The Real Story Of The American Superhero

Michael Kantor, executive producer of a new doc about the comics industry, and Spider-Man writer Gerry Conway talk about the present and future of an American art form.

On October 15, PBS premieres Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle, the first documentary to examine the beginnings, evolution, and cultural impact of the comic book industry and its characters.


Hosted and narrated by Liev Schreiber, the three-hour program (check local listings) interviews such industry luminaries as Stan Lee, Adam West, Lynda Carter, and Pulitzer Prize-winners Michael Chabon and Jules Feiffer. It places comics in the context of historical shifts–from the Great Depression and World War II to the Regan-Thatcher era and President Barack Obama’s love of Spiderman.

“Our aim is to explore how these characters came into creation and what they reflect about America,” says executive producer Michael Kantor. “There’s only so many uniquely American art forms–Broadway musicals, abstract expressionism, jazz. I asked everyone, ‘Why didn’t superheroes spring up in Australia or France or Germany?’ This brand of superhero–that taps the cowboy myth, with a value system of might is right, helping the underdog, making sure corrupt politicians don’t get their way–is an interesting American story, with lots of layers.”

The film arrives with a 300-plus-page companion book Superheroes! (Random House) by Laurence Maslon and the aforementioned Kantor, that elaborates on the series and tells the stories that didn’t make it onscreen. Some of the book’s pages are showcased in the above slide show.


We spoke with Kantor and longtime Spider-Man writer Gerry Conway, who’s also in the film, about some of the never-ending battles plaguing the industry and what they mean for the future of comic culture.

Superheroes! co-authors Laurence Maslon and Michael Kantor strike a pose.


Most comic writers and artists went into the business not expecting to get rich. That changed in the 1980s through early 2000s with an explosion of superhero films, TV shows, and merchandising, coupled with creators taking more financial control by publishing outside the major comic houses, DC and Marvel.

“But that was an anomaly; it’s now going back to a place where young people come to break in,” says Conway, who co-created superheroes The Punisher and Firestorm. “The business has always tended to move in the direction of taking advantage of people’s enthusiasm and lack of foresight for their own economic interests. When it exploded in the ’80s and ’90s, people had this feeling that comics had become a development arm for the major studios, and that’s what they’ve become now. With indie comics, the creators have a vision that they themselves might want to express, and are realistic enough to know that if they express it well and it hits, they could potentially hit a goldmine.”


The 1992 founding of Image Comics–a defection of superstar writers and artists who left DC and Marvel to create their own publishing company and retain rights to their intellectual property–created a new business model.

“Our series charts how comics reflects what’s going on in American culture, which has become more corporate in many ways,” says Kantor. “Just as you no longer go to a corner drug store, but a chain store, so too has there been a Walmartization of comic books. So the fact that DC and Marvel have strong controlling interests really reflects what’s going on in every other aspect of the culture.”


That business model of creators retaining rights to their characters is redirecting the incubators of new superheroes.


“Marvel and DC both own all rights to the characters they create. Even if they’re willing to give creators a percentage, it’s miniscule compared to doing it for an independent publisher,” says Conway. “And, in fact, most films and TV shows are actually from independent publishers, statistically. You have three to four blockbuster superhero movies a year. But there are movies you may have not even realized were from comics: 2 Guns, R.I.P.D., Road to Perdition, A History of Violence, Hellboy, Ghost World, Oblivion.” Not to mention TV’s The Walking Dead.

“It’s not that there are no new characters or creations being developed. It’s that they’re not being developed for Marvel and DC,” he adds. “Because creators know that, as soon as they give Marvel and DC a new character, they’ve lost 90% of the value of that character to themselves.”

The definition of superhero is also broadening–from superhuman to humans rising to Herculean situations.


“There are only so many powers a human can possess–you can see through walls, you can fly, breathe underwater, become invisible, make people tell the truth,” says Kantor. “A lot of these have already been mined by DC and Marvel, and those characters are tough to rival. The real innovation is in the funkier, more innovative stuff.”

[L-R] Executive producer Michael Kantor, Spawn creator and Image Comics co-founder Todd McFarlane, comic book writer and Wolverine creator Len Wein, and Spiderman writer Gerry Conway hold court at the Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour in Los Angeles.


Digital comic publishers–like Comixology, iVerse, and Madefire–do not herald the death of comics. They’re just a different delivery model and reader experience. And it’s happened before.

“When I started in comics in the late ’60s, we gave its survival five to 10 years,” says Conway. “And it seems that every time there’s a crisis of sales and profitability, it pushes another innovation. The big business innovation in the late ’70s was the direct sales market where the primary outlets for comics moved from newsstands to comic book stores.”


Today, people are less inclined to visit one unless they’re going for a specific book. Digital, on the other hand, facilitates more convenient browsing opportunities.

Moreover, digital comics are interactive and offer a global reach at a low cost. “Readers just engage in them differently,” says Kantor. “For example, they can zoom in on a panel, which, from the artists’ perspective, is changing the way they craft the panels.”


It’s not a rebellion when everyone wants in.


“There’s a whole group of fans with attitudes about the poseur issue, especially at comic conventions, where they see women dressing up in cosplay,” says Conway. “They go over and say, `Do you know where the character first appeared? Where that issue came from?’ They get in their faces over these things, and it’s really hostile.

“There’s an undercurrent of anger that some fans have about their special thing being taken away, but the larger issue is that they’re actually being mainstreamed,” he adds. “It’s like punk rock. It was an ideal expression against mainstream rock. But then punk rock becomes mainstream and you go out of your mind. ‘Wait a minute–this is my special way of rebelling against the Man.’ I think it’s the same thing with comic fans.”

Made in America vs. Global Enterprise

Stephen Amell, star of CW’s Arrow, on the red carpet at the Warner Bros./DC Entertainment party at San Diego Comic-Con.

Such American iconography is being outsourced to foreign labor–Brits Christian Bale as Batman and Henry Cavill as Superman, Aussies Chris Hemsworth as Thor and Hugh Jackman as X-Men’s Wolverine, and Canada’s Stephen Amell as TV’s Green Arrow. Should we Yanks be worried?


Actually, says Conway, it’s not the first time.

“That’s following on the heels of the actual British invasion in comics” from the likes of Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and Warren Ellis, among others.

“They brought a post-colonial empire view–which America began seeing in itself with the end of the Vietnam War and collapse of the Nixon presidency,” he adds. “When the British writers and artists came over, they brought a sensibility of superheroes having a limited lifespan–you probably couldn’t stay super for long.”


About the author

Susan Karlin, based in Los Angeles, is a regular contributor to Fast Company, where she covers space science and autonomous vehicles. Karlin has reported for The New York Times, NPR, Air & Space, Scientific American, IEEE Spectrum, and Wired, among other outlets, from such locations as the Arctic and Antarctica, Israel/West Bank, and Southeast Asia