Robert Kirkman’s Secret History of Comics, which debuts on Sunday, shines a light on some of the lesser known aspects of comics’ well-known origin stories. Instead of detailing how Superman came to Earth or how Bruce Banner became the Hulk, the ambitious six-part series takes a look at the men and women behind the four-color characters and their struggles. While some of the stories will be familiar to comic book fans, they may also reveal a few new wrinkles worthy of appearing in DC Comics’ own Secret Origins series. Here is a preview of some of those stories.
While the debut episode, “The Mighty Misfits Who Made Marvel,” begins as a tribute to well-known Marvel goodwill ambassador Stan Lee, Secret History lives up to its name by devoting much of its length to Lee’s 1960 co-conspirator Jack Kirby.
As Lee recalls, Kirby and writer Joe Simon were the “comics department” at Timely Comics, the publishing company we now know as Marvel Comics. Joining the group in the late 1930s, Lee would soon find himself running the place as both Kirby and Simon walked out when Timely’s owners (including Lee’s cousin Martin Goodman) declined to give them a piece of the lucrative Captain America profits. And as Secret History illustrates, this pattern repeats throughout both Kirby and Lee’s careers.
The story is familiar to fans of comic book history, in fact, it is almost as important as Bruce Wayne’s terrible night in Crime Alley. But Secret History unveils new facets of Marvel’s meteoric rise in the 1960s and the falling out between Kirby and Lee. The latter definitely has his say, telling it for the 10,000th time while wearing one of his trademark sweaters. But the episode also assembles an impressive panel of comic book talent and historians to offer Kirby’s case as well.
Portions are animated in the style of Marvel’s late 1960s Spider-Man and Iron Man cartoons — themselves a point of contention for Kirby, whom Marvel perceived as a “jobber” unworthy of any additional recognition or compensation. The animation also frames a snippet of archival audio many fans may have never heard before: a radio show interview with Kirby and Lee long after the former departed Marvel.
But the rough-and-tumble comics corporate world and its treatment of the creators responsible for its icons very much informs the first three episodes. The second part, “The Truth about Wonder Woman,” may not revolve around the boss’s office the way the first or second episodes do, but it illustrates how the character’s creator(s) and original philosophy faded into obscurity once the company brought in new writers for the series.
The case of William Moulton Marston, his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston, and his live-in girlfriend Olive Byrne is worthy of its own feature film – in fact, it has one: Professor Marston & the Wonder Women. But Secret History changes its pace and style to reflect a story often told in comic book circles through giggles thanks to the alternative lifestyle at its core. Narrated by Keri Russell, the episode melds new interviews with historians and former Wonder Woman Lynda Carter with dramatizations of Martson’s life. In at least a few moments, the interview subjects are literally in the same room as the dramatized events.
And it doubles back to the corporate intrigue as Elizabeth Martson and Olive Byrne find themselves erased from the character’s history after Marston’s untimely death. The character herself changes with the arrival of new writer Robert Kanigher in the late 1940s and receives a radical reinvention in the 1960s. The progressive hero disappears into a white catsuit and some of the more regressive ideas of DC Comics’s editorial office and writer Mike Sekowsky.
Unfortuntately, both Kanigher and Sekowsky’s names — and their contributions to comics’s history — are omitted.
Granted, both of those men, or people like Spider-Man co-creator Steve Dikto or indie comics legends like Trina Robbins, could easily become the focus of season 2 episodes should AMC and executive producer Robert Kirkman decide to tell the stories of people the general public may not recognize.
The series’ emphasis on the overlooked aspects in the history of the marquee characters is underlined by the third episode, “Trials of Superman” and its recreation of the three times Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster took DC Comics to court to get their character back. All of their attempts failed and both creators would live near poverty before Warner Bros. — DC’s eventual owner —was shamed into giving both men a lifetime pension. The episode gets to the heart of the injustice visited upon Siegel and Shuster and even names two men seemingly at the heart of DC’s callous indifference toward Superman’s creators: National Periodical bosses Harry Donnenfeld and Jack Lebowitz. The pair ran DC ruthlessly and showed Siegel and Shuster less consideration that Lee would show Kirby.
And while the pain and corporate intrigues make for entertaining – and touching – secret origins, Secret History of Comics still celebrates the extraordinary accomplishment of disadvantaged kids who built the foundations of modern media empires. It is easy to forget that superheroes – their four-color fashions, powers, and thirst for justice – did not exist prior to Siegel and Shuster’s astounding innovation. People like Marston, Kirby, and Lee extended the idea into something richly diverse and endlessly enduring.
Subsequent episodes in the series will focus on the effect of 9/11 had upon the industry and the creation of Milestone Media and Image Comics in the 1990s. The latter two will be of particular interest as both companies were direct responses to the issue of ownership touched upon in the first three parts of the series. Image was founded by a group of ex-Marvel artists who sought greater creative control and ownership of their characters media rights. Milestone Media was an attempt by writers and artists like Dwayne McDuffie, Denys Cowan, Michael Davis, and Derek T. Dingle to diversify the landscape of superhero comics. And certainly, the struggle for comic book creators to win complete control of their creations is an important secret history worth telling.
Robert Kirkman’s Secret History of Comics premieres Sunday, November 12 at 11/10C on AMC.