PBS opted to air the three-part “Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle” on a single night, which is either a vote of confidence or (more likely) a way of shrinking its footprint. Either way, producer-director-co-writer Michael Kantor’s documentary (a tie-in to a companion book) pretty neatly distills 75 years of comic-book history into three tightly constructed packages, while interviewing a who’s who of the industry’s greatest talents. Comic-book aficionados might not learn much, but those who casually consume the current wave of theatrical blockbusters might, especially since Kantor endeavors to put this uniquely American art form into a broader sociological context.
Obviously, Kantor (who co-wrote with Laurence Maslon) begins with the birth of Superman in the 1930s, the creation of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, whose screwing in terms of the financial rewards thrown off by the character are chronicled later. That birthed an industry of costume-clad heroes fathered mostly by the sons of immigrants, who could identify with the concept of outsiders seeking to fit in.
Chapter one explores World War II and the campaign against comics in the 1950s — famously led by psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, author of the book “Seduction of the Innocent” — as well as the wedding of comics first to radio and then television, with the popularity of “Superman” in the 1950s. That last track, in particular, foreshadowed the ability of comics to take life beyond the printed page in ways the creators couldn’t have imagined, while often struggling to share in the profits.
Part two moves into the 1960s and the explosion of Marvel Comics, exploiting the anxieties of the atomic age while birthing an assortment of more relevant characters. Various participants rightfully cite the enormous influence of artist Jack Kirby, whose kinetic imagery working in collaboration with Stan Lee gave life to titles like Fantastic Four, X-Men and the Hulk. “Superheroes” also documents the push into more relevant stories, including issues dealing with drugs and social upheaval in the 1970s that ran afoul of the confining Comics Code Authority, established in the wake of Wertham’s witch hunt.
Finally, the third chapter addresses the more adult turn taken in the 1980s thanks to the signature works “The Dark Knight Returns” and “Watchmen,” followed by an explosion in theatrical success that has lifted the medium to an ascendant position in pop culture. “None of it is silly anymore,” notes artist/entrepreneur Todd McFarlane — a stark departure from the “Wam! Biff! Pow” TV version of “Batman” in the 1960s.
Perhaps best, Kantor recounts this history through interviews with those whose work defined it, including the likes of Lee, Joe Simon (who with Kirby created Captain America), writers Len Wein, Denny O’Neil and Gerry Conway, and artists Neal Adams, Jim Steranko and the late Carmine Infantino and Joe Kubert. In that sense, “Superheroes” earns its stripes in part by recording some of these voices, almost like a comic-book version of the Shoah project.
Narrated by Liev Schreiber, the project does a fairly admirable job of seeking to connect the ebb and flow of superheroes to real-life events without becoming heavy-handed, with writer/editor Mark Waid citing spikes in popularity during periods of anxiety — World War II, the Cold War and post-Sept. 11.
Granted, with so much material to cover there are inevitable oversights, and some clunky bits worked in, starting with the subtitle. (We could probably also have done without Adam West, the campiest of Batmen, reading dialogue from “Dark Knight Returns.”)
Still, “Superheroes” is for the most part a credible and serious look at the medium’s history, viewed through the filter of its surprisingly robust present. And if that won’t be enough to satisfy every comic-book collector with a nit to pick, as anyone who’s ever been to Comic-Con knows, satisfying the far-flung fringes of that group usually looks like a job for you know who.