October 21, 2013

Convenient Truths: Super-Heroes: A Never-Ending Battle

Sometimes the most universal truths can be found in the smallest slices of life. That’s what makes independent documentaries so powerful, engaging, and entertaining. Not only do they show you little worlds to which you’ve never had access, but they oftentimes also tell the larger story of what it means to be human. Armed with this intellectual conceit, a bag of Funyuns, and a couple of Miller beers, Daniel Elkin curls up in front of the TV and delves deep into the bowels of Netflix Streaming Documentaries to find out a little bit more about all of us.
Today he and his friend Jason Sacks found 2013's Super-Heroes: A Never-Ending Battle, directed by Michael Kantor
Jason Sacks: Elkin, over the last few columns, we've had the chance to watch a whole series of really good documentaries. We've viewed films that shed new light on the creative process, that illuminate our experiences as members of our society, and that help to demonstrate why we are fans of the things that we love.
Super-Heroes: A Never-Ending Battle, a three-part doc that will premiere on PBS on October 15th, offers almost nothing new for any of us who are longtime comics fans. It's a conformist recitation of conventional wisdom and standard facts, punctuated by commentary by industry luminaries and scenes from film and TV adaptations of favorite characters. For anyone who knows a lot about the history of the comic book medium, there's nothing new shown on the screen: Michael Kantor brings no new revelations, no fresh insights and no explorations that go off of the well-trod path.
Kantor shows us the birth of Superman at the hands of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, but those specifics rush past without any real insight or cleverness. We watch how Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created Captain America and hear again how soldiers in World War II loved comic books. We're told again about Fredric Wertham's anti-comic witchhunt– amusingly punctuated by comments by Phil Jimenez, a gay cartoonist, about the absurdity of Wertham's claim that Batman and Robin were gay – all the way up to the story of the Death of Superman in the 1990s and to comics' reaction to the 9/11 attacks.
We get a few moments in this doc that are interesting: the vintage films of Superman's popularity are exciting; Jimenez looks like he's about to start laughing as he contemplates Wertham's attacks; it's wonderful – albeit spooky – to see deceased creators such as Joe Simon, Joe Kubert, Jerry Robinson, Carmine Infantino and Jack Kirby, among others, talking in this film.

