Saturday, January 9, 2016

Superheroes: A Never Ending Battle

I have always been a marginal comic book fan over the years. I have never been a hardcore reader of dozens of titles a month, but for the most part since I have been a kid there have usually been one or two titles a month I have been following. I picked it up from my dad, who seemed to have every comic imaginable from the mid-70s to the mid-90s and I remember spending many days as a kid perusing random issues to read off his shelf. The only hero that really grabbed me was Punisher and I have every main series issue of Punisher that has been released since the mid-90s.

There are of course countless other heroes aside from Punisher, and there is a great history to be told of the comic book platform and its many rise and falls over the past century in America. PBS is here to tell that story. In 2013, PBS released Superheroes: A Never Ending Battle (preview), a three-part mini-series hosted by Liev Schreiber. Each part is dedicated to the three main era of comics with the Golden Age (1938-58), Silver Age (1959-1977) and Bronze Age (1978-current). I originally saw it on Netflix streaming, and I believe you can still watch it there for free, but just a few days ago I finished re-watching the collected series on DVD.

The first part has a quick intro of comics being primarily only in the ‘funny pages’ of newspapers back before comic books were a thing. The creation of DC’s Superman and Batman in their respective titles, Action Comics and Detective Comics changed that in the late 1930s and made comic books a regular staple at the newsstand. A lot of time is spent covering the first big heroes of the golden age with ample time is dedicated to Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain America and Captain Marvel/Shazam. Many older comic book artists, writers and historians are interviewed here to help back up PBS’s story.

The first episode also has a big focus on how comics were a big part of World War II and how many of the early heroes were depicted against the Axis Powers. This lead to big sales for the business, but in the years following the war those stories against WWII villains tapered off and the documentary does a good job detailing how the rise of the more graphic crime and pulp books came as a result. This also caught the eye of the government and resulted in the comic business creating the Comic Code Authority, which until 2011 was their way of policing themselves much like the MPAA is for the movie business and the ESRB is for videogames. The creation of the code, and thus the end of the golden age of comics is where the first part of the mini-series ends.

Part two is primarily about Marvel Comics exploding onto the scene in the 1960s with the rise of their style of heroes with Spider-Man, Hulk, Fantastic Four and a reinvented Captain America capturing a new generation of readers. Legendary Marvel creator Stan Lee and Marvel’s editor-in-chief Joe Quesada are on hand to provide a lot of background for Lee’s heroes and why they took off and what separated them from DC at the time. DC is mostly featured in part two with the infamous, live action Batman TV show of the 60s featuring Adam West dominating pop culture and the comic business getting a nice rub from it. Other pioneering comic book TV shows are also featured like The Incredible Hulk and Wonder Woman. I will give props to PBS for tracking down Batman’s Adam West and Wonder Woman’s Lynda Carter to interview on how big and influential those programs were for their time.

Part two also dedicates a solid amount of time to how the civil rights and anti-drug movements of the 60s influenced comics. It made sure to cover how Marvel started to show all races in their books, and how it lead to them creating the first two African-lead comic books with the creation of Black Panther and Luke Cage. DC also got covered here too with the documentary showing how Green Arrow and Green Lantern teamed up to expose racism and later how Louis Lane went undercover as an African news reporter to show how she was treated differently.

The rise of superhero films is the constant theme of part three, which really should be split into two parts as it covers nearly the last 40 years in the business which is simply too much ground to cover in an hour when the first two parts cover around 20 years in the business each. Many clips are shown of the superhero films that have dominated cinema ranging from 1975’s Superman to 1989’s Batman and the countless others that have followed since the mega success that was 2000’s X-Men.

The documentary tries to hit on as many big moments in the business as it can between all the films such as DC having a big year with darker-themed comics in 1986 with The Watchmen mini-series and Batman’s infamous Dark Knight Returns story arc. Writers’ Frank Miller and Alan Moore are interviewed here to show how they provided some much needed change to the light-heartedness of the DC Universe. Ample time is also given to The Death and Return of Superman arc in 1993. On the Marvel side of things, they were featured for the 9/11 events getting featured in their books, and Spider-Man getting a resurgence with Todd McFarlane’s unorthodox art on Spidey which the feature then segues into McFarlane and Jim Lee departing Marvel to create Image Comics and their marquee comic, Spawn. Episode three ends with what the future holds for comics as the business shifts to a bigger reliance on digital sales.

Part three suffers from missing too many other key points in the industry. The big demise of sales in the mid-90s is quickly glossed over and the mega disappointment of 1996’s Marvel vs. DC crossover is not mentioned at all, and neither is Marvel nearly going bankrupt in the late 90s after their ill-fated Heroes Reborn and Heroes Return events that restarted the numbering on several legacy comic books that did not go over well with fans at all. Civil War was a huge event for comics in the mid-2000s and it only gets a very brief mention here, and I was very shocked that DC’s New 52 relaunch of their entire universe in 2012 got no coverage at all here. For what PBS did dedicate time to they covered well, but they should have stuck with the 20 years per episode format of the first two installments and have one episode covering from 1978 until the bust in the mid-90s and another episode with 2000 and beyond instead of trying to cram everything from 1978 on into 55 minutes. As a result, a lot of big moments in the industry as mentioned above got little to no coverage.

There are 46 minutes of bonus interview clips in the extra features. Highlights include Lynda Carter reminiscing on the low budget of the Wonder Woman TV show and bonus interviews with creators on origins of Joker, Spider-Man and Silver Surfer. I could not help but have a big grin as a fan interviewed who attended the first comic convention in 1967 detailed what their experience was like and how dressing up as heroes (more commonly referred to today as cosplay) took off at the very first con that had only about 200 attendees. It is a nice amount of extras they could cram on the one disc on top of the near three hours the main feature runs. It is hard to recommend Superheroes: A Never Ending Battle to buy when it is available for free on Netflix. I picked it up because I feel this is as good as an overall documentary on the business we are going to get without going into the overkill territory by being a 20-part endeavor that covers all the nuts and bolts of the business.

Previous TV/Web Series Blogs

2013-14 TV Season Recap
2014-15 TV Season Recap
Angry Videogame Nerd Vol 8
Angry Videogame Nerd Vol 7
Mortal Kombat: Legacy - Season 1
RedvsBlue - Seasons 1-12
Seinfeld Final Season

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