Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle (Ghost Light Films/Oregon Public Broadcasting, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The show was called Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle, and was a mostly engaging history of the superhero genre, starting with the publication of the original Superman story in Action Comics #1 in June 1938. Written by Michael Kantor and Lawrence Masdon (and directed by Kantor), this show was created in such a way that it could be sliced up into three separate episodes (which was welcome in that it gave us necessary bathroom breaks — one enduring problem with noncommercial television is when do you get to use the bathroom when nature tells you to) but for its premiere was shown complete. If there was a fault I could find with this episode it’s that they tended to treat the superhero genre as something de novo and totally American — but just as the Broadway musical grew out of European operetta, the American superhero comics grew out not only of American pulp magazine stories (Kantor and Masdon make the rather provocative case that Batman is merely a rehash of The Shadow, though they ignore the even more obvious derivation of Superman from Doc Savage; though Doc Savage was an ordinary human produced by selective breeding rather than an alien from another planet, he was called the “Man of Bronze” vs. Superman’s “Man of Steel,” and like Superman his first name in his non-super alternate identity was “Clark” — a name both Doc Savage creator Lester Dent and Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster seem to have got from Clark Gable!) but a long tradition of European hero literature. If there’s an ur-superhero story that really defined the clichés of the genre, it’s probably Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel; like both Superman and Batman, he concealed his real identity behind a masquerade as a milquetoast character; and like Superman he was both male points in a bizarre love triangle with a woman who went gaga for his superhero identity and couldn’t stand his normal one. And the first superhero created by an American writer was probably Johnston McCulley’s Scarlet Pimpernel knock-off, Zorro.

The writers attribute Batman to the Shadow and the Joker simply to the joker figure in a card deck, ignoring the two classic silent films Bob Kane, Batman’s creator, always said were his inspirations: the 1926 adaptation of Mary Roberts Reinhart’s The Bat (though in that case the person in bat-guise is actually a master criminal posing as a detective — ironically, Jerry Siegel’s original conception of Superman in 1932 was also as a super-villain and it was only in later drafts that he became a superhero instead) and the 1928 The Man Who Laughs, in which Jack P. Pierce’s hideous makeup for Conrad Veidt to play Gwynplaine, a captive turned by the Gypsies who stole him into a monster by altering his face into a permanent grin, was the obvious model for the Joker. (The still from The Man Who Laughs in Clive Hirschhorn’s book The Universal Story gave the game away well before I saw the film — and, indeed, while the film was still thought lost.) The filmmakers managed to score interviews with quite a lot of people involved in creating superhero comics — including artist Carmine Infantino, who was one of the most colorful and compelling characters in it (and who for some reason is not listed in the cast list) — as well as actors who played superheroes on TV, notably Adam West in the 1960’s camp Batman and Lynda Carter from Wonder Woman (and oddly Carter was not a sex bomb; one reason she was credible in the role was she was credibly muscular and not drop-dead gorgeous). The documentary at least touched on the incredibly exploitative practices of comic-book publishers — as late as the early 1990’s artists and writers who asked for royalties on their works were routinely shown the door (that’s when a number of top people at Marvel walked and started their own company, Image Comics) — and mentioned that it was not until 1978, with the release of the blockbuster Superman movie (the first feature film built around a superhero character — earlier superhero films had been either theatrical serials or TV series), that Siegel and Shuster got residual payments and full screen credit as Superman’s creators.

