Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics feels like a victory lap for the publisher. And it’s a well deserved look back, for sure. DC Comics has 75 years in the industry, in which time they’ve accumulated more history than could be squeezed into this hour-and-a-half feature. Released on DVD this past November, this documentary film details the start of DC Comics and the many changes it has undergone in the decades since. Started as National Allied Publications, the company used to print tabloid-sized comics collections before debuting its now famous titles, including Detective Comics and Action Comics.
Once it gets going, the film moves briskly through the years and several different epochs of DC’s history: the Golden, Silver, Bronze and Modern eras. What’s more interesting, though, is when the film focuses on the intersection of society and comic books, not just the history of the company and its characters. Throughout the documentary, director Mac Carter evaluates the rise of comic books in U.S. culture and how the industry and the product changed with times — touching on everything from early criticism to the social issues of the 1960s.
The section on the Comics Code Authority was particularly interesting, given that, as of January of this year, DC quit carrying the body’s Seal of Approval. Other publishers have similarly opted out of carrying the seal throughout the years, marking a sort of end for the group, which at one point was essentially a censor for the industry. Such topics, though, could have easily made for their own documentaries (and apparently, soon will), which is why Secret Origin at times feels like an introduction to the company and comics in general.
Already knowing the history of the comics industry shouldn’t deter anyone from viewing Secret Origin, however, as the documentary footage of DC’s founders and the behind-the-scenes editorial material is well worth the rental price. It was interesting to see video of so many artists and creators for the first time. Having never been too interested to look up photos of the old timers — Neal Adams and Denny O’Neil, for instance — the DVD was my first exposure. Sure, I can easily pick Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller, Grant Morrison, and Alan Moore out of a line-up, but until watching the DVD, not Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.
For casual fans of comics, there’s surely going to be a lot of interesting “new” information – such as the details about editor Julius Scwhartz and the transition into the Silver Age of DC Comics. In that respect, the DVD’s an excellent overview. But for longtime fans, those obsessive and sometimes too knowledgeable individuals, the DVD’s likely not going to satisfy. Sure, it’s well-made and highly enjoyable, but it’s only a small appetizer for something larger, like The Art of Modern Mythmaking (Taschen, 2010) — DC’s 15-pound, $200 tome comprising 720 gigantic pages about the publisher’s history.
One interesting thing about the documentary is that it ends up feeling like an unintended argument for physical, material goods. Every time scans of vintage comics appear on screen or photographs of old Batman and Superman toys are displayed, your hands will feel unfairly empty. Despite ending with comments from Neil Gaiman about the endurance of comics as a medium, regardless of format changes, one can’t help but want to skip the digital downloads and buy some print comics after turning off the documentary.Visit: Warner Bros.