Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Slugfest, on Roku Channel

It was a powerful comic book tag-teaming, but it was completely uncoordinated. In 1940, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon created Captain America (first comic book appearance March 1941) to fight Nazis. That same year, DC produced a special issue of Look Magazine, featuring Superman beating the heck out of Hitler. Those were the days. In many ways, it was the big comic publishers’ finest hour and a good example of their “friendly rivalry.” Directors Don Argott & Sheena M. Joyce chronicle the competition and occasional cooperation between Marvel and DC in the 10-mini-episode Slugfest, produced by the Russo Brothers, which is now streaming on Roku Channel.

, based on the non-fiction book of the same title by Reed Tucker (who also appears as a talking head) was greenlighted for Quibi, but the bite-sized streaming service folded before it could premiere, so here it is now. The six-to-eight-minute installments are punchy, but together they do not tell a cohesive narrative.

Regardless, the first installment, “Nazis are Bad,” is easily the best. You have to give Simon and Kirby credit for taking on Hitler and the National Socialists. Cap was a hit, but he was not universally popular. In fact, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia dispatched police guards to protect Timely Comics (as Marvel was then known) from violent Bund protesters. What would Kirby and Simon think to see the current management of their old company desperately currying favor with a CCP regime currently conducting a campaign of genocide in Xinjiang, just to get Chinese release dates for their movies.

In contrast, “Halloween Hero” is a fun footnote explaining how the first unofficial Marvel-DC crossover story was hatched by a group of writers and artists for both companies. Throughout the series, Argott and Joyce stage the sort of quirky reenactments they used in
Framing John DeLorean. The most colorful is Ray Wise, slyly chomping on his cigar as the older Jack Kirby in “Funky Flashman, which chronicles the artist’s departure from Marvel to DC, where he infamously mocked his old boss Stan Lee.

“Reverend Billingsley” plays up the 1970s trippiness of Doctor Strange, which does not have much to do with DC (and the whole Age of Aquarius vibe of the mini-sode gets tiresome). “Superman vs. Spiderman” is a cool look at the crossover fans always wanted, but the two companies never thought they could pull off (with an appearance from Ron Perlman, as a bonus). Likewise, “Cancelled Cavalcade” is a fascinating chronicle of the dramatic 1978 “DC Explosion” of titles and the sharp contraction that soon followed.

“Kill Robin” and “A World without Superman” both present solidly entertaining (and weirdly nostalgic) pop culture histories of the murder of the second Robin and the hyped-up “death of Superman,” which of course, it wasn’t. “Send in the Clones” tries to do the same for Spiderman clone storyline, but it won’t have as much traction for casual comics fans. However, the series ends with what could be its second-best episode, “Just Imagine,” a tribute to Stan Lee, with an emphasis on his once in a lifetime stint at DC, reimagining their signature characters, the Stan Lee way.

There are a ton of legit comic book stars in
Slugfest, such as Roy Thomas, Steve Englehart, Jenette Kahn, Jim Starlin, and Louise Simonson. Fans will also be happy to see Lou Ferrigno (The TV Hulk) turn up in a small reenactment role. Plus, Kevin Smith serves as narrator, so it is strange there are not more reviews yet (evidently that’s what we’re here for).

Slugfest demonstrates the flaws in the original Quibi concept. There are a lot of cool pieces, but when watched in close succession, they come across as a series of cherrypicked anecdotes. Still, the good parts as good enough to make viewers wish for a second season, produced in a more conventional manner, with longer, more in-depth chapters. Recommended as time-killers for fans of geek history (like The Center Seat) but not as a production model, Slugfest now streams on the Roku Channel.