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|
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.