On other occasions, I’ve mentioned that one of the benefits I’ve discovered in being an Amazon Prime member is my access to an untold number of television series, movies and documentaries that I might not otherwise watch through Prime Video.
Geek, and You Shall Find was one of the documentaries the computer suggested I might like due to previous selections I had made. The Amazon description was this:
While attending a local comic book convention, three filmmakers are so moved by the stories shared with them by attendees that they decide to travel across the country to better understand what makes fans so passionate about superheroes.
This seemed promising to me, so when I woke up too-early on a Saturday morning, I decided to give it a fifteen-minute tryout. I do this often. If something doesn’t pique my interest within the first fifteen minutes—be it movie, television series, podcast, book, whatever—I feel completely justified in abandoning said something. The human lifetime has only a certain number of fifteen-minute intervals.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve quit an untold number of projects in just this fashion. That’s why you don’t read very many overwhelmingly negative reviews on my site. Why would I waste my time writing a review of something I despised? Why would I waste my time completing something I despised? I’m not a professional critic. I do this for fun.
There are exceptions, of course. I watched the entire pilot episode of that execrable “American Woman” television series featuring the Clueless girl grown up, but only because I was watching it with my wife. I was forced to write a negative review in an attempt to flush the negative emotions it engendered from my brain. It didn’t work completely, but the series has since been correctly cancelled. Hopefully, never to be seen again.
A few minutes into this documentary, I began to feel that it was about to join the un-reviewed heap. It looked like it was going to be another one of those documentaries that was more about the people shooting the film than the subject matter. I’ve had my fill of Morgan Spurlock and Michael Moore-type documentaries. I wanted something a little less first-person.
I recognize the irony in reading this statement from me. I can’t even write a professionally detached review because I’m compelled to inject myself into the mix. Count the number of times I use some version of “I” in this one.
Because I had committed to fifteen minutes, I continued to watch. I’m happy that I did because this turned out to be a pretty terrific documentary. While the above Amazon description of the doc isn’t wrong per se, it doesn’t fully describe this work, which seriously discusses the origins and impact of comic books and comic book culture in a relatively quick-moving 90 minutes. And, the makers of the film vanished into the background and allowed their interview subjects to be the primary narrators. Because, unlike me, these guys are professionals.
Parts of the documentary travel some familiar, well-trodden ground. Superman as the grandfather of all superheroes, followed soon by Batman and the rest. Kirby/Simon creating Captain America to fight Hitler during WWII. Other comic book superheroes following suit, followed by the boom in war and horror comics after the war was over. Frederic Wertham demonizing comic books, leading to the creation of the Comics Code Authority, which watered down comic books to kiddie fare again.
Again, subject matter familiar to you if you watched even a single documentary about the evolution of comic books.
While not entirely new material for me, I grew more interested in the documentary when the topic turned to the transmutation of Timely Comics into Marvel Comics, and how Stan Lee and Jack “King” Kirby redefined the superhero genre. Stan, who is featured in interviews in the documentary and passed away before it was released, has said more than once that he was about to quit the business because his superiors weren’t interested in the way he introduced characterization and quieter human moments in the comics he wrote, demanded non-stop action instead. As a parting shot, Lee and Kirby introduced the Fantastic Four to the world, which was the official start of what would become the Marvel Universe.
George R.R. Martin was a fan of those early Marvel comics, and he’s interviewed in this as well. He was struck by the fact that one of the members of the FF was an actual monster who—especially in the early days—blamed Reed Richards for his science-fiction transformation and hated being different, a freak. This resonated with a lot of comic book readers. The Lee/Kirby combination has been favorably compared to Lennon/McCartney, doing for superhero comics what the Beatles did for rock music. GRRM himself says, “Lee broke through. He did things no one had ever done before.” Although it’s not uncommon for a “monster” to be a hero these days, the Thing was a groundbreaking character.
None of Marvel’s heroes would achieve more popularity than the Lee/Ditko creation Spider-Man. Peter Parker was a teenager at a time when teenagers were sidekicks not the star of their own comics. Peter was awkward, geeky, bad with girls. It’s no surprise he was a popular character with the overwhelmingly adolescent male audience for these books. As with many superhero characters who came before him, Spider-Man is born from personal tragedy as the selfish use of his super-powers leads directly to the death of his beloved Uncle Ben. This part of his story is as inseparable to Spider-Man’s origin tale as the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents in Crime Alley is to Batman’s. It is also the origin of the oft-repeated moral: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
The filmmakers interview a criminal justice professor in Texas who uses comic books to teach moral responsibility. They also arrange a touching meeting between the professor and Stan Lee.
During the ’60s, comic books began to appeal to older teenagers again. When asked by the government to produce some comic books dealing with the drug epidemic, Stan Lee had to bypass the Comics Code Authority to do so. Eventually, the CCA was pushed aside completely. The Dennis O’Neil/Neal Adams take on Green Lantern/Green Arrow continued to push boundaries over at DC Comics, addressing numerous social issues that had been previously ignored in superhero comics. Famously, Green Arrow’s sidekick Speedy becomes a heroin addict. Pretty adult fare for a comic book.
O’Neil was DC’s answer to Marvel’s Roy Thomas, a young counter-culture voice meant to be the next generation of comic book creators. Comic book art and stories not only reflected the time in which they were created, they demonstrated that they influenced culture as well, a process that continues to the present. When Lee and Kirby introduced mutants as characters in X-Men, they would grow to represent every marginalized group, from minorities to immigrants to homosexuals, anyone who felt different or less-than-normal. Fictional characters could be used to highlight real-world issues in impactful ways that nonfiction media could not.
