The hero may have a thousand faces, but the face of the superhero is American.
"I was interviewing Gerard Jones" -- author of "Men of Tomorrow," about the early days of the comic-book industry -- "and he handed me his book and said, 'You make these documentaries about uniquely American art forms; you should think about this,'" recalls Michael Kantor, producer and co-writer of the PBS documentary "Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle," airing Tuesday. "I took it home, read it and thought, 'There aren't so many stories of American culture as important as this one is.'"
Even accounting for a producer's understandable hyperbole, Kantor -- whose documentaries include "Broadway: The American Musical" and "Make 'Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America" -- has a point. Like jazz, rap, Appalachian clog dancing and precious few other forms, the superhero is a distinctly American creation.
There are antecedents, of course, as the three-hour, three-part documentary mentions in passing and the Crown/Random House companion book "Superheroes!" describes in more detail. Historian and legendary comic-book writer-artist Jim Steranko, who consulted on the series, says superheroes, like ancient mythological entities, "represent the kind of aesthetic or bravura ideal that is easily embraced by the human psyche because of their essential good and evil qualifications." The documentary's co-writer, Laurence Maslon, talks about such meta-human American folklore characters as Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan.
The 1903 play and subsequent novel "The Scarlet Pimpernel" popularized the idea of a masked avenger. Soon, pulp- fiction and comic-strip heroes like Zorro and the Phantom were donning costumes. Along a separate track, the non-costumed Popeye and Hugo Danner, protagonist of Philip Wylie's 1930 novel "Gladiator," developed super strength.
The arrival of Superman in 1938 solidified the archetype. And as archetypes do, he embodied what the public needed to believe in at the time: a Depression-era hero who could confront true-to-life villains like crooked politicians and bullying wife-beaters and give them what-for.
"Culture inevitably reflects the prevailing society, and comic-book heroes are no different," notes Steranko. As society changed, so superheroes changed to reflect it. "Superman is domesticated in the 1950s," Kantor says. "Spider-Man grapples with drug issues in the 1970s."
"Today," Steranko observes, "that issue has been clouded by the domination of the antihero on the contemporary narrative. What was once black-and-white is now 50 shades of gray."
The documentary, narrated by Liev Schreiber, covers such recent developments in its third hour, "A Hero Can Be Anyone." The initial hour traces the superhero's origins as an outsider fantasy created by first-generation Americans eager to assimilate. The second hour, "Great Power, Great Responsibility," describes the superhero's reinvention in the 1960s and 1970s.
"Our series is devoted to superheroes, and not devoted to comics per se in all their different forms," notes Kantor, so don't expect Archie and Jughead, Richie Rich and Harvey Pekar. Do expect interviews with Marvel Comics impresario Stan Lee; departed legends like Joe Kubert ("Hawkman"), Joe Simon ("Captain America"), Jerry Robinson ("Batman") and Carmine Infantino ("The Flash") and a parade of present-day creators, historians and others.
"For so long, the creators and those associated with superheroes were just looked down on and demeaned and were paid poorly," Kantor says of the days before royalty statements, blockbuster films and mega-crowded conventions. "Finally our culture has come around to give them the respect they deserve."