On October 18, PBS devoted all of its Tuesday prime-time schedule to the three-part documentary series "Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle”—a cultural levitation of a genre neglected hitherto until it started getting made into movies. Culturally serious but not very accurate or, even, complete. Because the program was only about superheroes, not comic books generally, it ignored funny animals, westerns, crime, teenage and romance comics. What, though, can we expect from a popular entertainment—even one as supposedly sophisticated and attuned as PBS?
The first hour, entitled "Truth, Justice and the American Way" (1938-58), looked at the rise of patriotism that played into the birth of superheroes. The second hour, "Great Power, Great Responsibility" (1959-77) explores the impact of atomic energy, space travel and relatable problems on superheroes. And the third hour, "A Hero Can be Anyone" (1978-2013), chronicles “the rise of darker, more sophisticated storytelling.”
The program included “insightful interviews” with such stellar comics dignitaries as Stan Lee; actors Adam West (TV’s “Batman”) and Lynda Carter (“Wonder Woman”); Geoff Johns (chief creative officer, DC Comics), Jeph Loeb (head of television for Marvel Entertainment); Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) and cartoonist/author Jules Feiffer (the long-running strip “Feiffer”), as well as appearances by the late comic book icons Joe Simon (co-creator of Captain America) and Jerry Robinson (who created the Joker).
In the first hour, the narrative proclaims Captain Marvel, who surpassed Superman in popularity, the first superhero to dispense entirely with realism. Nothing was said, though, about DC bringing the law suit that put the Big Red Cheese out of business and thereby destroyed the competition.
In perhaps the most egregious bit of historical legerdemain, the destructive role of crime comics in revamping the comic book industry is simply ignored. The Comics Code arrives seemingly unprompted, without provocation—and therefore without reason.
Various attempts are made to connect comics to contemporary culture. Luke Cage’s 1972 Hero for Hire is an installment of the blaxploitation movement that started, more-or-less, with the movie “Shaft” in 1971. The Punisher, who is conspicuously a Vietnam vet when he started in 1974, is offered as a distant relation to the “anti-hero” Dirty Harry who came along three years earlier in late 1971. But sequence—Shaft to Luke Cage, Dirty Harry to the Punisher—while obvious, is not necessarily cause-and-effect, which impression the show works to create.
The second hour of the show rehearses the rebirth of superheroes without being very specific about dates. The revival began in October 1956 with the debut of the “new” Flash (as the first in the sequence, probably the most important of the dates but not mentioned in the show; and while Stan Lee is credited for the new popularity of superheroes, DC’s Julie Schwartz, who started the parade with the Flash, is not much noted). Other dates: August 1962, Spider-Man; December 1966; January 1966, the debut of Batman on tv; June 1972, Luke Cage, the medium’s first black hero. But none of these dates are actually cited in the show.
The role of fandom in stimulating the comic book industry is entirely ignored; ditto the vital function of the direct market with its comic book shops.
Following conversations with Adam West about tv’s campy Batman, the narrative turns to Linda Carter for her views on Wonder Woman, whom she played on tv starting in November 1975—which, in the logic of the show, ipso facto ushered in tv’s Hulk in November 1977. Both were serious attempts to make superheroes seem real; neither veered off into the previous decade’s campy formula of Batman.
After that, the program virtually ignores comic books in order to extol the arrival of successful big screen incarnations of the four-color heroes beginning with Christopher Reeves’ “Superman” in late 1978. The third hour ends with a series of interviews in which various of the creative teams producing comic books proclaimed the world-changing influence of funnybook superheroes. Just a little overwrought.
Stan Lee appeared several times, commenting on successive innovations in the medium. As far as I’m concerned, he was the star of the show. His tongue-in-cheek puffery put it all in much more appropriate context than the series’ closing with all the blather about our needing superheroes and Superman never dying and the like. Lee ended every one of his historically insightful pontifications with a wink.
The PBS documentary is examined in even more tedious detail in the Usual Place, Rants & Raves, Opus 317.