Appellate Judge James A. Stewart is studying Houdini to become an artist.
"It's sort of like jazz. It's an American art form."—Stan Lee
Jerry Siegel literally had a dream of Superman, who could leap tall buildings in a single bound. His dream, when he teamed up with Joe Shuster, was the start of an industry. It was an alternative to airplane travel…No…Actually, yes. It was flights of fancy in four colors, otherwise known as comic books. There had been comics before, but they were reprints of Sunday funnies.
Today, there's no comic book that sells into the millions like Superman, and Sunday funnies are those shrunken things they stick in the back of the TV section. Superman still lives on the big screen, though. Somehow, you can expect him to turn up in movies, TV, or video games forever.
Once, though, those four-color pages were special. Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle, a three-part PBS documentary, provides an overview of their history from Supes' first appearance in 1938 to today.
Facts of the Case
Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle tells its story in three parts, each nearly an hour long:
• "Truth, Justice, and the American Way (1938-1958)"—After Superman's debut, Batman, Captain Marvel, Captain America, and Wonder Woman turn up. Meanwhile, the United States goes to war, but Clark Kent is told his eyes don't pass muster.
• "Great Power, Great Responsibility (1959-1977)"—Stan Lee creates Fantastic Four, then follows up with Hulk and Spider-Man. Flash and Captain America return to the funny books, while Green Arrow and Green Lantern take a road trip. Meanwhile, Andy Warhol's art and Batman's TV show are a sign of changing times.
• "A Hero Can Be Anyone (1978-present)"—X-Men top the comics charts, while Superman starts the journey to the big screen. Eventually, video games and digital comics provide new mediums for superheroes.
You've heard the story of Siegel and Shuster, haven't you? By now, those early days of superheroes have been retold (including in fiction, such as The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon, who appears in the documentary). The retelling is thoughtful, making sure to credit both Bob Kane and Bill Finger with their roles in the creation of Batman, for example.
The chapters are framed around the familiar: Superman's debut, the surge of Marvel Comics, and Superman: The Movie. There are things that casual fans might overlook, such as digital comics, but you probably know the framework.
There are grace notes, though, that make Superheroes worth a look. Adam West reads passages from Batman comics, including Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns; he may prefer his own pop art Batman, but he can handle the Dark Knight. A look at Batman reveals his actual claim to innovation: Batman himself resembles The Shadow, but his origin story and his sidekick weren't elements you'd seen before. Jim Steranko was an escape artist before he was an escapism artist. There's a long segment on the trip Green Lantern and Green Arrow took to see America and learn about the changing times.
If you really liked Superheroes on PBS, the extras provide a reason to pick up the DVD. Extended interviews let Stan Lee and Joe Simon pay homage to Jack Kirby, while Lynda Carter talks about real-life World War II feminism, Jules Feiffer recalls going to the candy store, Eddy Friedfeld talks about how Superman's powers grew with the various versions, Jerry Robinson talks about meeting the need for more Batman in the early 1940s, Michael Uslan recalls the first New York Comic Con in 1964, and Adam West considers the importance of superheroes.
A special treat in the extras is a performance of the 1967 Marvel TV themes by Jack Urbont, who wrote them. It's not exactly as you remember them, since his piano stylings turn them into Sinatra-esque standards. However, if you've ever heard Tim Tamashiro's jazzed-up "Spider-Man," you could easily picture them being performed on stage.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
When you get to the extras, nearly an hour of good stuff, you might wish that they'd been incorporated into the actual documentary. Why were they holding back?
It's also quite possible that you could find Superheroes on PBs, either on streaming or your actual TV (remember those things?).
Viewers might notice that each of the three chapters ends with the same alarming note: a boom is followed by declining sales of comic book titles. That might not be quite as severe today, with the vast number of titles on the shelf. Even Steed & Mrs. Peel (known as The Avengers on '60s TV, and retitled for obvious reasons) can be found at the comics store. Still, the documentary ends with fears for the future of the characters if the printed comic books die out.
Tune in tomorrow, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel, to find out, but I would imagine that there will be a few surprising twists in the careers of Batman, Spider-Man, and the superhero industry.
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