CBR News: Michael, Lawrence, what can you share about the origins of the "Superheroes" documentary? At what point did you first realize that was the right type of material in the genre to produce a documentary -- and also a book?
Filmmakers Michael Kantor & Lawrence Maslon talk to CBR about their new PBS documentary, "Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle"
Michael Kantor: We were in the middle of making our last PBS series, "Make 'Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America." I sat down to interview a fellow named Gerard Jones, who apart from having worked as a comic book writer, wrote this great book, "Men of Tomorrow." He said, "You make these films about major American cultural movements and artforms, what about the history of comic books?" I thought about it for a bit, and it stuck me that comic books was maybe too large a playing field -- that there were too many types of comic books -- but the unique American expression was that of the superhero. Then I turned to Larry, who was steeped in that history.
Lawrence Maslon: I said, "If you don't use me, I will kill you." I had been going to [comic conventions] since 1972, 1973. A friend and I used to customize superhero models, and we did one of Galactus, and Stan [Lee] and Jack [Kirby] signed it in 1976. I sort of kept a toe in, but the opportunity to get back and dive in from 1933 -- because we start with the pulps, all the way to the present -- was really thrilling, and to get to know some of the newer stuff, which frankly had been off my radar.
The documentary covers a lot of ground in the history of superheroes, but at the same time, it's only three hours -- what was that like? How did you pick and choose what was essential, and what you could omit?
Kantor: There are four main stories: There's the story of the creators, their life stories and personalities, there's the story of the characters, the story of the companies, and a really important story for us is the context, the American history, and what prompted people to create characters who were influenced by gamma rays, or other Cold War effects. Combining all those, you try and figure out what individual story speaks to many larger stories. Hopefully, we chose characters and individual stories that speak to the big themes in American history.
Maslon: We were really lucky. I think Stan [Lee] was the first person we interviewed in California, we got [now deceased creators] Jerry Robinson, Joe Simon, Joe Kubert. That was exciting.
It's interesting for me, coming back to the world of superheroes. Obviously I loved the ones I loved in the '60s and '70s, but you need a little distance. There's stuff floating around now like "Avengers vs. X-Men," and it takes a while, I think, for history to decide what's really lasting, and what's a potent story. It was nice to look at stuff like "Civil War," or the Spider-Man 9/11 issue, Obama's inauguration issue -- which I think really fit in the historical continuum of all the other stuff we're talking about.
Right on the cover of the book, you have something very recent -- Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel.
Maslon: Yeah, that's important. Will Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel be so popular that they'll make a movie out of her, or will she go the way of Black Orchid? I have no idea. I think it's one of the things a documentary does: It says, this was a profession largely created by Jewish immigrants, or sons of Jewish immigrants, and they've always been outsiders to the American experience. When you fold in Luke Cage, or Northstar, or Captain Marvel, those are part of the ongoing American stories of these characters.
How long was the research process?
Kantor: Our very first interview was with Stan Lee, Oct. 6, 2009. Literally four years ago. The whole thing was probably about a five-year undertaking.
Maslon: And I would say the research process for the book began in January of 1966 when I saw "Batman" on television.
You were able to land many important figures -- the names you already mentioned, Grant Morrison, Joe Quesada, Todd McFarlane, Geoff Johns, lots more -- were you able to get pretty much everyone you hoped for, or were there some names that alluded you?
Kantor: [We] reached out to Frank Miller, who was busy making a film. We knew we already had great interview bytes that we could feature with him back in the day, so it didn't feel like a loss -- if he wanted to come in and speak about that time period and give us his perspective on other stuff, that would have been great.
The five-year process of researching "Superheroes" was so exhaustive the pair also authored a companion book to the documentary
In asking all of these people, we're kind of presenting the greatest Comic-Con panel ever assembled. You come to Comic-Con, and you get two or three of these type of comic book legends. And here you get the most interesting things they have to say from 50 of them. By and large, everyone was happy to participate.
Maslon: I would say the one person from my point of view who would have been great would have been Dick Gioradno [who passed away in 2010], because he's such a transitional figure, when you look at where and when he worked, and what titles he worked on, both as an artist and an editor. For me, that's the one that got away.
Kantor: And Dwayne McDuffie, who passed suddenly. He was on our list.
?Maslon: We did get Lynda Carter, Adam West, Zack Snyder, Jeph Loeb -- people who are involved in making the TV and movies that are so popular with this.
From both of your perspectives, what's your take on the fact that these superheroes characters who have, in some cases, been around for about 75 years, have not only lasted and endured, but their influence on pop culture as a whole is seemingly larger than ever, between movies and TV. How unique do you see that growth?
Kantor: Joe Simon quoted his partner Jack Kirby as thinking that their creations -- Captain America among them -- would last for 40 years. It is interesting how our culture has been subsumed by superhero toys and lunch boxes and all types of merchandise.
To me, I look at the "Superman" movie in the late '70s as this turning point. Once feature films, which are so essential to our culture, embraced superheroes with new technology that could make people flying and swinging from webs look realistic, then it was natural that the audience would expand.
Maslon: For me, it's also the really amazing phenomenon -- which I think most comic fans aren't really aware of, because they're at the center of it -- it's not one hero fits all. The fact that Batman in particular, let alone the other top 10 heroes, gets these little playsets for kids who are 3-year-olds, so they can enjoy Batman that way. I have a 5-year-old kid who I took for a swimming lesson, and he gets in the pool and he sings Aquaman's song from "Brave and the Bold." But at the same time, he comes home with his Batman shirt and his Batman sneakers, and I can't really let him watch "Beware the Batman" yet. It's just a little too edgy.
That never occurred when I was growing up -- you had Adam West, you had "Superfriends," and that was it, case closed. So I think the marketing iteration of these iconic figures is tremendously varied, and much more prolific than I think anyone outside the marketing departments realize.