Sunday, October 27, 2013

A Document On A Documentary...

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!" 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.


  1. Provocative comments. As the cowriter of the series, I concur that CRISIS is a key event, although perhaps more important to comic readers that to the relationship between comics and American culture, which was the main spine of the series. We interviewed Marv Wolfman at some length (he even narrated the Psycho-Pirate's dialogue in the epilogue for us) about CRISIS; in the end, with limited time in a documentary, it had to go--not because it wasn't important (it was), but it was too hard to encapsulate the rationale behind it; in other words, the set-up was longer than the payoff (especially for the uninitiated). But for more--lots more--on CRISIS and more on SECRET WARS (and Contest of Champions), please check out the companion volume to the series: "Superheroes! Capes, Cowls, and the Creation of Comic Book Culture." I'm sure it will provoke varied comments as well, but it's worth noticing.

    1. Hi Laurence! Thank you very much for responding to my post and clearing things up - what you've just described sounds very cool and I hope that footage sees the light of day, perhaps made available to view online at the PBS website or elsewhere; it reminds me of the interviews with Carl Barks & Julius Schwartz that were filmed for "Comic Book Confidential" that did not make the final cut (perhaps for similar reasons) and have remained unseen, even after the film was released on DVD.

      I actually thought "Crisis" would've fit well during the discussion where Joe Quesada talked about Spider-Man's marriage - that whole section about publishers trying to keep the "seasoned" readership they have while appealing to the (target demo) new audiences - those two schools of thought were the genesis of storylines like "Crisis On Infinite Earths", "Watchmen", "The Dark Knight Returns"...and "Batman: A Death In The Family", which I neglected to mention in the blog post, but was also omitted from the film - was there any discussion about that storyline? As with "Crisis", it's also "yesterday's news" because Jason Todd has been alive and well for almost a decade, but the WAY they let the READERS decide his fate - with a phone number to vote - is what kept people talking.

      I certainly will be checking out the companion book - I enjoyed the program and thank you again for your thoughts on what I had to say about it.

  2. Hey, Joseph,
    There no such thing as "yesterday's news" where comic books are concerned! Everything that happened is potential fodder to enjoy and explore. I think, though, as you can imagine, a documentary film has to move at a certain kind of speed and you (in this case, director Michael Kantor) have to look at what you have on hand. We did interview Denny O'Neil about the Jason Todd event--yes, key because of the level of reader involvement. But, like CRISIS, it was hard to make into convincing video for a general audience (this is PBS after all, not Syfy, say). Again, think how much context you have to put out there to explain Jason Todd ("Huh? I thought Robin was that Dick What-not guy?") in the first place, let alone the situation of his fate.
    Anyway: it's all about making decisions: tough decisions. For me, even as co-writer of the series, I had to say goodbye to Doc Savage (my favorite character). the Spirit, Plastic Man, the Marvel monster books of the 1970s and many other things: they just didn't work on screen with what we had at our disposal. My saddest omission is the most important thing said about comics in the last 25 years: Dave Mazzucchelli in a reprint of BATMAN: YEAR ONE: "With “Year One,” [Miller and I] sought to craft a credible Batman, grounded in a world we recognize. But did we go too far? Once a depiction veers toward realism, each new detail releases a torrent of questions that exposes the absurdity at the heart of the genre. The more “realistic” superheroes become, the less believable they are."
    What a cool concept--a neat paradox, and one that affects (or so it seems to me) just about everything we read today. BUT we just couldn't make that work in a fast-paced documentary. Maybe that's our own conceptual (imaginative) limitations, but there it is.
    Still, thanks for opening up the discussion. As I said, the book may provoke more objections that solutions, but it DOES have the Psycho-Pirate and Jim Shooter and "Marvel Two-In-One" and the Mighty Crusaders and Captain Klutz and Shang-Chi and a million other cool, obscure, inspiring, unforgettable, ridiculous facets of comic book culture.

    1. Wow...I've got to get that book! :)

      Realism becomes an excuse to make the stories more serious and be taken seriously, but how can we enjoy something so serious when nothing about the concept was realistic to begin with?...or, as one trickster put it: "Why so serious?" ;)

      Jason Todd IS part of that big "Bat-Family" of sidekicks and allies, which tend to make the Bat-books decadent - a lot of writers tend to like a "clutter-free" Batman, too - just Batman, Gordon, Alfred and maybe one sidekick.
      And Jim Shooter - whoa...he's the Robert Evans of comic book editors - an infamous, misunderstood, ambivalent figure in the industry who is worthy of his own documentary...and the whole sordid business where Disney forced Marvel to redesign Howard the Duck because somebody at Marvel claimed he was based on Donald - yet Disney owns Howard now, which is hysterical, really.

      And Captain America was also famous for booting out most of the Avengers and replacing them with his "Kooky Quartet"...there's enough for a sequel documentary, really. :)

  3. Were you able to get a copy of the Superheroes! book?

    1. I did! It's handy - not oversized and unwieldy like the recent volumes about Golden & Silver Age comics that have come out lately - and it's imformative! A fault I find with some of the recent books about comics (particularly the ones Chip Kidd and Paul Levitz have put out, or that Kirby book Mark Evanier did) is that they show more than they say and seem more like toys than books - a different use of the word "toyettic". They fall in love with the format that they're toying with so much, that they sometimes resemble auction catolgues than history books.