I came to Robert Kirkman’s Secret History of Comics, premiering Sunday on AMC, with a lot of skepticism. TV documentaries about comic books rarely rise above bam! pow! clichés, and I’m sick of the whole “secret history” trope: So many books and TV shows have used that phrase, it often seems as though there cannot be that many secrets left in the universe. But I was pleasantly surprised. The first episode, “The Mighty Misfits Who Made Marvel,” is a well-crafted, warts-and-all look at the founding of Marvel Comics, and a subsequent episode about the history of black comic-book creators truly does contain information that has been secreted away in the margins of comics history.
“Mighty Misfits” starts off looking as though it will be the usual whitewashed Marvel history: Stan Lee creates a bunch of heroes (including the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and the X-Men), hires great artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, and does heroic commercial battle with DC Comics to become one of the biggest publishing successes in history. But as the hour proceeds, “Mighty Misfits” gets into the details of Lee’s persistence in hogging much of the credit for Marvel’s achievements, and the way he exploited the labor of Kirby, Ditko, and others. Although Secret History is padded with sound bites from actors who’ve appeared in Marvel movies — no offense, but who cares what J.K. Simmons and Famke Janssen have to say about Stan Lee? — the show also includes more shrewd observations from comics historians such as Sean Howe, author of the extensive Marvel Comics: The Untold Story.
Subsequent Secret History episodes will deal with looks at Wonder Woman, Superman, and the rise of independent comics publishers. The episode I was most eager to watch is the Dec. 4 entry, “The Color of Comics,” which proved to be an enlightening examination of African-American images and artists in the industry. The hour begins with a nice summary of black characters throughout the decades, but soon narrows its focus on a thorough, often quite moving look at Milestone Comics, the first comics line created by black artists and businesspeople, started in 1992. I learned some stuff I didn’t know about familiar comics bylines, such as the writers and artists Denys Cowan and Christopher Priest. And as for a “secret history,” how’s this nice little nugget: We’re told that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a fan letter to one of Milestone’s editors.
Robert Kirkman, creator of the Walking Dead comic books and AMC’s most profitable franchise, has used his influence with the channel to come up with a comics series that adds to our knowledge and enjoyment of the form.
Robert Kirkman’s Secret History of Comics airs Sundays at 11 p.m. on AMC.
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