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Genre: Documentary
Release Date: November 9, 2010
Run Time: About 90 Minutes
Writer/Director: Mac Carter
Producers: Gregory Noveck, Ivan Cohen, Janet Fries Eckholm, Jeffrey Blitz, Sean Welch
Narrator: Ryan Reynolds
Interviews (including): Neil Gaiman, Dwayne McDuffie, Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, Neal Adams, Paul Levitz, Gerard Jones, Julie Schwartz, Len Wein, Walter Simonson, Jim Lee, Chip Kidd, Karen Berger, Frank Miller, Paul Pope, Mike Carlin, Louise Simonson

In a hurry? Skip To The Verdict! »

No book review today, because I finally got my hands on Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics.

This documentary is an authorized production looking into DC’s long history, ans with 75 years in just 90 minutes it’s hard to know what to expect.

The director, Mac Carter, has access to creators and archives that no one could touch without DC’s backing. He’s also working for the company itself, so it’s probable there will be a focus on what DC wants to promote.

With a company with such a long and complex history, it’s interesting to see what floats to the top of their autobiography.

The movie opens with a Neal Adams quote that I like a lot – “Comicbooks are the dreams and aspirations of human beings… you may not like comicbooks, you may not respect comicbooks, but they’re something that people buy for themselves that they want to read.” In this day and age, that’s rare!

The major interviews are all introduced in the first few minutes, among some lovely motion graphics scans of the big DC characters and beautiful dot patterns. Personally, I dislike when documentaries don’t immediately label their interviews, but a couple of these people are pretty recognizable to a long time comic fan.

Neil is there, somehow managing to talk about death as always. Everyone loves comics. We know this, but hey, it sets the mood. I couldn’t help being pretty excited.

Once past the title sequence, the movie jumps right into some amazing archival footage of founding fathers Harry Donnenfeld and Jack Leibowitz. Donnenfeld’s mob connections are mentioned and the companies pulp roots are gone over.

It’s a good start, and the rest of the early introductions are actually pretty balanced.

Of course Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman were pop culture sensations, but they were made by schmucks (with my Jewish family in the Bronx myself, I understand this is a term of endearment) and each had some specific awkwardness (especially Wonder Woman.)

There is a run down of other Golden Age icons, though it certainly seems that any other company creation is mentioned only if DC bought them out at a later date.

As you can expect, things move quickly towards World War II – did you know that over 30% of all printed material sent to service members consisted of comic books? It’s inspiring to see so many creators in uniform, even if it’s a fact I’ve known from paper.

The Silver Age segment is a bit of a love note to Julie Schwartz. Of course, this is entirely understandable – the man really brought DC back from the brink. It’s perhaps a bit disingenuous to say that the Justice League title lead to the creation of Marvel Comics, but it’s a claim I’ve heard before (the old playing golf chat). We’ll probably never know what the truth of that is. At least Marvel is given significant credit for bringing teenage readers back to comicbooks.

It’s fun to hear the description of the next generation – “Guys whose hair was longer than their careers” according to Len Wein. Neal Adams, Denny O’Neil, Paul Levitz – it’s great to see older pictures of these guys right alongside their modern interviews. And of course to hear their ideas about the pivotal run on Green Arrow/Green Lantern (including DC’s first African American superhero without the word “black” in his name.)

A little fanboy moment for me, as Neil Gaiman tells us the first time he fell in love with a comic book writer was during Len Wein’s run on Swamp Thing – something I’ve always expected but never heard expressly stated.

By the time we get to the Modern Age, we’re already an hour in. Frank Miller is a tad self concerned – his Dark Knight is a classic, but I do think that the aforementioned run on GA/GL certainly dealt with some of the issues he mentions specifically.

The chronology implied here is a bit weird. The Alan Moore segment about Swamp Thing comes after Dark Knight, even though Swamp Thing was running first, just as an example. What’s particularly strange is that the past decade is skipped, with almost 9 years of comic history completely left out, with only the other contemporary media mentioned (movies, games, tv shows.)

I guess without retrospect, it’s hard to know exactly what our current zeitgeist is? Or maybe the rampant expanding of commercial properties is what we are all about now.

The Moore clips here are archival interviews, of course. I was a bit worried that due to time, Vertigo would get short shift, but it’s good to see Karen Berger here talking about her imprint.

Likewise, Milestone (along with Static, Icon, and Hardware) actually gets screen time! It’s one of my favorite parts of DCs history, and I think seeing it here is a good sign (especially because they’re collecting more now.)

Ryan Reynolds, perhaps as a nod to his casting as Green Lantern, does a satisfactory job narrating, though almost everything here is brought forward by the creators.

Mark Waid, who I swear never got a little name credit under his numerous appearances, is probably the most constant voice and one of the most informative. It’s Louise Simonson who has the most moving interview in the film.

The disc itself is surprisingly sparse (the menu shows just “play” and “languages!”) which makes it feel a little bit like this whole thing is one long special feature. I was hoping for a few extended interviews, maybe a motion comic or something. Warner has had some pretty packed DVDs in the past.

Overall, I enjoyed watching the film and think it was a fair introduction to DC’s long and complex history. Like any compact documentary on a subject where many books have been written, a lot is summed up or glossed over. I feared that it would be overly promotional, but I think that the creators here did touch on many of the ups and downs, though none of the particularly unsavory events (like the treatment of Superman’s creators.) It’s acceptable, since the feature kept moving briskly in a forward direction, and was mostly concerned with the content of the comics as opposed to everything surrounding them.

Ideally, it would be just the introductory volume to a 24 disc set, with various features on the economic aspects, the fan culture, particular creators, and everything left out here – but I’ll have to keep crossing my fingers for that.

3.5 out of 5. I enjoyed it a lot, but I did feel that there could be more here for 20 dollars. There is just so much that is left out. It’s a great introduction, though, and will probably be very enjoyable to any hardcore DC fan (like me.)

Read first:
I don’t think you need to read or watch anything before this to enjoy it, but any DC you’ve got under your belt helps.

Read next:
For the DC obsessed, you may want to check out DC Comics Year by Year: A Visual Chronicle and The DC Comics Encyclopedia.

For anyone interested in more behind the scenes comic industry trivia, I highly recommended Was Superman a Spy?: And Other Comic Book Legends Revealed by Brian Cronin.

This was my first comic documentary! Has anyone seen any others? Anything particularly good? Let me know!

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