The three-hour documentary ‘Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle’ airs tonight on PBS, beginning at 8 pm ET. It will subsequently be broken up into one-hour installments and rerun for the next three weeks. The special will feature creators, critics, actors and others commenting on comic book history, beginning with Superman’s introduction in 1938.
The three part special is the first documentary to examine the dawn of the comic book genre and its powerful legacy, as well as the evolution of the characters who leapt from the pages over the last 75 years and their ongoing worldwide cultural impact. It chronicles how these “disposable diversions” were subject to intense government scrutiny for their influence on American children and how they were created in large part by the children of immigrants whose fierce loyalty to a new homeland laid the foundation for a multi-billion-dollar industry that is an influential part of our national identity.
The three episodes in ‘Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle’ are:
“Truth, Justice, and the American Way” (1938-1958)
During the Depression, the popularity of dozens of superhero characters opens the door for a new generation of artists and writers. World War II creates a patriotic fervor for star-spangled adventurers to represent the American spirit at war and on the home front, but in the 1950s, superheroes are caught in the fire of government scrutiny and regulation. When the thrilling “Adventures of Superman” is broadcast on the new medium of television, America’s first and greatest superhero leads the entire comic book industry to renewed strength.
“Great Power, Great Responsibility” (1959-1977)
A new breed of superhero emerges in the 1960s, inspired by the age of atomic energy and space travel and, in turn, inspiring artists of the time. The pop art movement draws heavily on comic books, with superhero images appearing in the works of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. Civil rights in America and other social issues make their way onto the page as black superheroes emerge with powerhouses such as the Black Panther and Luke Cage. The pages of “Green Lantern/Green Arrow” address social issues in their relevant storylines, and comic books are forced to confront the reality of an increasingly complex world.
“A Hero Can Be Anyone” (1978-Present)
This episode captures the enthusiasm for superheroes as they are embraced in all forms of media and by all demographics, beginning with the historic “Superman” movie featuring Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel. In 1986, Batman is overhauled as The Dark Knight to reflect the nocturnal underside of his character, and Watchmen brings new sophistication to comic book narratives, illuminating a violent and politicized world. In the burgeoning new millennium, superheroes have taken over popular culture with feature films, television shows and video games complementing a new generation of web-based comics that bring superhero adventures to every corner of the world.
In preparation for the premiere of the documentary, PBS has released several clips to whet your appetite.
Authors Michael Chabon (“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay”) and Bradford Wright (“Comic Book Nation”) discuss the origin of Superman:
Len Wein discusses creating Wolverine:
Gerry Conway on DC vs. Marvel in the 1970s:
Trina Robins on the X-Men (or rather the X-Women):
Lynda Carter on Wonder Woman:
Jeanette Kahn on Wonder Woman:
Todd McFarlane on Spawn:
Christina Strain on violence in comics:
Jim Lee on comics as an art form:
Len Wein on the origins of Superheroes:
Joe Quesada on the pace of current comic book production:
Don’t forget to set your DVR or tune in live tonight, Tuesday October 15th at 8 pm on PBS!