In 1981, coinciding with the UK release of Superman II starring Christopher Reeve and Gene Hackman, the BBC television series Arena broadcast this great documentary about the origins of Superman and the comics industry in general.
Plenty of good stuff here:
- great interviews with Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster
- a look inside the early ’80s offices of DC Comics with then-president Sol Harrison
- footage of Will Eisner teaching art students who debate whether superheroes are played out
- a pre-Maus interview with Art Spiegelman (with a GIGANTIC mustache)
- the wonderful Trina Robbins
- a young and charming Christopher Reeve
- Kirk Alyn, the first actor to portray the Man of Steel, telling stories of making the Superman movie serials
- a sputtering Fredric Wertham insisting comic books are evil, linking Superman to Nazi Germany
- some hilarious interviews with a sci-fi guy pointing out the lack of hard science in Superman (you think?) and what would need to happen for Clark Kent and Louis Lane to have a baby (!)
- a little kid with every licensed Superman product imaginable
- and a frightening final moment with preserved Superman birthday cake.
It’s important to note how much the comics industry has changed since then. This is before Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, two superhero stories that injected new life into the genre. This was before the publication of Maus, which went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and burst open the preconceived limitations of the medium to a lot of mainstream observers. This is before comic books could be found in bookstores, before manga was introduced to US readers. Before Hollywood’s technology became affordable enough and halfway convincing enough to pull off the special effects depicted in comics. (This was almost 30 years ago?! How?!)
Click through to watch all 5 parts through the power of YouTube: