Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics
Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics is an hour-and-a-half documentary covering the history of the company and their most famous characters. It’s narrated by Ryan Reynolds, who has a nice (if plain) voice, but much of the time, it lets some of DC’s best-known creators speak for themselves. That includes those no longer with us, as the package incorporates some surprising archive footage.
Anything that opens with Alex Ross art of the Justice League looking down on us, as Neal Adams pontificates on how unique comics are, has high aspirations. This film aims to tell the “story of the birth of the comic book”, starting with (unidentified — they’re captioned later) Neil Gaiman, Jim Lee, and Mark Waid sharing their memories of how comics shaped their lives.
Former President and Publisher Paul Levitz sets the stage for the company’s placement in New York City, “an immigrant and entrepreneurial city”. (I found it interesting how often “entrepreneur” was used in this early segment. I suppose it’s nicer than “exploiter of young talent”, as too often happened in the early comic industry.) Throughout the movie, Gerard Jones (who wrote Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book, along with many comics in the 80s and 90s) and Mark Waid (if I have to list his credits, you definitely need to watch this film) do most of the factual heavy lifting, filling in the history basics.
My first surprise was this: the history isn’t entirely whitewashed. There is mention of a gangster connection, and commenters are rather blatant about the company founders starting in comics because they wanted to get out of porn, or “spicy pulps” as they were then called. The movie quickly moves into the origin of Superman by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, describing the character as “a newly minted American who becomes an unapologetic social crusader.” (Whatever happened to him?)
Footage of Siegel and Shuster, with their voiceovers and pictures of their families, was interesting and fresh to me, whether it was from the early days or later, in the 70s. Other contributors at this point include Joe Kubert, Louise Simonson (praising Lois Lane’s tenacity and intelligence and discussing other topics from a female point of view), and Dwayne McDuffie (talking about the meaning of the immigrant experience and commenting on other cultural issues). The movie then moves to Batman, with Bob Kane and Bill Finger mentioned early — Irwin Hasen, a contemporary, contributes — followed by Wonder Woman’s creation by William Moulton Marston. Somewhat surprisingly, his unusual life (with two “co-wives”), early feminism, and bondage fetishes aren’t hidden.
The Golden Age
After 22 minutes of the origins of the Big Three characters, and to a lesser extent, the company itself, we enter the Golden Age, where other companies begin emulating DC’s success with superheroes and DC began publishing powered characters like crazy, whether hero, villain, or sidekick. Chip Kidd comes in to talk about Captain Marvel, covered as Fawcett’s competition. Dennis O’Neil covers Superman’s fight for justice against the KKK and other bigots, elaborated on by Irwin Donenfeld. That was a surprise. Neither KC nor I had seen footage of him before; obviously, this was taken before his death in 2004, although the year of taping isn’t given.
One of the biggest flaws of this production is the overall lack of captions for the visual sources. I shouldn’t be surprised, since I think this may have been created as a sell piece to emphasize the importance of DC to corporate higher-ups or those interested in working with them on media projects. There is a lot of very good history in it, but serious scholars will be disappointed by not knowing exactly who’s being shown, or when the picture/recording was taken. (When Alan Moore shows up, I was especially curious how far back that footage dated, given how hard he’s fallen out with the company.)
Back to the movie. Superman begins moving into other media, with over 2000 radio episodes and the Fleischer cartoons, and the role of comics during the war — both how they handled the war with the characters, and how popular they were with soldiers — is covered. The 50s are marked by Superman becoming a TV show at the same time most superhero comics are no longer published; Fredric Wertham’s effects are demonstrated with footage of the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency and Bill Gaines’ testimony; the Comics Code Authority begins; and comics become boring as a result. Oddly, Grant Morrison is included here, talking about the suburbanization of Superman.
