Documentary Review: Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked

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Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked
Monday, June 23, 2003, at 9pm EST/8 Central on the History Channel

Whatever you do, do not judge the new History Channel documentary, Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked, based on some of the ads (at least on its website). The ads play into the tired old “pow, biff, bam” camp style of the 1960s Batman television show. But the documentary itself, which premieres Monday, June 23, 2003 (at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT) is a fascinating product that speaks to long-time fans of the medium equally as effectively as it informs the mainstream consumer whose closest experience with comics may have been an episode of WB’s Smallville.

What first struck me about the documentary in general was that it didn’t fall into the trap of making it a collection of Kevin Smith quotes. While Smith appears frequently in the course of the show, the first five minutes of the show offers Denny O'Neil, Jim Steranko, Michael Chabon and Will Eisner. Steranko in fact, served as a creative consultant on the project.

Granted Kevin Smith, Stan Lee and Frank Miller are quoted extensively (as with any documentary of this nature), but the documentary makers are apparently asking solid questions or otherwise instantly establishing a rapport, given the number of unique quotes that they elicit from these three typically standard industry quote machines.

The strength of the work is that the document makers do not dwell in one particular moment or interview subject. Instead, it’s the manner in which they dole out the industry’s history in a quite engaging style. Take when the documentary tackles the 1950s. The narrator reviews comics over the previous decades (as they had been presented earlier in the work)--in the 1930s, the heroes were rebels/vigilantes; and in the 1940s, they were patriots. By the time of the 1950s, thanks to Congressional hearings and Fredric Wertham’s work condemning comics, saying they were accused of being a bad influence to children. As presented by the documentary makers, political and cultural history as a whole (a stand that is not surprising considering the cable channel, but it is a convincing if not obvious argument) has helped shape the course of comics, from the start with Action Comics in 1938 through to today.

The two-hour documentary covers a great deal of ground at an amazing (and refreshing) pace. Most importantly, it’s readily apparent that the documentary makers have a great deal of regard for the characters, the creators, and the medium, as well as a respect for the subject of comics in general. For an idea of how much ground they cover (and the range) consider the following series of transitions in about three minutes of the film. Initially the documentary discusses the creation of Wonder Woman by William Moulton Marston. From there, the bondage element of the comic is discussed, which leads to revelations about Marston’s personal life. Amazingly, from the discussion of his personal life, a counterpoint is just as quickly established that Wonder Woman (along with the other superheroes of the WWII era) served as role models for the children, encouraging donations for the war effort. One of the things donated were the comic books for paper drives, which years later made the remaining comic books more rare and thus valuable. This last detail leads to a discussion of how valuable comics are to collectors and speculators, because of the paper drives of the 1940s. Again all this ground is covered in the span of less than three minutes.

As impressive and constructive a film this may be, at times it (like many comic fans) tries to justify the subject matter a bit too much. Too often, I heard the word “relevancy” used, particularly in the wake of 9/11. The documentary makes much of the charity books the industry sold (and well they should mention them, as the projects had the best of intentions). But in further evidence that more than just Quesada (who else, I’m unsure could have been interviewed) should have represented Marvel, was when he went on at length about the relevancy of the Marvel Knights’ Captain America, as framed in the contextual backdrop of 9/11. Of course, geeks like myself will remember that the comic was so “relevant” and under performed that the series writers were inexplicably changed in mid-arc. Unfortunately, whenever a documentary tries to provide a history as well as comment on the present day landscape, it becomes readily apparent how the current events deny the viewer (and documentary maker) to view events within a proper context (only achievable through the passage and distance of some time).

The History Channel would do well to donate copies of this documentary to libraries and/or schools. Retailers would be wise to have spare copies on hand to give to parents who may be wary of allowing their children to read comics. There’s a great deal of value to the comic book medium as a form of art and communication, and this documentary has the potential to win mainstream folks’ interest because of the effective way it tells the industry’s story. Be sure to watch it Monday night on the History Channel, or if you can’t watch it be sure to set the VCR.

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