PBS Superheroes Documentary Neglects Kirby

Of all the things that bother me about Michael Kantor et al.’s PBS documentary Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle, which aired last night, the most disheartening is the show’s one-dimensional take on the rise of Marvel Comics in the 1960s and its almost entire neglect of the crucial role played by Jack Kirby in that rise.

Kirby’s singular contribution to the look and substance of Marvel—the fact that he provided characters, premises, stories, and the overarching visual aesthetic of the company—is never forthrightly addressed. The show simply reinforces the familiar corporate mythology about Stan Lee creating properties and writing stories that were then illustrated by Kirby, Steve Ditko, and other artists—a shallow view that fundamentally misunderstands the role of the cartoonist in the Marvel style of production. The result is all fog and strobe lights, not history.

My full take on the documentary can be found at The Superhero Reader website, here.

7 thoughts on “PBS Superheroes Documentary Neglects Kirby

  1. patrick ford says:

    It’s as would be expected. Why would the TV show say anything different when what is called the “Comics Community” treats the Lee/Kirby debate as an embarrassing topic best ignored.

    • charleshatfield says:

      Perhaps it is foolishly utopian to expect and hope for better things. But I do. And there is so much that the filmmakers might have done to redress the imbalance without being taken as crudely partisan. The fact is, they didn’t do it. Michael Cavna’s article in the Washington Post suggests why: the filmmakers appear to have been quite frankly charmed by Stan Lee:

      Michael Cavna on “Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle”

      • patrick ford says:

        Not having seen the program I can’t say firsthand, but my impression is the program was partisan, perhaps even crudely partisan.

        The quotes in the article you linked to reveal Kantor as a giddy fan who is shocked Lee has not received the recognition he deserves.

        It’s notable Michael Cavna doesn’t mention Kirby except in passing. This is the kind of thing you will see more and more. It’s not Utopian to hope. Realistically though is it possible to think Kirby is going to receive proper credit and recognition in the future? The topic is almost impossible to discuss in comics circles without being shouted down on one side by Lee’s advocates, and from the other side by people who feel the topic is undignified, immensely boring, and a complete waste of time.

        These combined attitudes effectively shuts down comics industry discussion of the topic,while on a massively larger scale the topic continues to evolve in a direction which elevates Lee.

        The program in question is like a Neutron bomb compared to a few stray fans armed with pea-shooters.

      • charleshatfield says:

        Michael Cavna is a good guy, and good journalist. We served as Eisner judges together this past year, and talked at length about strips, editorial cartoons, comic books. He’s knowledgeable, thoughtful, scrupulous. I do wish that Michael had made more of an issue about the documentary’s shortcomings, though. What his article reveals about Kantor et al.’s attitude toward Lee is important, in any case.

  2. patrick ford says:

    What is telling is when people like Cavna, who I take it is not a Lee or Kirby partisan, begin to pass over Kirby without a word.

    I’m looking at various lists, and comics news sites, and not noticing any concerns about the program’s treatment of the Lee/Kirby issues.

    There are criticisms of the program, but the way the superhero comic book was placed into a historical context is the subject being discussed.

  3. Gents,
    Good thread. Three quick points:
    1. The companion book, which seems to have been more of a Maslon production (he being the lifelong fanboy of the two; he met both Lee and Kirby in the ’70s, btw), does a fairer, deeper job of reflecting Kirby’s influence.

    2. The filmmakers say they wish both Kirby and Eisner had been alive and around to interview; yet again, sometimes history is told by longest-living. (Had my piece been a review instead of a feature, btw, there are numerous gaps in the film I would have addressed.)

    3. Here are some of my thoughts on Kirby and his place in the pantheon:

    Michael Cavna

    • charleshatfield says:

      Michael, thank you for weighing in here, and sharing your link. Good to hear from you!

      Point No. 2 is particularly vexing to me, because it suggests that the genre and format of the TV documentary (talking heads, alternating with archival footage) dictates how the history gets told, rather than the other way around. In other words, the history might have gotten told differently if Jack Kirby had lived long enough to sit for the filmmakers’ cameras? I can understand that what works for a history book may not work for a genre that requires telegenic faces; but, still, how frustrating.

      Re: Point 3, hell, that would be a start

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