Truly the geeks have inherited the Earth: A three-hour documentary about comic books on PBS.
“Superheroes: A Never Ending Battle” played on PBS this week and is still available online (if you can put up with PBS.org’s wonky video player).
I didn’t see all of it when it aired last Tuesday – three hours is a big chunk of time – so I watched the unseen balance today online.
A lot of documentaries have been made over the years about comic books, superheroes and their creators. Because of the wealth of interviews, this one is among the best and most entertaining. Maybe that’s in part because the tone is no longer so defensive and “can you believe it?” The tone is what it is because superheroes are such a big part of pop culture right now, a huge presence in video games, movies and TV shows. Even though a fraction of the number of comic books are sold today as were sold two or three generations ago, their influence on pop culture has never been greater.
The first hour traces the early history of comics, from the first newspaper strips, folded and stapled and re-sold by the father of the creator of MAD magazine, to the heyday of comics in World War II and the 1940s, when virtually every boy and most girls read comics.
Influences like pulp magazine heroes including The Shadow are cited and the origins of Superman and Batman – familiar stories for longtime fans – are told. Before the first hour has ended, Wonder Woman’s kinky origins are recounted. Acknowledgement is made of the less savory aspects of comics, particularly racist treatment of Japanese characters during World War II. The first hour ends with the 1950s campaign against superhero comics.
Besides the classy treatment and nice graphics, the best part of the show are the interviews with pioneers of the early days, including Joe Simon (co-creator, with Jack Kirby, of Captain America) and other artists and writers who got their start in the Golden Age but continued to work in the Silver Age.
Throughout the three-hour documentary, we’re treated to lively interviews with creators, experts and actors. They’re funny and witty and sometimes surprisingly still vital. I swear that great DC artist Neal Adams, one of the driving forces of the 1970s, looks 40 years old.
And “SHIELD” artist Jim Steranko, whose towering head of hair is now quite gray, displays his comic historian side.
The second episode starts in the 1960s and the birth of modern-day Marvel Comics. The impact of comics on the larger world – including the campy 1960s “Batman” series – is explored and, rightfully so, called a “game-changer.” This seques into Steranko and the “pop art” era.
The ground-breaking moments of 1960s and 1970s Marvel – Peter Parker attending an integrated high school, the introduction of black heroes like The Black Panther and Luke Cage – are given their due. Likewise, DC’s experimental book teaming Green Arrow and Green Lantern, tacking injustice and racism, are cited, as are the Comics Code Authority-flouting campaigns against drugs.
The third hour is kind of a victory lap, noting the huge role in today’s pop culture that comic book characters play, particularly due to the big-budget, big-box office movie adaptations of the modern era. As “Spawn” creator Todd McFarlane says, “None of it is silly anymore.”
But one thing is certain: Lynda Carter still looks amazing.