Three-Part PBS Documentary Takes "Superheroes" Seriously

Wed, October 9th, 2013 at 2:58pm PDT

TV/Film
Albert Ching, Managing Editor

Despite the seemingly exponential popularity of superheroes in pop culture -- "Iron Man 3" and "The Avengers" both grossed more than a billion dollars each the previous two summers -- there are still many out there who don't necessarily take the genre very seriously. (There are still articles out there being written with "BAM! POW!" in their headlines or intro paragraphs, after all.)

The "Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle" documentary airing on PBS Tuesday, Oct. 15, is the latest effort to start changing those attitudes. Directed by Michael Kantor and co-written by Kantor and Lawrence Maslon (they previously teamed on "Make 'Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America" and "Broadway: The American Musical"), the series looks at superheroes from the early origins of the genre to the present day, both tracing its history and its close relationship to American culture, through interviews with marquee industry names including Stan Lee, Neal Adams, Joe Quesada, Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, Grant Morrison and more.

Narrated by "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" alum Liev Schreiber, the doc is broken into three hour-long segments: The genre's origins and Golden Age from 1938 to 1958 in "Truth, Justice and the American Way;" "Great Power, Great Responsibility" covering the dawn of the Silver Age and beyond from 1959 to 1977; and "A Hero Can Be Anyone," looking in part at the impact of movies and TV on the genre from the release of the first "Superman" film in 1978 to the present.

CBR News spoke with Kantor and Maslon -- who also co-authored a companion book, "Superheroes!: Capes, Cowls, and the Creation of Comic Book Culture," on sale now -- about their project, their own history as comic book fans, and the five-year process of putting the documentary together.

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CBR News: Michael, Lawrence, what can you share about the origins of the "Superheroes" documentary? At what point did you first realize that was the right type of material in the genre to produce a documentary -- and also a book?

Filmmakers Michael Kantor & Lawrence Maslon talk to CBR about their new PBS documentary, "Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle"

Michael Kantor: We were in the middle of making our last PBS series, "Make 'Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America." I sat down to interview a fellow named Gerard Jones, who apart from having worked as a comic book writer, wrote this great book, "Men of Tomorrow." He said, "You make these films about major American cultural movements and artforms, what about the history of comic books?" I thought about it for a bit, and it stuck me that comic books was maybe too large a playing field -- that there were too many types of comic books -- but the unique American expression was that of the superhero. Then I turned to Larry, who was steeped in that history.

Lawrence Maslon: I said, "If you don't use me, I will kill you." I had been going to [comic conventions] since 1972, 1973. A friend and I used to customize superhero models, and we did one of Galactus, and Stan [Lee] and Jack [Kirby] signed it in 1976. I sort of kept a toe in, but the opportunity to get back and dive in from 1933 -- because we start with the pulps, all the way to the present -- was really thrilling, and to get to know some of the newer stuff, which frankly had been off my radar.

The documentary covers a lot of ground in the history of superheroes, but at the same time, it's only three hours -- what was that like? How did you pick and choose what was essential, and what you could omit?

Kantor: There are four main stories: There's the story of the creators, their life stories and personalities, there's the story of the characters, the story of the companies, and a really important story for us is the context, the American history, and what prompted people to create characters who were influenced by gamma rays, or other Cold War effects. Combining all those, you try and figure out what individual story speaks to many larger stories. Hopefully, we chose characters and individual stories that speak to the big themes in American history.

Maslon: We were really lucky. I think Stan [Lee] was the first person we interviewed in California, we got [now deceased creators] Jerry Robinson, Joe Simon, Joe Kubert. That was exciting.

It's interesting for me, coming back to the world of superheroes. Obviously I loved the ones I loved in the '60s and '70s, but you need a little distance. There's stuff floating around now like "Avengers vs. X-Men," and it takes a while, I think, for history to decide what's really lasting, and what's a potent story. It was nice to look at stuff like "Civil War," or the Spider-Man 9/11 issue, Obama's inauguration issue -- which I think really fit in the historical continuum of all the other stuff we're talking about.

Right on the cover of the book, you have something very recent -- Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel.

Maslon: Yeah, that's important. Will Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel be so popular that they'll make a movie out of her, or will she go the way of Black Orchid? I have no idea. I think it's one of the things a documentary does: It says, this was a profession largely created by Jewish immigrants, or sons of Jewish immigrants, and they've always been outsiders to the American experience. When you fold in Luke Cage, or Northstar, or Captain Marvel, those are part of the ongoing American stories of these characters.