The discussion of the social function of comic books leads naturally to the function of story in general, and superhero stories specifically.
Tony B. Kim, an all-around pop culture expert and entrepreneur, is interviewed. He makes this observation: “Story has this profound way of bringing people together. And really this profound way of saying, ‘oh, we’re really—you and I—really are not that different.”
This leads to interesting discussion of Joseph Campbell and his work in comparative mythology, which may be familiar to most writers. Campbell’s examination of patterns in popular legends and mythology are reflected in fiction, film, and, certainly, superhero comics, which are modern-day mythology stories themselves. The crux of the discussion is that superheroes are tapping into something incredibly ancient.
Lisa Cron, the author of Wired for Story: the writer’s guide to using brain science to hook readers from the very first sentence (which seems like something I should definitely read), is also interviewed in this doc.
She says, “Story evolved as a way for us to make sense of the world. That’s where story came from. Story is literally hardwired into the architecture of the brain. We think in story. We make sense of everything through narrative.”
Cron goes on to tell the viewer that functional MRI studies have been conducted that show when a person is lost in a story, the same areas of the brain lights up that would light up if they were doing whatever the character was doing. “Stories do not ask permission,” she says. “They come in and hijack your brain.”
Joseph Campbell’s mythology work also influenced George Lucas’s creation of Star Wars, a fact that Lucas acknowledged to the man himself. Lucas was also influenced by Flash Gordon serials, western movies, and, of course, by comic books. In the documentary, Roy Thomas points out the Doctor Doom/Darth Vader similarities. Although the filmmakers don’t go as far as suggesting Lucas took from Jack Kirby’s Fourth World work at DC in his creation of the Skywalker saga, there are definite similarities. Darkseid, still a popular villain today, is a lot like Darth Vader. Plus, the chief villain and hero turn out to be father and son, and in the tales of the New Gods there are constant references to The Source rather than The Force. But, you couldn’t blame someone for thinking that Lucas may have borrowed from Kirby’s idea, at least a little.
There’s little doubt that George Lucas influenced comic books in return, however.
Roy Thomas brought Star Wars to Marvel Comics, which helped to revitalize the industry, saving Marvel from financial ruin for a time.
The documentary goes on to show how comic books are being used in therapy, to treat PTSD (with Batman being a popular hero example) or address self-esteem issues with the handicapped (Oracle/Professor X/Daredevil).
In the “greed is good” 1980’s, exemplified by the movie Wall Street, the villains in superhero comics began to shift more towards corporate evil. Lex Luthor started to be based on Donald Trump. It was implied in the Christopher Reeve Superman, when Luthor’s big villainous scheme was a real estate scam. Artist/writer John Byrne admitted that his comic book take on Lex Luthor was based upon Trump. Ironically, Lex Luthor became President in the comics years before Trump accomplished this feat in real-life. I’m not saying that Donald Trump is a super-villain. I’m not not saying it, either.
The culture of greed and excess carried over into the ’90s, with the well-documented boom and bust of comic book culture, marked by gimmicks and variant covers and hundreds of titles that have never appreciated in value. Someone in the documentary makes the comment that the Death of Superman story-line was the greatest media hoax of all-time. I agree that it was a gimmick designed to attract media attention, but I doubt any right-thinking person ever really thought Superman was really dead. European writers such as Alan Moore and Garth Ennis appeared on the scene around this time, writing stories that treated superhero fiction more realistically, notably Watchmen and Preacher, and the imitators that followed.
Comics reflected a change in eras again after the 9/11 tragedy. The passing of the Patriot Act led to concerns about the role of government in the lives of individual citizens. As in the 1960’s, comic book stories began to openly question government actions. The Civil War storyline at Marvel used fictional superheroes to address real anxieties and concerns. Captain America, the symbol of America, is always keenly aware of signs of fascism and is on the lookout of abuse of power by the American government.
Superhero comics have continued to represent the times. There are more minority superheroes, which is a positive change. The new Captain America is an African American, specifically Sam Wilson, formerly known as Cap’s sidekick the Falcon. The new Ms. Marvel is Muslim, an honest attempt to avoid demonizing Muslims the way the Japanese were portrayed as sub-humans during WWII. In the latest iteration of the Sons of the Serpent villain group at Marvel, the leader is an American who has a problem with immigrants. Modern comic creators ably demonstrate that politics and religion never goes away and will always be reflected in our art. This is always more apparent the further away you get from the past.
The documentary ably makes the point that pop culture informs society, and society informs pop culture on an endless feedback loop. Minority, gay and transgender characters are a reflection of our times. Someone, probably Lisa Cron, makes the point that we don’t turn to story to escape reality: we turn to story to navigate reality. There seems to be a lot of truth in that.
The documentary doubles back around to the original impetus of the film, which was comic book conventions. They discuss how fandom—any fandom—has a sense of community to it. There’s brief talk about cosplay and how the word “geek” has become synonymous with “passion.” Mostly, the documentary drives home the point that even if superhero fandom is formed of people who may feel marginalized or less-than in real life, as a total group they form the current zeitgeist. If you’re a fan of superhero stories, you are not alone.
As I said, this documentary turned out to be much more involved and thought-provoking than I thought it would. You already know if it’s something you might like. I did.
Firewater’s Saturday-Morning-Documentary Report Card: A