The Silver and Bronze Ages
This leads into the Silver Age, about the 39-minute mark, and the appearance of Julie Schwartz and those who praise him, like Len Wein. The superhero is reinvented with a scientific base (and as a side effect, Marvel Comics is formed). Walter Simonson shows up to mention how surprising the concept of Supergirl was at the time, as one of many super-spinoffs that wasn’t a trick or a hoax. Batman, meanwhile, was in danger until the TV show debuted.
The challenge of attracting teenagers, Marvel’s strength, is tackled 48 minutes in, with the beginning of the Bronze Age. People like Marv Wolfman indicate gingerly that DC was considered old-fashioned at this point, too corporate, although they began hiring a new, anti-authority generation like O’Neil and Adams, which of course leads into a discussion of their Green Arrow/Green Lantern run. It’s a shame more of the period photos shown at this point aren’t identified, because not everyone is going to recognize a very young Paul Levitz or the un-labeled Elliot S! Maggin and Cary Bates. We loved seeing them, though.
You know, I think this documentary is worth it just to see Denny apologizing for what he did to Wonder Woman (depowering her and giving her I Ching as a mentor). That’s followed by the longest media clip yet: the Wonder Woman theme song with images of Lynda Carter. It’s always fun to hear “in your satin tights, fighting for your rights”, the best superhero lyric ever. This begins a media-heavy period anchored by the Super Friends cartoon and the Superman movie.
The Modern Age
Karen Berger comes in to talk about new, young, female Publisher, Jenette Kahn, which leads into the Modern Age (63 minutes in). A key coverage point is Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, of course. Kyle Baker appears to point out that superhero comics were no longer for kids (based on his Plastic Man comic, which I didn’t think was for kids anyway). The Batman movies quickly lead into coverage of Alan Moore, a connection that struck me as a bit silly, although they are talking about his Swamp Thing work to start.
Gaiman, Morrison, Paul Pope, and others cover and comment on the British Invasion of the 80s, which brought in new readers, especially women, leading into the creation of Vertigo. That’s followed by McDuffie and some brief information on the formation of Milestone Media. In both of these cases, I was frustrated by the lack of photo information. I was even more frustrated being reminded of the Static Shock cartoon — which I think is the only major DC animation project from that era not available on DVD, even though it crosses over with both Justice League and Batman Beyond. It won awards and ratings, and yet Warner can’t bother to put it out, either now or then.
Jim Lee is brought on as an example of how comics is more diverse now than it used to be. At the time of filming, apparently, they hadn’t yet decided to shut down WildStorm, as it’s described as producing “popular and enduring titles” (shown: WildCATS, Gen13, Promethea, The Authority, Ex Machina). That’s followed by coverage of the Death of Superman and Kingdom Come (as an antidote to the dark era of the early 90s and its “meaningless, cynical storytelling”, which made me think we need a Kingdom Come for this generation). Coverage ends with a mention of how difficult it became to show heroes after 9-11 (thanks, Dan DiDio); general thoughts on heroism; and the many other media projects DC’s done recently.
Aside from some quibbles with the last segments, I’m impressed. I thought this would regurgitate history I’d already heard, and while it doesn’t tackle the really troublesome subjects, it does acknowledge people like Finger, and I did learn things from it. The documentary doesn’t go into a ton of detail, but there’s a lot to cover, and this is intended to be a general history. Plus, the images aren’t widely known; the visuals are compelling; and the coverage (in terms of who they got to contribute) is good. One could easily imagine a different scenario, where the contributions of the high-ranking employee of another comic book company (Mark Waid is Chief Creative Officer of Boom! Studios) weren’t as welcome, which would have made this a poorer piece.
A lot of material is covered in a short amount of time, so you may want to keep your remote control handy. We found it helpful to rewind certain sections, especially when conversations started about what we were seeing or hearing. The credits feature the names of all the artists whose work was included, although with no way to connect them up with what they drew. There are also three screens of “Available from Warner Home Video”, listing all the movies and cartoons and TV sets with the characters and properties.