TV special explores superheroes as mainstream marvels

Published October 12, 2013 10:36 pm

TV • PBS documentary traces how comic-book characters have taken over pop culture.
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If the 80,000 people who showed up for Salt Lake Comic Con in August didn't convince you that comic-book heroes are mainstream, how about PBS doing a three-part documentary series about comic-book heroes?

"Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle" looks at the phenomenon as part of our culture.

"It's sort of like jazz," comic-book guru Stan Lee says in the opening moments. "It's an American art form."

Which sort of makes you want to give comic books more respect, doesn't it?

"We made this series so that no parent would ever throw out their kids' comic books again," said filmmaker Michael Kantor. "But let me be clear that this series is not just for comic-book geeks. It's funded both by the National Endowment of the Arts and the National Endowment of Humanities, and it contextualizes the stories of comic-book superheroes within the greater history."

The three-part series follows the portrayal of superheroes from the arrival of Superman in 1938 through the present day.

With narration by Liev Schreiber, "Superheroes" is smart and entertaining. And it has a lot to say about how comic books and their heroes have reflected America over the past 76 years.

Gerry Conway (creator of Man Thing and the Punisher and the guy who scripted the death of Spider-Man's girlfriend, Gwen Stacy) said creating comic books was a way "to communicate your own personal beliefs. I think we were trying to make some moral and ethical points."

And the heroes appeal to our better selves, at the same time reflecting all-American values like truth and justice.

"I always try to keep a moral lesson in there that tells you to do the right thing," said Len Wein (co-creator of Swamp Thing, and Wolverine). "My own moral code is pretty much borne by comic books. That made me sound extraordinarily geeky, but it's something I always keep in mind when I work."

And comic-book fans have come out of the closet in recent years. Todd McFarlane ("Spawn," "Spider-Man") said that when he was a teenager, he "had to hide that I collected comic books. They thought I was mentally arrested. 'Oh, come on, Todd, you're a nerd.' "

At the same time, his friends were going to see "Star Wars," "Indiana Jones" and James Bond, all of which owed a lot to comic books.

"I always thought there was a thin line, and we've now pierced that veil and they are all now watching the movies," McFarlane said.

These days, it seems like all the big movies are about superheroes. Iron Man. Thor. Captain America. The Hulk. Superman. Spider-Man. The Avengers.

And superheroes are becoming a bigger part of television with "Arrow," "The Tomorrow People," "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." and more on the way — not to mention all the animated series.

"The geeks have inherited the Earth," said Wein. "We won in the long run. All of us who got picked on in high school now are the top of the heap as opposed to the bottom."

But "Superheroes" is not just a documentary series about or for comic-book geeks. The superhero characters are big; the comic books that spawned them, not so much.

"The average comic book sells between 50,000 and 100,000 copies. That's negligible," said Conway. "So you have to expect that the people who are actually superhero fans today are not comic-book readers."

Including Conway's 17-year-old daughter.

"She's a huge fan of superhero movies," he said, "and she has never read a comic book in her life, which makes me such a proud papa. But she is actually the generation that is, I think, embracing superheroes now."

Although Kantor thinks pretty much all generations are embracing superheroes.

"We built this series with a broad viewership in mind, from age 8 to 88," he said. "Both men and women, both nerds and folks like my parents, who I learned this weekend had never heard of 'The Avengers' movie."


Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle

The three-hour documentary airs Tuesday, Oct. 15, at 7 p.m. on PBS/Channel 7. The three segments are:

"Truth, Justice and the American Way" (1938-58) recounts the creation of the genre during the Great Depression, the burst of patriotism during World War II, the Communist witch-hunting of the 1950s and the advent of television.

"Great Power, Great Responsibility" (1959-77) explores a new breed of superheroes — from Spider-Man to the Hulk, the Black Panther to the Green Lantern. More human, reflecting changes in society and influencing pop culture.

"A Hero Can Be Anyone" (1978-present) sees superheroes become a huge part of entertainment as Superman and Batman make comebacks, the Watchmen capture the imagination, and feature films, television and video games are dominated by the genre in America and around the world.


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