How long was the research process?

Kantor: Our very first interview was with Stan Lee, Oct. 6, 2009. Literally four years ago. The whole thing was probably about a five-year undertaking.

Maslon: And I would say the research process for the book began in January of 1966 when I saw "Batman" on television.

You were able to land many important figures -- the names you already mentioned, Grant Morrison, Joe Quesada, Todd McFarlane, Geoff Johns, lots more -- were you able to get pretty much everyone you hoped for, or were there some names that alluded you?

Kantor: [We] reached out to Frank Miller, who was busy making a film. We knew we already had great interview bytes that we could feature with him back in the day, so it didn't feel like a loss -- if he wanted to come in and speak about that time period and give us his perspective on other stuff, that would have been great.

The five-year process of researching "Superheroes" was so exhaustive the pair also authored a companion book to the documentary

In asking all of these people, we're kind of presenting the greatest Comic-Con panel ever assembled. You come to Comic-Con, and you get two or three of these type of comic book legends. And here you get the most interesting things they have to say from 50 of them. By and large, everyone was happy to participate.

Maslon: I would say the one person from my point of view who would have been great would have been Dick Gioradno [who passed away in 2010], because he's such a transitional figure, when you look at where and when he worked, and what titles he worked on, both as an artist and an editor. For me, that's the one that got away.

Kantor: And Dwayne McDuffie, who passed suddenly. He was on our list.

Maslon: We did get Lynda Carter, Adam West, Zack Snyder, Jeph Loeb -- people who are involved in making the TV and movies that are so popular with this.

From both of your perspectives, what's your take on the fact that these superheroes characters who have, in some cases, been around for about 75 years, have not only lasted and endured, but their influence on pop culture as a whole is seemingly larger than ever, between movies and TV. How unique do you see that growth?

Kantor: Joe Simon quoted his partner Jack Kirby as thinking that their creations -- Captain America among them -- would last for 40 years. It is interesting how our culture has been subsumed by superhero toys and lunch boxes and all types of merchandise.

To me, I look at the "Superman" movie in the late '70s as this turning point. Once feature films, which are so essential to our culture, embraced superheroes with new technology that could make people flying and swinging from webs look realistic, then it was natural that the audience would expand.

Maslon: For me, it's also the really amazing phenomenon -- which I think most comic fans aren't really aware of, because they're at the center of it -- it's not one hero fits all. The fact that Batman in particular, let alone the other top 10 heroes, gets these little playsets for kids who are 3-year-olds, so they can enjoy Batman that way. I have a 5-year-old kid who I took for a swimming lesson, and he gets in the pool and he sings Aquaman's song from "Brave and the Bold." But at the same time, he comes home with his Batman shirt and his Batman sneakers, and I can't really let him watch "Beware the Batman" yet. It's just a little too edgy.

That never occurred when I was growing up -- you had Adam West, you had "Superfriends," and that was it, case closed. So I think the marketing iteration of these iconic figures is tremendously varied, and much more prolific than I think anyone outside the marketing departments realize.

Despite the vast influence superheroes have over pop culture, there's certainly a chunk of the population who still won't take the genre seriously. A PBS documentary is certainly a way to take a subject very seriously -- was changing people's perspectives part of the goal?

Kantor: Since we made our first long-form series for PBS, "Broadway: The American Musical," that won the Emmy in 2005, we've been getting government grants to study these areas of American culture that are so important, but have by and large be neglected by higher education and scholarly focus. I remember vividly; they said, "The Broadway musical? Talk about something frilly and glitzy. There's nothing serious to study there. There's nothing important to understand there." And it's the same with comic books and superheroes. It's only just now that people are beginning to understand how important this story is.

Maslon: They're also a good vehicle for telling American history. The Depression, World War II, the Civil Rights movement, gay pride, you name it, they're all reflected in comic books. Captain America was punching Hitler months before Franklin Roosevelt committed us to World War II, and then on the other hand, the treatment of women in comic books has been a little behind the 8-ball. That's a good prism to use.

This is a bit of a broad question, but for your average viewer who might be tuning in to "Superheroes" and it's nearly all new information to them, what's something you hope they'd take away about the genre?

