Review: ‘Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics’
DC Comics had grand plans for its 75th anniversary but most of them were shelved when the company evolved into DC Entertainment and the mandate was to look ahead, not back. Still, there’s the mammoth book coming from Taschen and this month we’re being treated to the documentary Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics</em>. Narrated by next summer’s Green Lantern, Ryan Reynolds, the 90 minute feature explores the company from beginning through today but given the wealth of subject matter, at best, this is a surface study.
The documentary makes good use of archival footage from creators no longer with us and mixes them in with fresh interviews so we hear from executives, writers, artists, and many of those who built the company. Among those you will see on screen include Neal Adams, Irwin Hasen, Marv Wolfman, Mark Waid, Dan DiDio, Jim Lee, Paul Levitz, Walter and Louise Simonson, Chip Kidd, Joe Kubert, Denny O’Neil, Mike Carlin, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Len Wein, Dwayne McDuffie, Geoff Johns, Karen Berger, Kyle Baker, Paul Pope, and Gerry Jones. Interestingly, Jenette Kahn, the architect for much of the company’s modern era, and current prez Diane Nelson do not appear.
This is a corporate history and as a result, it’s most famous black marks in its history, from the Fawcett law suit over Captain Marvel to the struggles of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster to gain some recognition and cash for Superman, are entirely omitted. Similarly, other corporate facts are either blurred, such as the separate companies[Detective Comics, Inc. and All-American Comics before becoming National Comics or the acquisitions of Quality, Fawcett, and Charlton’s heroes as each company folded are missing.
The chronology is a bit jumbled now and then but overall, we go from New Comics in 1935 though the forthcoming DC Universe Online. We’re treated to clips from the animated shows, live-action films, and some nifty archival footage of the Superman Writers’ Summit where the team plotted the death of Superman. The movie serials are ignored which is a shame and not enough emphasis is given to the current era of animation which was kicked off in 1990 and hasn’t looked back, influencing the comics and other animators.
Some of the company’s more unique figures such as writer/editor Robert
Kanigher or its first significant editor, Sheldon Mayer, are also absent
and that’s a shame. In fact, DC’s war line gets short-shrift overall.
The most significant creator missing entirely is Jack Kirby, who with
Joe Simon, provided significant contributions in the 1940s and on his
own gave us the Fourth World at the dawn of the Bronze Age. Carmine
Infantino’s rise from stylistic artist to company president is also
missing, which is a shame since some of the early credit for that age
should be his.
As the documentary takes us through the years, we see the growth and
evolution of the comics with Waid and Levitz providing some of the best
contextual commentary. Its interesting to see that the 50th anniversary
and the entire multiverse aspect of the comics is gone entirely, with
the filmmakers clearly deciding trying to explain the parallel worlds
concept and its role in the company’s fate the last 25 years was too
complicated for a mass audience.
One of the things DC Comics has done better than anyone has been in its
production values and experimentation. These points of pride are also
absent here which is a shame since they celebrate Dark Knight
gave us not only the prestige format with cutting edge color, but
launched the current era of the graphic novel. On the other hand, it’s
interesting to see O’Neil take the blame for the late 1960s revamp of
Wonder Woman, a rare mea culpa.
Regardless of how the story was compiled and who spoke, there are going
to be people, characters, and events that get overlooked or garbled in
the retelling. For the casual fan or curious historian, this is a
terrific overview of the company and invites people to come in for a
much closer look. Why comics endure and why we need super-heroes are two
themes that permeate the entire narrative and they are well covered and
remain inspiring, asking readers and creators to continue to celebrate
these modern myths.
(Note, the documentary is also being included in the complete Batman Beyond</em> box set also coming out this month so if you intend to buy that, you don’t need to buy this edition.)