many kids, comic book collecting provided lessons in duty and sacrifice as well
as their first practical experience with the laws of supply and demand. Ironically, just as the bottom fell out of
the collectible market, the intellectual property value of Superhero franchises
climbed to all time highs. This Tuesday,
PBS chronicles the development of the costumed crime fighter in American
culture with the three-part, one-night special broadcast of Superheroes: a Never-Ending Battle (promo here), co-written by
Michael Kantor & Laurence Maslon.
will always be a demand for Action Comics
#1. In fitting superhero style, part
one, Truth, Justice, and the American Way
begins with the origin story: the first proper comic book appearance of
Superman. Created by Jerry Siegel and
Joe Shuster, the Man of Steel almost immediately captured the public
imagination. Siegel and Shuster churned out
adventures like assembly line employees, with all rights to their iconic
creation retained by the company, DC Comics.
Eventually, Siegel and Shuster will re-enter the narrative, like long
lost characters resurrected to shake up the heroes’ universe.
question, part one is dominated by DC. This
is the Golden Age of comics, when patriotic superheroes like Wonder Woman and Captain
America brought the full force of their powers to bear against the National
Socialist war menace. There was no question
whose side they were on.
superheroes face an identity crisis in part two, Great Power, Great Responsibility.
After pulling no punches against America’s enemies, do-gooder child
psychologists started a hand-wringing campaign against comic book
violence. The majors formed the self-regulating
Comics Code Authority and watered down their content to conform to the new
guidelines. Still, an upstart company was able to appeal to a new generation
with a roster of characters who had to navigate real world problems as well as
battle super villains. That would be
Stan the Man Lee is a prominent presence throughout Never-Ending. He was a
game-changer. However, Steve Ditko is
given rather short shrift for his contributions, including co-creating
Spiderman and Doctor Strange. (It is an unfortunate omission many might suspect
is motivated by the Objectivist influence reflected in Ditko later work). On the other hand, Great Power pays proper homage to the bold modernist style of Jim
Steranko that re-invigorated the pages of Nick
Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.
truly arrive when technology can finally do them justice on the big
screen. Part three, Anyone Can Be a Hero, identifies Richard Donner’s Superman as the first and still perhaps the
best realized example. It also
celebrates edgier storylines while dismissing the recent decline in comic book
sales as an unavoidable consequence of the E-Book age. Yet, the comic industry’s rather Hollywood
like agnostic response to post-September 11 terrorism, which part three covers
in extensive detail, could just as easily be depressing single copy sales. Would Captain America have been as popular in
the 1940’s if he never fought the Axis?
is not an idle question. As one commentator
argues, it is the regularity of comics that prevents these characters from
becoming ossified artifacts, like The Shadow or Mandrake the Magician. Ironically, the movie business seems to get
the appeal of these characters today better than many of their daily
directed by Kantor, Never-Ending is
like a greatest hit package, delivering plenty of television and film clips for
fans. It features a first class battery
of expert talking heads, including many of the medium’s most influential
artists and writers, including Steranko, Joe Simon, Len Wein, Louise Simonson,
Jim Lee, Denny O’Neil, Todd McFarlane, Jerry Robinson, and Chris
Claremont. Liev Schreiber is also a
perfect choice to narrate, as an experience voice-over performer and an alumnus
of the Wolverine series, but the video-backdrops
he periodically strolls through looks like the old In Search of show’s set updated for the ComicCon crowd.
A Never-Ending Battle is an attempt to broaden PBS’s audience. It hits all the necessary bases, but its
biases periodically peak through. It is
cool hear from so many comic luminaries on national television, but there is
still room for a definitive Ken Burns-style history of the American
superhero. Recommended for casual fans
looking for something easy to digest (and diehards eager to pick it apart), all
three installments of Superheroes air
this Tuesday (10/15) on most PBS stations nationwide.
Labels: Marvel Comics, PBS, Stan Lee, Superhero movies