, Batgirl survived the events of The Killing Joke...I'm not sure if Clayface is Matt Hagen again, though. Anyway, it's still a good story, but it doesn't support the real argument this program is trying to make..
So...what was Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle all about? Their impact on film. Movies! Superhero movies - they've become a new genre now, separate from fantasy or adventure or action movies, so the program devoted three hours to arguing the cinematic element of those comic books and, reading between the lines, how they've become more palatable for Hollywood. A series like Crisis would only highlight the cynical, cyclical nature of how these "event" storylines can burn away audiences (a subject they danced around when they got to the 90s). The only comics this program made me want to go look for in a comic shop were Jim Steranko's Nick Fury, Agent of SHEILD, which is a bit sad, in the wake of Samuel L. Jackson's creaky Nick Fury on film and Marvel's Agents of B.O.R.I.N.G on television...Marvel still doesn't know how to tell entertaining spy stories.
So...if you're interested in a documentary about comic books that really makes you want to check them out, as well as understand how the medium can work as a legitimate art form, look for Comic Book Confidential. It's over twenty years old, but it's on DVD and has more to say in a shorter amount of time.