Jim Steranko
This documentary is valuable as a document of creators who are gone, and it's a professional and coherent exploration of comics with much the same approach that directory Michael Kantor brought to his documentaries about the Broadway musical and American comedians. For those who aren't deeply embedded in comics fandom, this might serve as a nice introduction to the artform and its history.
But Kantor deliberately avoids stepping outside the conventional wisdom. He recites facts but doesn't offer insight. This film is slick and professional but it only lives on the surface.
Elkin, I know you're not as much of a hardcore comics fan as I am. Did you find all this as familiar as I did, or was this film fresher for you?
Elkin: Well Sacks, I agree with you that there were really no surprises in this documentary, but I think you may be missing the point of the film. The title of this thing is Super-Heroes: A Never-Ending Battle – and from my perspective, it seemed like what Kantor was attempting here was pretty much what Grant Morrison tried to do with his book,Supergods, he wants to explain why the mythic properties of Super-Heroes resonate so strongly and enduringly in modern culture.
And, if this is true, than I think he failed.
In the course of the series, Kantor gets bogged down in the history of comic book publishing and, because of this, his thesis gets lost. What we are left with is a time-line of events rather than any sort of intellectual exercise.
Still, I didn't respond to this documentary with the same sort of fanboy vitriol as you, Sacks. I think Kantor does a nice job of tracing a clean overview of comic book history, as well as conveying the gestalt of the times in which the focus of each segment occurred. The series is engaging, informative, and entertaining insomuch as it can be. I think that people new to comics (and there are a lot of them around now, thank goodness) will be able to take away quite a bit of historical perspective and understanding of the medium they are just starting to embrace.
This is a good thing.
Hey look, it's Stan Lee!
Unlike you, I think Kantor does allow for some controversies to creep into his narrative as well – the bondage imagery in early Wonder Woman comics, the creator's rights argument in the Siegel and Shuster story, the reticence of the industry to take on strong social issues – so I think this is a pretty full bag here. As an overview of the development of comics in our culture, it does its job well and shines a little light on some odd crevices.
But, in terms of it taking on the idea of Super-Heroes themselves, the film drops the ball hard. If this was Kantor's intent, then, as I said before, he's failed.
Would I encourage people who are just starting to get interested in comics to watch this, though?
Here's why. See. I had the recent opportunity to see Howard Chaykin talk. I brought along one of the high school students from my Graphic Novel class who had expressed an interest in coming. At the end of the talk, this student asked Chaykin if he had any advice for a young person interested in getting into the medium. Chaykin asked my student if he had any "models" in the industry to emulate. My student couldn't name a single artist. Chaykin unloaded on him (hysterically, I might add) and then gave a brief history of some artists who were able to change the medium through their talents. At the end, my student told me that he really didn't know much about any of the people Chaykin mentioned.
And this kid reads a lot of comics.
This young man is the perfect audience for Super-Heroes: A Never-Ending Battle – someone who loves the idea of comics, but doesn't really know that much about them. You, Sacks, are not that kid.
Sacks: Sigh, yes, Elkin, it’s been a long time since anyone referred to me as a kid, and I definitely know more about comics history than most high school kids. And, you know, when I place myself back in the mindset that I had when I was in high school, I can see how a program like this might be valuable for me and might give me some perspective on a medium that I'm just starting to dig into. I can imagine the kid that was ripped by Chaykin having a ball with a film like this; you're right about that.
I can appreciate this show from that standpoint – and that's a lot like the neophyte standpoint that I brought to Kantor's documentaries about Broadway and comedians. This show strikes me as a good way for a "tourist" to learn about some of the attractions they might enjoy when visiting comic-book land, to stretch that analogy way past its natural breaking point.
So maybe I'm not the target audience for a film like this one. As a comics historian of sorts (hey, I get tiny royalties from my books!), maybe I'm a little like Marc Maron watching the history of comedy or Matthew Broderick watching a show about Broadway. Maybe I know too much, live too much in the moment, know too many of the controversies too well (ask me one day about the creators' rights issues in Siegel & Shuster if you want me to talk for an hour on a complicated subject) to get a lot out of this film. Fair enough. I'm the kind of guy who reads Love on the Racks: A History of Romance Comics in America for fun. I'm probably not the target audience for this documentary.
But I do stand behind my feeling that this film is presenting the conventional wisdom, perhaps by necessity. You mention Morrison's Supergods as making a smart presentation of super-heroes as mythical creations, but what makes that book so special is that Mozzer is able to bridge the gap between fan and non-fan. Supergods goes big, sometimes goes against the standard wisdom about certain comics, and comes from a very unique viewpoint.
Super-Heroes: A Never-Ending Battle is not Supergods – nor is it Rude Dude or Mr. Bitchin' or even Cartoon College(wow, we’ve talked a lot about comics lately!). With Morrison's book and each of those films, I came out with a deeper understanding of creativity, thought, and the comics artform. I just wish that Kantor's film had had a little bit of what made those films special. I may not be the target audience for this documentary, but I wish I could have loved it more.
Elkin: And thus your extensive prior knowledge makes you miss the forest for the trees, Sacks. But of course, that only adds to your charm.
Super-Heroes: A Never-Ending Battle is a training film, not a master class. What it lacks in substance, it makes up in breadth. It serves it purpose, though to be honest I would be hard pressed to call it a documentary. It's not really "documenting" anything, nor is it opening the audience to question much about our humanity or even why the idea of the super-hero endures.
The fact that it is airing on PBS rather than, say, Syfy for example, raises its credibility a bit and lends it more heft than it perhaps deserves, but if you look at this as an informative introduction to a medium we love, then we could do much worse (and we have – I can think of one particular example right off the top of my head).
Hell, it's got Lynda Carter AND Michael Chabon in it. That's pretty great, right?
Anyway, my dad often asks me why I like comics so much. I'm not sure that this film will go very far in answering that question, but I do think it will give us more to talk about when this question comes up again. So I'm going to suggest that he watch this, and we'll see where that will lead.
As they say, "The more you know..."

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