Having watched the first two-hour segment of the new History Channel documentary Superheroes Decoded on Sunday, April 30th: “American Legends“, I tuned in to see the second and final segment on Monday, May 1st, “American Rebels”. Judging from social media, I was aware a good number of comics professionals were involved in this documentary, which boded well for presenting a balanced view of the role of comics in superhero tradition.
Some of the professionals featured in Part 2 included Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Andrew Aydin, G. Willow Wilson, Nicola Scott, Chris Claremont, Gail Simone, George R.R. Martin and many more. The theme of the first episode had been focused on the major superheroes of early comics and how they continue to influence us today, like Superman, Batman, Captain America, Spider-Man, and Wonder Woman, whereas the second episode was advertised as dealing with the “rebels” among our superheroes, who often depicted the changing times and social attitudes, helping promote change, too. Those heroes turned out to be The Thing, The Hulk, Wolverine, Iron Man, Wonder Woman’s later incarnations, The Black Panther, Luke Cage, The Punisher, and the whole X-Men franchise.
The premise or main idea of this second episode was that these heroes reflected our American times from the 50’s through to modern day, and in that it fit well with the previous episode, which had a big emphasis on historical perspective. Using superheroes to look at American culture at different points in time is an excellent approach, and one which is happening a lot more in classrooms across the country and beyond. In fact, watching this episode was as much a history lesson in American social climate and change from the 50’s to modern day as a documentary about superheroes.
The level of detail in this episode was laudable–focusing in on specific individuals like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and at time bringing Stan Lee’s lived memory commentary in on why he had created or published certain heroes at certain points in time. George R.R. Martin’s discussion of lived fandom in the 60’s and beyond was also really enlightening. That speaks to the importance of making these documentaries while key comics professionals are still with us and can record their stories. Specific arguments made by the documentary were also interesting–like tracking the rise and attitudes of Baby Boomers in the popularity of Spider-Man, seeing themselves as “outsider heroes” and the rise of geeks out of that development.
My reservations about the first episode, which I reviewed here, focused on the ambiguous language used that made superhero comics seem like the only comics in American culture, and that comics began with Superman. That ambiguity is still present in the second episode of this documentary, though less pronounced, because a large portion of this episode deals with film and TV history, and a little less with comics. At one point, the narrator refers to movement of superheroes from an “art form to a mainstream cultural phenomenon”. The ambiguity is still there. Superheroes, are, arguably, an art form. But more clearly stated, comics are certainly an art form. This conflation of heroes and the art medium of comics just seems strange in a documentary that’s otherwise so focused on historical detail.
Another slightly unusual feature to notice about this second episode is that it was so heavily Marvel-based. While it’s quite true that Stan Lee and Marvel did more for diversity and addressing social issues in comics than other publishers from the 50’s through the 90’s, having about 90 minutes of a 120 minute documentary focused on Marvel comics and characters gives the impression that Marvel was the only publisher addressing changing times, and risks reading like a really long advertisement for Marvel. In retrospect, the first part of the documentary was heavily DC Comics-based, which may have seemed to the showrunners to act as a balance to the Marvel-heavy second episode. However, the ratio in part 1 was not as extremely slanted so the effect was less obvious at a ratio of about 3/5 DC in Part 1 vs 3/4 Marvel in Part 2.
There is, of course, the fact, that almost no other publishers aside from DC and Marvel are mentioned in all four hours of this superhero documentary. That’s to some extent understandable. Our major film-franchise superheroes, which a general audience will be familiar with, derive from Marvel and DC Comics. However, adding a few sentences about the fact that Image Comics came into being publishing hero comics might have been a good idea. Or perhaps mentioning the rise of Valiant, who existed in the 90’s too.
Last, and least, of my observations about threads that the documentary leaves out, concerns the role of other countries in superhero traditions, and in particular the UK. The documentary is focused on America and on comics as an American art form, and granted the showrunners were working with a limited amount of screen time, but UK comics creators have heavily influenced the direction of American Comics. Grant Morrison appeared in this documentary series, so he easily could have been asked to comment on this trend. The fact that Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Grant Morrison’s enthusiasm for American comics as British comic readers led them to shift the direction of American comics would have been an interesting idea, and a historically accurate one, to include.
However, part 2 of Superheroes Decoded does an excellent job of introducing viewers to the idea that superheroes are often at the epicenter of social change, and perhaps continue to be. Those viewers who are being introduced to these ideas for the first time, might, however, get the mistaken impression that only Marvel Comics were responsible for this. Which is unfortunate. We can only hope that these documentaries weren’t seen as ad-related for Marvel and DC films, which they drew on heavily, but if they were, at least they establish a historical approach to superheroes that could be a good influence on pop culture as a whole.
This review was written by Hannah Means-Shannon.