Comic book-based movies and TV series have been very big international business for nearly two decades straight. But the comic books these films and shows are adapted from don’t receive nearly as much mainstream attention — and Robert Kirkman’s Secret History of Comics may help to change that.
The six-part documentary series premieres on AMC tonight, and as the title implies, is executive produced by The Walking Dead franchise creator Robert Kirkman, along with his Skybound partner David Alpert, Bryan and Sean Furst, Daniel Junge and Rory Karpf. Not only is Kirkman a major part of the comic book industry himself as a writer and the head of Skybound, he’s also a huge fan and appreciator of its weird and wonderful history.
The series covers six different parts of the story of comic books, starting with tonight’s series premiere, “The Mighty Misfits Who Made Marvel,” about how Stan Lee and Jack Kirby made Marvel the pop culture empire that it remains today, and the disintegration of their creative partnership. The series continues with “The Truth about Wonder Woman;” “Trials of Superman;” “City of Heroes,” about how 9/11 changed the comic book industry; “The Color of Comics,” about the early ’90s formation of Milestone Comics; and “Image Comics: Declaration of Independents,” a story personally near and dear to Kirkman, as he became an Image Comics partner in 2008.
CBR spoke in-depth with Kirkman about the Secret History of Comics, the importance of giving comics creators the platform of national television, the “awkward” experience of telling his own story in the Image Comics episode, the stories the show wasn’t able to tell (yet?) and what he was surprised to learn while making the series.
CBR: Robert, for as mainstream as comic book-based material has gotten in pop culture, it’s still surprising to see a TV show explore the stories of the actual comic books themselves.
Robert Kirkman: Yeah! It’s a tremendous platform to be able to talk about comics, and share some of this medium that we all love. I’m really excited.
Obviously you have a track record of success at AMC, but was this series a tough sell at all?
It actually originated with them. They saw the success of Walking Dead and Preacher, and comic book shows outside of their network, and they were like, someone should really do something with comic books. They came to us with a vague notion of, “Do you have any ideas for doing a docuseires that in any way explores comic books as a medium?” Then I started thinking about all those stories that creators tell at conventions after hours, where it’s like, “Oh my god, did you hear that this happened? Oh my god, did you know this happened? William Moulton Marston invented the lie detector machine!” Just the little anecdotes and things that you learn about. I was like, “That would be a real cool basis for a show” — to actually tell some of the stories that most people aren’t really familiar with, about the people that were behind the comics, or a lot of the things that went into making them. It ended up turning into a pretty cool series.
The comics world feels unique, with its own internal logic, but watching these episodes, it seems like the stories being told naturally lent themselves to being told to a more mainstream audience. Did you find that to be the case on your end?
It’s really just a matter of keeping things interesting. I think once you see these episodes, every one of these stories has fascinating twists and turns, and things you wouldn’t expect. It’s great because it’s all true. There’s definitely a dramatic narrative to the lives of these people. In some cases, it’s a lot of tragedy. But that does make for a very compelling story.
It’s interesting that comics as an industry has no limits to how many times you can peel back the curtain and go, “Look at all of this interesting stuff over here!” We’re really just scratching the surface. It was very difficult for us to narrow things down to these six episodes when we were trying to put this series together.
How did you arrive at these six episodes? A couple feel like very natural choices — the history of Marvel, Wonder Woman, Superman. But topics like the 9/11 or Milestone episode feel a little more specific than you’d expect from a project like this.
Our whole team got together and started pitching ideas. I think there was at some point, a list of maybe 12 or 15 different subjects that we could explore. We started looking at what kind of eye witness kinds of things that we could get, and what kind of first-hand accounts that we could get.
That kind of narrowed things down for us a little bit. I really wanted to do a Steve Ditko episode, for instance, but that’s very problematic, because he is so extremely press shy. We couldn’t really figure out a way into that that wouldn’t have been just copying Jonathan Ross’s brilliant In Search of Steve Ditko piece that he did for the BBC. It was a long process, but in certain cases, it was, “Hey, we can get this person, or we can get that person, and it’ll be really fascinating to have them talking on the subject.”
In the case of the Image episode, that’s something that is near and dear to me, just because that’s directly affected my life in some substantial ways. That and the Milestone episode, I feel like those two instances are very important pinnacles of the entire industry. The Milestone episode especially — race is such an important issue these days, and seeing the problems that these guys were dealing with in the ’80s and ’90s, and knowing that they’re still present today, that’s something that’s very important to explore; so we can see this is a problem that is ever-present, it is not going away, and if we don’t face it head on, and continue to shine a light on it on every opportunity, it’s not something that’s ever going to be fixed.
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