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A Closer Look at the Superhero Universe with ‘Secret History of the Comics’
November 12, 2017  | By David Hinckley  | 1 comment

To be honest, Robert Kirkman’s Secret History of the Comics doesn’t reveal many secrets.

It does have a whole lot of history, though, and it is about comics, and that’s plenty to make it an entertaining hour of television. The series launches Sunday at 11 p.m. ET on AMC.

The first of the six episodes tackles Marvel Comics, which is no big surprise given that Marvel has become America’s alpha comic publisher and Marvel patriarch Stan Lee is the most famous comic book person in America by a wide margin.

A minor irony, noted by this series only in passing, is that Marvel’s ascent has been largely fueled over the last two decades by movie adaptations.

That doesn’t diminish the work that Lee and his early artist partner Jack Kirby did in creating the Marvel universe, from Iron Man and The Hulk to Silver Surfer and Spider-man.

It’s just that, as Secret History sort of acknowledges, the influence of comics on American popular culture owes considerably to the magnification they received from a different medium.

That’s been true for Marvel’s rival publisher DC as well, and today Marvel is further extending its tentacles through a small army of TV adaptations.  

Kirkman, who’s best known these days for writing the Walking Dead comics on which that TV phenomenon was based, has written for Marvel as well as the Image imprint where The Walking Dead and Invincible were first published.

He’s been a comics scholar and geek most of his life, to the extent he named his son Peter Parker after the civilian identity of Spider-man.

While Kirkman’s own work has pushed some boundaries, The Secret History of Comics plays things pretty straight.

The first episode features extensive interviews with Lee, plus a series of comic historians and actors who have portrayed Marvel characters on film.

Marvel’s golden age dawned in the late 1950s, when Lee gambled that comic book fans were ready for something more sophisticated, nuanced and grownup than they were getting from the dominant DC machine.

He rolled a seven, and between Lee’s creative writing and Kirby’s bold drawing, Marvel soon developed a fiercely loyal fan base.

Not only did those fans love the stories, they saw the Marvel team as their pals – a marketing strategy that had worked earlier for comics like EC.

Marvel just plunged in more deeply. Marvel also had a folksy tone and didn’t seem to take itself too seriously. It was one of the gang.

The only real tension in this episode springs from the gradual estrangement and breakup of the Lee/Kirby team. Lee made himself into a personality, a kind of comic folk hero, and that often nurtured the perception that he deserved almost all the credit.

In fact, Secret History notes, Lee gave artists like Kirby exceptionally free rein, which meant they guided and shaped the stories even if they didn’t write the words.

Marvel also hired its artists, including Kirby, as contract workers, meaning they got nothing when Marvel licensed characters and stories.

Feeling shorted on both money and credit, Kirby eventually left. While he died in 1994, the debate inside the comic world continues to this day about how to apportion the credit for the early rise of Marvel.

Kirkman doesn’t come down strongly on one side or the other. He does give the last word to those who argue that Lee deserves all the credit he gets, because without him there would have been no Marvel at all.

The next five episodes touch on strong subjects, including Wonder Woman, Superman, the rise of independent comics, and the touchy issue of character diversity.

Comic scholars and fanatics will know a lot of this already. But since comics can always use more respect from civilians, The Secret History of Comics doesn’t have to be superheroic to make a valuable contribution.

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Any mention of one of the greatest comic characters-Uncle Scrooge McDuck? Leaving him out and the universe that Carl Barks invented(later built upon by Don Rosa) means someone is not telling the whole story. Barks made the enraged cartoon star Donald Duck into a sometime hero,sometime expert,sometime buffoon and sometime patsy and fleshed out Donald's nephews from bratty,spoiled kids to smart thinking helpers. Tons of imaginative tales no Superhero could ever fathom,with a sense of humor missing in most Superhero stories. Barks took the "funny animal" genre and elevated it to a great storytelling. Barks respected kids and treated them to visuals and stories past what Disney tried to do in the animated shorts. Duck Tales,the animated TV show using Barks' ideas a a starting point, has a new series for a new audience and still no full-length feature to rival Indiana Jones,which could happen if done right.
Nov 12, 2017   |  Reply
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