The pair selected "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" star Liev Schreiber to narrate the documentary

Maslon: I think you'd just be shocked. I always check in with my dentist -- he's in his early 50s, he read his superheroes in the '70s, and maybe hasn't picked up a comic book since. He probably doesn't even know "The Dark Knight Returns." He probably doesn't know "Watchmen," "Civil War." But his kids do. His kids bring those home, and his kids -- who are in their teens -- don't know anything about Stan Lee and the Atomic Age of anxiety in the '60s. They don't know anything about that. I'm hoping the documentary and the book can really bridge generations. To me, both the book and the series say, "How did we get here?" How did we get to this point where the Superman insignia is recognized globally as a symbol of freedom and optimism and hope and strength. How did we get here?

Kantor: I just find it fascinating, the more I look at great American artforms -- they're created by these outliers, these folks who were trying to fit in and weren't really a part of the mainstream, whether it's jazz, or the Broadway musical, or comic book artists and writers. It's fascinating that they're all doing this work that by and large is being looked down on at the moment they're creating it, but they're embracing it passionately, and it becomes huge. That's a story of American ingenuity and creation that rarely gets told. We all think, "Oh, somebody's out there doing it." But when you ask a Carmine Infantino about what it was like to work in the industry when it was started, it's really important to honor those folks who took those creative risks.

During the five-year process, what discoveries or realizations about superheroes did you come across that were especially notable, personally, to both of you?

Kantor: I was a child of what Adam West calls "The Bright Knight." It's not until just recently that the polar opposites of The Dark Knight and The Bright Knight come into such clear contrast. It's a sense of how the characters can reflect their time period. I think we do a pretty good job of looking at how Adam West's television Batman reflected the influence of pop art in the '60s, and cultural kitsch and camp, as well as the current "Dark Knight" movies reflecting a worry about terrorism and the dark world we're living in now.

Maslon: For me, on a more banal level, I was a comic book collector. I would buy back issues, I would have full runs of titles. The graphic novel -- which is misnomer, I think, largely -- but this notion that you go to any bookstore in the country and there's a graphic novel section. These aren't forgettable, dismissible, 12-cent, 15-cent, 25-cent rags anymore -- they're bound, and you can really get any adventure of a character you love. To me, it's like Homer, "The Odyssey" and "The Iliad." These stories will never go away now. Your mother could maybe throw out your comic book collection, but she can't go to Barnes and Noble and throw out the whole graphic novel section. They're here to stay.

Was it always part of the plan for "Superheroes" to have a companion book, or did that evolve along the way during your research?

Maslon: We've done companion volumes for our other series, as well. That was the first thing I think we spoke about -- if you're doing Broadway musicals as a documentary, it's kind of a no-brainer. You have footage, and you have people jumping around and dancing and singing. It's the book that's hard, because how do you capture that?

The flipside, for superheroes, we had the images, we had the text. That was exciting. I grew up reading Jules Feiffer's books, I still have my two [Jim] Steranko volumes. It was important, for me, to write the book I would have wanted to read when I was 14. I think it is pretty comprehensive in the fact that it starts with comic strips, and goes all the way up to "Captain Marvel." And, it also includes essential art -- some of Steranko's greatest panels, some of Neal Adams' "Green Lantern/Green Arrow" panels -- plus it also deals with TV and movies. And it's DC, and Marvel, and Image, and Archie, and Dark Horse, you name it. Most of the comic book literature that you can buy, historically, is either DC or Marvel, because they're the ones printing it. Or it's fabulously written, like ["Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book"] but there are no illustrations in it. For the general reader, I think it's going to bridge a lot of people's comic book IQ, which I'm really excited about.

How did you arrive on the choice of Liev Schrieber as narrator?

Kantor: It was really important, I felt, that we have a host who was in some way associated with a superhero, whether he or she had played a superhero, or a supervillain. Liev is regarded as one of the greatest narrators of our time, so it made perfect sense to take not only his great narration skills, but his on-camera presence, and put it to good use in this series.

"Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle" is scheduled to air 8 p.m. Oct. 15 on PBS. Check local listings. The documentary will be released concurrently on Blu-ray, Oct. 15.

TAGS:  pbs, superheroes a never-ending battle, michael kantor, lawrence maslon, liev schreiber

 
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