Like many folks in comics, I tuned in to the History Channel on Sunday night to watch the first two-hour segment of the new documentary, Superheroes Decoded. Not only was the subject matter of interest to me, but watching social media ahead of time, it was clear that many comics professionals were involved in creating this narrative, and were appearing on film for the piece, making the documentary even more immediately relevant to those interested in comics today.
And there were lots of great people helping craft the story of superheroes in this documentary, from Paul Levitz to Stan Lee, the Russo Brothers, Scott Snyder, Nicola Scott, Dan Didio, and Trina Robbins just to name a few. This first two-hour segment was dedicated to the rise of superheroes and the ways in which they created an American mythology. The documentary even stated, in opening, that “superheroes reveal the story of America”. That’s not a bad thesis to open with. And that is the lens through which the chronological march of superheroes was presented, to interesting effect.
One of the great strengths of the documentary was presenting major heroes alongside intense social developments in the country to show the ways in which the hero narrative and the historical events interacted. For instance, Superman is described as “highly political” because he represented the “common man”, and was therefore a kind of “socialist reformer” for immigrant communities at the time of his creation by two young Jewish guys in Cleveland.
Likewise, Batman is presented as a character at the hub of social change since his role and his Gotham tracks the rise of city population and crime during the Great Depression. Captain America then becomes the response to Hitler and the rise of fascism even before America got involved in World War II and the famous image of punching Hitler in the face becomes a response by Timely Comics (later Marvel Comics) to the anti-semitism building in the Nazi regime.
Wonder Woman becomes, in this narrative, a more directly mythological hero arising from the role of women in the workforce during WWII, otherwise, perhaps she wouldn’t have come about or been the focus of the initial burst of attention she received as a comic hero. The documentary traces these threads of social interconnection with comics and presents heroes in the light of the cultural climate that gave rise to them. We move into the Wertham era and look at the changes the Comics Code wrought in superhero comics, too, giving rise to a “family” dynamic in Batman to offset any accusations of homo-eroticism, and we see a wider range of team books in response, too. Spider-Man becomes the teenager who counter-culture can identify with and the rise of superhero films can reflect our national concerns and anxieties step by step through the 80’s and 90’s.
This historical/social commentary may seem like an obvious but necessary route to take in the documentary–since there have indeed been books written that remind us to see superheroes in their cultural and social context, and comic book related documentaries previously have at least been aware of these factors. Here, superheroes are seen as an American artform closely tied to our collective consciousness as a nation and their development says a lot about developments in national identity. As someone with a background in education, I’m keenly aware that this documentary will most likely be shown in classrooms, as the most up-to-date of its kind, and be especially useful in the burgeoning field of comics studies at universities, introducing young people to the concept of analyzing heroes in their social context.
All of this is useful and exciting, and it makes for a great general jumping off point for bringing the mainstream of pop culture into an understanding of the role of superheroes in American culture and history. The main reservation I have about the way in which Part 1 of the documentary has been presented for the most part has to do with the handling of the comics medium.
Scholars and historians of comics will be familiar with a struggle we frequently face of trying to distinguish between the comics medium and the superhero genre when talking about comics at conventions and with students. In other words, we must explain that comics as a form exist separately from superheroes as an idea. If people never fully become aware of this, they miss out on the wealth of comics that exist which have nothing to do with superheroes but can vastly influence readers and open new worlds for them. Take Senator John Lewis’ March series of graphic novels from IDW, for instance, as a stand-out example of important comics that aren’t superhero comics among many, many others.
The documentary doesn’t explicitly confuse this issue, but neither does it really clarify either. I noticed that right at the beginning of Part 1, when Superman is introduced, there is a grey area in the language used that makes it sound like comics as a medium did not exist before Superman. I’m sure that’s not intentional, but it surprised me, since a couple of added sentences could have explained the context of newspaper comic strips and the growth of the medium before presenting Superman. The documentary did discuss the origins of superheroes in pulp magazines, but not the origin of comics.
During the discussion of Wertham’s crusade against comics, the focus is squarely on superheroes as well, rather than other comics genres which Wertham attacked. The need to focus in on superheroes is the whole point of the documentary, I realize, but in leaving out a sentence here and there that would have added a sense of the context of superheroes within comics, the documentary misses an opportunity to be more accurate and help viewers understand comics better.
If the documentary had not included so many current comics professionals, perhaps I wouldn’t be holding it to task for not including a wider comics context for our heroes. It just seems like divorcing the heroes from their medium and artform is to overly streamline the way in which they reached hearts and minds throughout their history.
The documentary has a lot of heart, though, and plenty of fascinating information, concluding with a re-assessment of Jerry Siegel’s concept of Superman in the context of his father’s death at the hands of a robber in a retail shop. It reinforces the idea that the “personal” is one of the biggest influences upon superhero comics, something that I’m sure comic professionals would agree upon and which fans continue to celebrate.
Superheroes Decoded, Part 1 aired on Sunday, April 30th, on the History Channel, and Part 2 airs tonight, May 1st, at 9/8c.
This review has been written by Hannah Means-Shannon.