Sunday, October 13, 2013

Superheroes: PBS Goes to ComicCon

For 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.

There 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.

Without 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.

However, 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 Marvel.

Naturally, 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.

Superheroes 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?

It 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 custodians.

Breezily 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.

Obviously, Superheroes: 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.