To my mind, the most interesting episodes here were the first two — detailing the prehistory of the comic superheroes and their first two waves of popularity, in the 1940’s and the 1960’s. The show went into the crisis that faced the comics publishers when religious groups and self-appointed moralists went after them in the early 1950’s — there’s even a film clip of Dr. Frederick Wertham before a Congressional committee saying his famous line that Batman and Robin were “a wish-fulfillment fantasy of two homosexuals living together” (oddly, Wertham wasn’t always a reactionary prig; he was also one of the social-science experts who testified against segregation in one of the cases that became Brown v. Board of Education) — much as they had against the movie studios in 1934 — and the response of the comics industry was the same one that had worked for the movie business. They formed their own self-censorship business, the “Comics Code Authority,” which was given the authority to review and approve every comic before it went out. Among the rules of the Authority’s version of the Production Code were no horror titles at all (which was a major hit to William Gaines’ business, Entertaining Comics, though Gaines’ other main title, the satire magazine Mad, proved so successful in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s his company stayed in business and even prospered) and no references to drugs. This was what finally led to the breakdown of the Authority in 1971 when Stan Lee commissioned a Spider-Man episode in which Spider-Man rescues a young man who’s overdosed and hurled himself off a rooftop under the delusion that he could fly. More could probably be made of the irony of a character in a superhero comic being under the delusion he could fly when the recurring characters themselves either flew, like Superman, or came so close to doing so, like Batman and Spider-Man, it made virtually no difference plot-wise. Anyway, the Authority rejected the Spider-Man issue with the drug storyline — and Stan Lee did exactly what Otto Preminger had done 15 years earlier when the Production Code Adminstration refused to give a Code seal to his anti-drug piece, the film The Man with the Golden Arm: he released the book without the seal, it was a best seller and the Authority modified the Code to make it more liberal.

I was probably most interested in the middle segment because it covered the 1960’s, the decade during which I read comic books (like a lot of people back then I read a fair number of comics while I was the target age for them and then stopped as I grew into teenager-dom) and fell in love with Batman (purely platonically!) through the campy mid-1960’s TV show — which led me to the reprints of the 1940’s and 1950’s Batman stories, with their much richer, darker, noir approach to the character that would get revived with the Dark Knight series, first in the comics (courtesy of the reclusive writer Alan Moore, who is actually shown here being interviewed — which is something like seeing J. D. Salinger do the Tonight Show — and who bears a striking, and not altogether inappropriate, resemblance to the rock musician Roy Wood, who founded the Move and Electric Light Orchestra but unfortunately left after ELO’s first album — he was essentially John Lennon to Jeff Lynne’s Paul McCartney and ELO would have been considerably more interesting and less critically maligned if he’d stayed) and then in the Christopher Nolan movies — of which, oddly, I didn’t care for the first two but quite liked the third, The Dark Knight Rises. The third portion is a typical story for the 21st century in that it depicts the superhero business as bigger than ever — virtually all the big summer blockbuster releases are superhero stories of one form or another — even while the original delivery form, comic books, is fading like virtually all other print media and distribution of superhero comics is being taken over by, you guessed it, the Internet via e-readers, tablets and all those other God-awful devices that are supplanting ink on paper. It also mentions the writers and artists who are doing D.I.Y. superheroes on line — though it’s hard to tell from just seeing this work flashed momentarily on screen in a TV documentary if any of it is any good.

Overall this was an interesting show, a bit overwrought in comparing the superhero mythologies to previous cultures’ versions of myths and legends — what’s most interesting about the superhero business (and it was certainly a big part of the “history of Superman” book I read recently) is that whereas previous cultures evolved their legends organically over time, this capitalist culture has turned its mythology, like everything else, to private profit-making corporations. So if these characters follow the Zeitgeist, it’s because market researchers in the big companies have carefully crafted them to do so based on audience surveys and other inputs to try to give them a handle on what the audience will like. Not that they always guess right, but it’s clear that — like all other products in the corporate-capitalist marketplace — the superhero stories are designed to give the audiences “what they want” and at the same time to reinforce the system of production under which they’re created so that audience dissatisfaction, rebellion and alienation gets channeled into “safe” realms — like the ending of the film The Dark Knight Rises, which reasserts the primacy and legitimacy of official law enforcement against the superheroes and the rebels of both Left and Right; or (to detach a bit from the superhero genre — though Katniss Everdeen is as mythic a figure as anyone created by the comics industry) the Hunger Games trilogy, which begins as a neo-socialist critique of the corporate state of today, then creates a “revolutionary” state which is just as oppressive as the Capital elite, and finally ends in a Voltairean anarchist scene of the heroine, no longer involved in anything as futile as activism, retreating to her private life and literally tending her garden. Think the world is a lousy place, our modern capitalist myth-makers ask? You’re right, but anything you try to do about it collectively will only make things worse — so suffer it and do what you can to make life better for yourself as an individual.