November 10, 2013

New Shelf: Superheroes Documentary on PBS

A few weeks ago, PBS aired a new documentary about comics called Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle.  While I don't quite get the subtitle, I found it to be a surprisingly good program, and not just because I'm a sucker for Liev Schreiber's narrative skills.

I went into the show skeptically because I've seen more than one made-for-TV documentary about comics that left me disappointed because they were superficial, USA-centric, and blind to any comics that aren't superheroes.  Last issue first: PBS' program was explicitly about superheroes, so its subject-specific focus was explicit and not part of an oversimplification of what comics are, what they have been, and what they can be.  The USA-centricity issue is addressed by this as well because the superhero genre is, on the whole, an American phenomenon (along with some very notable contributions from the U.K.).  And finally, the matter of superficiality is a mixed bag: a retrospective history film of anything is going to leave a lot out by its nature, but dealing with the lack of opportunity for depth is the final mark of its quality.

Stan Lee on set
The PBS show uses its brevity in the best way possible: it presents a selected timeline of superhero comics and uses it to cover historical events that shaped what followed and still resonate with readers today.  These are big moments that will be familiar to most long-term superhero comics readers (albeit presented with enlightening commentary by personalities close to the events) such as the anti-comics craze of the 1950s, the Vietnam-era shift in socio-political perspectives in comics, and the cynicism of the superhero stories of the 1980s and beyond.  Other topics include the unique partnership of Stan Lee with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko in Marvel's early days, the 1990s' investment disaster, and superheroes' movement into film, television, and video games.  Scattered throughout are amazing moments like Adam West reading dialogue from Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns (somehow bringing together the opposite ends of the campy-to-psychopathic Batman spectrum) and tantalizingly brief comments from a very wide-eyed and startlingly optimistic Grant Morrison.

My complaints are few. I'd like to have seen at least brief commentary on superhero stories that didn't start in comics such as the television series Heroes and Alphas and movies like The Incredibles and Hancock, as well as countless computer and video games. Coverage of race, gender, and sexuality are unsurprisingly minimal, but that doesn't stop my wishing for more.  Finally, most of the cartoonists, historians, actors, and other commentators featured here are given very little screen time -- hopefully this inevitability is countered by some DVD extras!  (A few are among the show's YouTube playlist.) 

Overall, Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle is a documentary I can heartily recommend to viewers of all sorts.  Comics experts won't learn any new facts, but they'll delight in seeing the faces behind countless familiar names.  Comics readers who are new to the world of superheroes, including young readers, will learn a ton of history and will no doubt find themselves seeking out the many books that flesh out these stories in deep detail.  It's an excellent tool for librarians of all sorts -- any age group; public service or collection development -- because it works as a primer on what superheroes are, what their stories are all about, why they're so popular, why their readers and fans are so passionate, and sometimes so angry about a given storyline or adaptation.  It'll also give them a fighting chance when trying to help patrons searching for comics by giving them a handful of notable titles, plot points, and characters to be familiar with.  

The film is for sale from the PBS store on DVD and Blu-ray, along with an accompanying book called Superheroes!: Capes, Cowls, and the Creation of Comic Book Culture -- I haven't seen it in person, so I can't comment on its quality or whether or not it diverges from the documentary.

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