|Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics
Written and directed by Mac Carter
For all of the mainstreaming of characters and concepts that have their basis in comics, the actual comics field is still small enough that there is no money in any kind of serious historical documentaries about its people or institutions. With the exception of personality-driven examples like Crumb, which has only a limited interest in comics outside of Crumb’s own work, the best work has often been done for the supplementary material of comics-inspired movies’ DVD releases. While these rarely go beyond hagiography and official history, there is the occasional surprise like the entertaining Jack Kirby: Storyteller, included on the Fantastic Four 2-disc special edition, which includes a surprising amount of criticism of Stan Lee and Marvel, as well as some genuine discussion of Kirby’s style and admissions by several comics professionals that they initially found it off-putting.
Despite the fact that it is produced by Warner Bros., parent company of DC Entertainment, the fact that Secret Origin is sold as a standalone product led me to expect slightly more of it than I would a supplemental documentary accompanying another film. This is, after all, something that its producers expect people to pay for (or in my case find at the library) and sit down to watch as a main attraction, not simply something to occupy an extra 30 minutes of a viewer’s time should Batman Begins make them curious about Batman’s comic-book origins.
However, a glimpse at the box is all it takes to see that the film is a hastily compiled piece of work pushed onto market in time for DC’s 75th anniversary with surprisingly little care. The first hint is the lack of any original art on the box, though far more telling is the absence of any supplemental material whatsoever. Last year’s Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist offered little in the way of original insight on its subject, but made up for it by filling the disc with a commentary track, a gallery of Eisner artwork, and several previously unheard interviews between Eisner and other comics greats recorded as part of his “Shop Talk” series. Secret Origin’s lack of extended interviews, digital comics, interactive timeline or literally any other type of supplemental material both added to the feature’s feeling of being itself a supplemental film without a home while placing additional pressure on it to itself justify the time and money its producers were asking audiences give it.
In that, Secret Origin fails, delivering even less than I anticipated in the way of useful history, and doing a disservice to the flawed company that it hopes to represent. To be sure, DC and its parent company are large corporations, and so are guilty of putting their own bottom lines above the interests of the people that work for and with them, who created everything that they are, but DC has in recent decades made a good-faith effort to be more equitable in its dealings, and has been more clear-eyed than rival Marvel in its own depiction of its legacy, and so Secret Origin’s whitewashing of DC’s past sins also eliminates all examples of DC overcoming those sins. I had thought, for instance, that the deal struck with Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster for Superman, which essentially amounts to the theft of a property that went on to be worth billions, was so well established that it had become part of even the official history, but in an era when Warner Bros. is taking a closer hand in running DC and the rights to Superman are being challenged in court, the documentary simply ignores it. Instead, after every other publisher rejected Superman, DC is treated as the hero for finally putting it into print. DC would go on to belittle, marginalize, and finally fire Siegel and Shuster, but under pressure the company did make an effort to do right, giving the pair credit and a stipend, and treating contemporary talent somewhat better. All of this is erased along with the original wrongdoing.
Even before this point, details have been elided, or included only enough to spice up the story, while skipping over their implications, as when the mob connections of National (DC’s forebear)’s founders is mentioned in passing, to give a taste of the era, while what if anything that meant for the company’s early days goes unmentioned. Considering that so much of that era’s history comes in interviews with Gerard Jones, who wrote a book that covers the mob’s role in early comics companies, Men of Tomorrow, it’s a subject that the documentary had the resources to explore, but chose not to, instead including it just to lend a bit of sex to the proceedings.
(Actually, Jones could have cleared up a lot of the errors in the early portion of the film. As it goes on, Bob Kane’s age at the time of Batman’s creation is misstated as 18, which seems like a small detail until one discovers that his receipt of a better deal than any other creator received for decades was due to the fact that his age was unknown because his father had made his birth certificate disappear to help him avoid the draft. A few years after his initial deal with DC, Kane claimed that he had been a minor* when he signed his contract (though he may have been as old as 22), meaning it was void, and opening DC up to the loss of Batman if it didn’t renegotiate with Kane, all covered in Jones’s book.)
Later, the film will refer to Neal Adams as a rabble-rouser, but will completely neglect to mention why, detailing the controversial stories he illustrated, but ignoring his efforts on behalf of aggrieved artists working for the company (including Siegel and Shuster). Later still, Alan Moore comes up, but is shuffled offstage as quickly as possible, so as not to sully the triumph of Watchmen with the decades of double-dealing and resentments that followed.
None of this should be terribly surprising in a corporate product created to promote that corporation’s image and products, but the fact that nearly no one else has the resources to make and sell documentaries about comics history makes the false image of comics history that it peddles all the more significant. And again, it is such a strange failure, as DC is, for its flaws, a much, much better company that it used to be, and removing references to its past only prevents it from highlighting the ways in which it has periodically led the field in improving treatment of the creative people that are its lifeblood.
Secret Origin’s other serious flaw is its essential confusion as to what its message is. Half the time the narration asserts that comics can be about anything, while the other half of the time, and notably in its conclusion, it glories in the premise that DC’s superheroes will never die. Well, which is it? Is DC’s main accomplishment an expansion of the possibilities of the comics medium, or the continued financial success of the same few characters and same single genre that the company has published since the 1930s and ’40s? The two messages are radically different, and while they’re not necessarily diametrically opposed, for such a short and superficial documentary, the sloppy back-and-forth between the two leaves the narrative badly unfocused.
Which is not to say that the film is without any virtues. Much of the archival footage was interesting and new to me. The film does a good job of capturing the emotional connection readers and talent alike develop with DC’s characters. Most memorably, Louise Simonson appears close to tears as she talks about what Superman means to her and other writers, and how that sentiment influenced the room in the writers’ summit that planned 1992’s death of Superman. But sincere moments like that feel rare in the middle of this 90-minute commercial for a soulless corporation that barely resembles the real DC.
*Correction 9/4/11: The original version of this post stated that Kane was 17 when he signed the contract, but in fact his age at the time is unknown. A recent reread of Men of Tomorrow cleared this up.