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Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle – Interview with filmmaker Michael Kantor

Posted by on September 19, 2013 – 7:15 am
Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle, Director Michael Kantor

Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle, Director Michael Kantor

What if you had a job that was so disreputable that you were afraid to tell people what you did for a living? What would you do if your job was so looked down upon that many of your co-workers even changed their names rather than have their family’s moniker associated with the profession? Welcome to the early days of being a comic book creator.

The past seventy-five years of comic book history has as much real-life drama as many of the stories you’ll find in the comic magazines themselves, and on October 15, 2013, PBS will be airing, Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle, by filmmakers Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon; the first seriously extensive documentary film ever to capture the life of the American comic book medium.

Director Michael Kantor graciously took time out to answer a few questions for NERDVANA about his upcoming Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle documentary and to talk about the impact of comics and superheroes on our culture.

Adam West on Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle

Adam West on Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle

Your past credits seem to pertain mostly to music, comedy and Broadway, how did you end up involved with comic books?

While producing Make ‘Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America, I interviewed Gerard Jones, who handed me his very compelling book, Men of Tomorrow, that chronicled the creation of the comic book industry. My cowriter Laurence Maslon had been a comic book fiend as a kid — he almost became a professional artist — and we reached out to the National Endowment for the Humanities with a grant proposal. When the NEH offered us production funding, we immediately flew up, up, and away!

It has taken seventy-five years for superheroes and comic books to finally get their own comprehensive documentary film. What took so long? 

Until very recently, much of American culture has been seen as historically insignificant. Jazz music, the Broadway musical, comic book art — it is only very recently that universities have begun to offer these subjects for study. And studying them doesn’t make them any less fun, it just somehow recognizes how essential they are to our culture, to who we are as an American people.

You screened at least part of this film two years ago at the New York Comic Con. How long have you been working on the Superheroes series?

Our first interview was with Stan Lee in October of 2009, so it will be exactly four years to our premiere broadcast on October 15, 2013.

Comics and comic book characters have gone from being reviled (in the fifties) to revered (in the twenty-first century.) What do you think the turning point was for the comic medium?

SupermanIn my opinion, the Superman movie in the late 70s was the game-changer. Technology caught up to fantasy, and superheroes became a part of the conversation in a different way.

I’m sure you know people who love the comic book movies and characters, but have never read a comic. What are they missing out on and why should they watch this documentary?

If you love Batman, or Superman, or Spider-Man from the movies, you will definitely be interested in our documentary, because not only do we feature lots of exciting clips from those films, but you can see how the character evolved. Most people didn’t know that Batman first carried a gun in the comic book, and that an issue of Spider-Man was written by Stan Lee with an explicit anti-drug message.

How do you think that comic books and comic book characters have shaped the current pop culture landscape?

You can’t get away from superheroes now. They are popular in every corner of the globe. Show anyone the Superman symbol — they know it. Our series takes a look at how and why that happened.

What do you think the casual fan or non-fan is going to take away from this documentary series? 

The stories are so colorful and memorable. Do you know who created Superman, or Batman, or the Joker? Most people don’t. Mostly the creators were young men trying to make a living in a rather disreputable profession. Then, of course, the art work is stunning. The casual fan can marvel at how a new, popular art form came into being, while learning about American history. The comic book superheroes, like music, dance, film and other art forms, reflect their times.

The documentary has three parts (“Truth, Justice, and the American Way” (1938-1958), “Great Power, Great Responsibility” (1959-1977), “A Hero Can Be Anyone” (1978-Present)) that are going to air consecutively on the evening of October 15; which era did you most enjoy covering?

Superheroes!: Capes, Cowls, and the Creation of Comic Book CultureI love the late 1960s/early 70s. I was a child then, but the colors, the music, the language — I love the “funkiness” of that time.

You co-authored the “Superheroes!: Capes, Cowls, and the Creation of Comic Book Culture” companion book with Laurence Maslon; what are some extras in the book that didn’t make the film?

LOTS of amazing stuff — characters like The Destroyer, Dr. Mid-Nite, Animal Man and Deadpool, villains like The Red Skull, Mr. Mind, Thanos and Bane — the story of Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel — you can go in-depth into stories in a book in a way that you can’t on television.

Learn more about “Superheroes: The Never Ending Battle” in the NERDVANA article, “Superhero history revealed in new documentary on PBS this October.”

The local channel Eight, PBS Arizona, has some fun events scheduled for this October to help celebrate the Superheroes documentary, and to laud the virtues of Nerdom in general. Stay tuned to NERDVANA to learn more details as they are announced.