The 75-year history of DC comics is the subject of this new documentary entitled Secret Origins: The Story of DC Comics. The documentary features interviews with many of the talented creators who help build DC from a fledging publisher of comic strip reprints, into the multimedia conglomerate it is today. These include: Neal Adams, Jim Lee, Walt Simonson, Mark Waid, Grant Morrison, Joe Kubert, Irwin Hasen, Louise Simonson, Neil Gaiman, Marv Wolfman, Paul Levitz, Geoff Johns, Len Wein, Alan Moore, and Denny O’Neil. Also included is archival interviews with those who have passes on such as Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster; Batman creator Bob Kane; and longtime editor Julius Schwartz. Actor Ryan Reynolds (Green Lantern) provides the narration.
To my surprise, an extensive amount of time is spent on DC’s Golden Age. Fully one-third of the documentary’s 90-minute running time covers the period of 1935 to the late 1950’s. Today’s comic readers are woefully lacking in knowledge of this period although it’s not their fault. In the 1970’s, reprint material of the Golden Age frequently found its way into comics as backup features. Today, the only exposure is to buy pricey hardcover archive editions.
The documentary begins with DC’s founding as National Allied Publications by partners Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz. The first title, Fun Comics #1 hit newsstands in 1935. They soon absorbed sister company All-American Comics which was run by Max Gaines, father of William Gaines who would later found EC Comics and MAD Magazine. As expected the bulk of the early documentary concerns the creation of flagship characters Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. 92 year-old Irwin Hasen, who worked on numerous DC titles in the 1940s, provides interesting anecdotes about what it was like to work in comics at that time. Several artists were often jammed into one small room to work on various titles. It wasn’t glamorous but a lot of good times are recalled. The explosion of superhero comics and their eventual decline after World War II is covered in detail.
The documentary then looks at the 1950s, the period that nearly killed comics. The Senate began holding hearings on the dangers of comic books, accusing them of creating juvenile delinquents from the youths of the era. Rare footage is shown of William Gaines, owner of EC Comics testifying before the Senate committee.
The end of the 1950s brought the rebirth of superheroes as editor Julius Schwartz helped to create new, more modern versions of classic Golden Age heroes like The Flash, Green Lantern, The Atom, and Hawkman as well as the creation of the Justice League of American. Schwartz even jokes that not only did he save DC Comics, he saved Marvel Comics as well since the JLA inspired Stan Lee to create the Fantastic Four. The Batmania of the 60s is covered along with 60’s upheaval which played out in Neal Adams and Denny O’Neil’s edgy Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories which tackled taboo subjects like racism, drug abuse, and Viet Nam.
Surprisingly, the last few decades are sparsely covered. About 25 minutes are spent on the last thirty years and while events like Frank Miller’s “Dark Knight Returns”; Alan Moore’s Watchmen; and the creation of the Vertigo line are touched on, there is no mention of other key moments in DC history like “Crisis on Infinite Earths” or “Death in the Family” for example although the death of Superman and Kingdom Come is covered.
90 minutes is far too short to tell a complete history of DC’s 75 years. Too many notable events, characters, and storylines fall through the cracks. I’m not saying they needed Ken Burns to handle the project but the documentary, while well done, comes off a little slender in terms of content. Since the documentary was produced by Warner Bros., who owns DC, don’t expect anything hard-hitting or controversial. While it makes mention of the Golden Age Captain Marvel being a rival to Superman in sales, nothing is said about the fact that DC put Captain Marvel out of business in 1953 when it sued Fawcett Comics claiming copyright infringement. To its credit, it does spend the bulk of the time on the Golden and Silver Ages which is the company’s most important period. Good, but we were expecting much more and the lack of any DVD extras makes this a tough one to recommend for a purchase.