Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Review: Superheroes on PBS

We no longer have cable but we can still access PBS so last evening, I watched SUPERHEROES: A NEVER ENDING BATTLE, the 3 part documentary. While it wasn't exactly the long-hoped-for Ken Burns version of the story of the American comic book, it was nonetheless quite a good, if flawed and narrowly focused, introduction.

Since the documentary, by design, looked at superheroes and not at the comics themselves, it came across--inevitably I suppose--as largely a commercial for DC and Marvel. 

Oh, Quality was mentioned briefly, as was Fox. Fawcett's Captain Marvel got what amounted to little more than a nice shout out in spite of the character's once-immense popularity. But what about all the other companies that had their own superheroes throughout the history of the medium? And what of other mediums? We saw highlight's of the Big Two's movie and TV hits but what about a nod to all the other examples?

It's easy to quibble about what wasn't there but what was, as they say, was choice. Actor Liev Schreiber was excellent as the announcer/host and some cutesy semi-animated layouts kept the whole thing from being too stagey. Talking heads included many of the best in the business including now already deceased stalwarts Carmine Infantino, Joe Kubert, Joe Simon and Jerry Robinson. In the continuing controversy over who created The Joker, Jerry was here given the nod with Bob Kane's version being left untold. As far as Robin, "the creators" created him. 

Others to appear included artists Irwin Hasen, Ramona Fradon, Neal Adams, who struck a chord with a number of us by pronouncing the name of DC's magician character as "ZATT-ruh" Jim Steranko, Gerard Jones and Jules Feiffer, all creators themselves but also historians, provided some good insight.

Overall no less than eight of my Facebook friends or online acquaintances appeared on camera. When my wife posted on Facebook that it was odd to see me saying, "I know him, I know him…Hey, there's Trina!," historian/cartoonist Trina Robbins responded back that she was sitting at home watching and doing the same thing!

The first episode was about the Golden Age, the second the Silver Age and the third more modern days and the popularity in other media. 

A couple of more problems I had with it: Jack Kirby is highlighted and given some level of importance, emphasized by both Mark Evanier and Joe Simon…but then he's forgotten and not mentioned any more. When discussing the Marvel Age, Stan Lee is given all the credit. Now, I've never been one to diss Stan's contributions but seriously, how can one discuss the Marvel heroes and NOT mention Kirby? Ditko doesn't get much better treatment.

Similarly, the revival of the superheroes that marked the Silver Age beginnings, fails to mention at all Julius Schwartz, the architect of said revival. Julie only gets brought up later on when briefly discussing the Green Lantern/Green Arrow teaming.

A highlight is Adam West, reading off-camera from Batman's original origin story and then later on from Frank Miller's THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS.

Overall, it can be said that what's there is good and, side-stepping ongoing controversies, about as accurate as one of these things can be. I just wish they had been able to provide a fuller picture by adding more about many of the people and things that WEREN'T really there.


  1. Also, when they had that brief (partial) rundown of other Golden Age creations, they made a major goof of illustrating the GA Atom with a Silver Age Atom comic.

    Overall, I agree with your assessment of the special. I think Kevin Burns (who did that 2006 Superman documentary) could've done a more comphrehensive job on this.

  2. Yeah, that ATOM thing grated on me, too. How tough could it have been to find another character if it had to be a cover or at least the right Atom!

  3. I'm judging it without seeing it, but I have to say when I learned of this special I yawned. Once upon a time I'd have eagerly have watched, even recorded it, but this just made ache knowing how many things they'd get wrong or ignore. These little epics seem always to focus (as you say) on Marvel and DC to the absolute distraction of anything else, and sadly its very existence reinforces the misguided notion that comics are all about superheroes.

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