Stan Lee wins plaudits and applause most everywhere he goes as the greatest living ambassador of comics. The spry 90-year-old’s name even gets chanted by convention hordes, as if he were a ballplayer or bullfighter or Robert Downey Jr. In these arenas, the man who co-created Thor lopes among us like a cartooning god.
Now, a new documentary trains its lens not only on superhuman comics characters, but also on the real-life characters like Lee who breathed life into them.
Emmy-winning documentarian Michael Kantor and Emmy-nominated collaborator and theater/film historian Laurence Maslon (“Make ’Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America”) plumb the origins of cape-and-cowl comics — and track a nine-decade dynamic of social prominence and setbacks — in their engaging three-hour PBS documentary “Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle,” which debuts Tuesday night.
“He’s the Homer of the 20th century,” says Maslon, who since his ‘70s boyhood has been a fan of Marvel Comics, where Lee long reigned as writer and editor.
The film, like many Marvel characters, was launched largely because of Lee. The man who a half- century ago began co-creating such iconic and oft-alienated characters as Spider-Man, Iron Man, Hulk, X-Men and the Fantastic Four was the first interview they conducted, Kantor says. “He was 87 at the time, and just bubbling with energy.” From there, Kantor and Maslon pursued such other legendary creators as Joe Simon (who co-created Captain America with Jack Kirby) and Jerry Robinson (co-creator of the Joker), both of whom died in 2011.
The filmmakers see the lives of those men — like the superhero comic itself — as quintessentially American tales.
“We focus on an art form and cultural expression that’s uniquely American,” says Kantor, who says this storytelling approach was emphasized to him early in his career when he worked for “America’s documentarian,” Ken Burns.
Superhero comics, Kantor says, have historically relied on two tenets that are themselves rooted in America: “Might makes right. And that we’re doing [something] for the right reason. We kind of like to see ourselves that way.”
Taking a cue from Burns’s own documentaries — including “Baseball” and “Jazz” — the “Superheroes” filmmakers smartly set their narratives against the shifts in American life, from war to peacetime politics, from rights movements to changing social norms. Superman and Batman, star-spangled Wonder Woman and Captain America spike in popularity during World War II but ebb in sales shortly after, for instance, and Marvel’s flawed heroes gain traction in the turbulent 1960s.
“That’s the double helix of this film’s DNA,” Kantor says of American comics and culture.
What strikes Kantor as another peculiarly national trait is not always caring deeply enough about the source of a creation. “We love our entertainment,” he says, “but we often take for granted, and don’t fully appreciate, those who are laying it on the line for us — people who were not getting paid what they deserved and followed their career path” in comics.
“I just loved that we celebrated those guys and their contributions,” Kantor says of the comics pioneers who speak in the film, including the late DC Comics editor/creator Carmine Infantino. “We could have tried to get Nicolas Cage and Jerry Seinfeld” — celebrities noted for their Superman fandom — “but we wanted the creators on camera. (The film also features interviews with such contemporary writers and artists as Mark Waid, Michael Chabon, Jim Lee, Joe Quesada and Geoff Johns.)
As the film spans from Superman’s 1930s birth to this year’s “Man of Steel” hit, it’s the second hour that focuses so passionately on Marvel’s body of work. So it’s no surprise that the documentarians think Lee deserves more lofty laurels.
“I am shocked he hasn’t received a Kennedy Center Honor,” Kantor says. A national prize like that — 60 years after Congress went after superhero and horror comic books as detrimental to America’s youth — would help underscore the larger social legitimacy and power of comic books in 2013.
Lee, who notes that he was awarded the National Medal of the Arts by President George W. Bush in 2008, says with a wink that he’d happily accept another national or global award.
“Now,” he says wryly to The Post, “I’m waiting for my Pulitzer and/or Nobel.”
(3 hours) airs Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. on WETA and 9 p.m. on MPT.