For anyone who watches TV and movies, the stories that began as comic books have become as inseparable from entertainment as the screens on which they appear. “The Walking Dead” and “Thor: Ragnarok” are just two examples that continue to draw big numbers, and San Diego’s annual Comic-Con, once a gathering for the cultishly devoted fans of an often dismissed form, now more resembles a celebration of pop culture itself.
But who was Wonder Woman before we knew her as Gal Gadot or Lynda Carter? Is there life in comics beyond the franchise-generating superpowers of DC and Marvel? And, assuming one can imagine a time before superheroes, what happened to the inventors Superman?
These are the sorts of questions explored in the first entry of “AMC Visionaries,” a new, multi-installment set of documentary miniseries coming to the cable network that calls upon leaders in a given entertainment genre to explore its history. Among the other “visionaries” and topics in production include James Cameron on sci-fi, the Roots’ Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter on hip-hop and Eli Roth on horror. Future iterations will examine video games, martial arts and so-called outlaws of the internet.
Perhaps not surprisingly AMC, which is home to “The Walking Dead,” the series kicks off Sunday with “Robert Kirkman’s Secret History of Comics,” a six-part dive into the roots of the form, executive produced by the creator of “The Walking Dead” and executive producer of the highly rated series.
“It feels like we hit a new high point every year as comic book culture becomes more and more ingrained into culture as a whole,” Kirkman said by phone earlier this week. “There’s a tremendous amount of stories that people just don’t know about that are fascinating. A lot of things go into this work, and it’s a lot of very interesting people that bring this stuff about.”
For an industry built on heroes, it might be natural to expect Kirkman and his team to have a similar point of view when constructing narratives around the familiar names from comics’ past. But “Secret History of Comics” is more even-tempered than that, giving time to the human flaws and missteps as well as the flashes of genius.
“We’re talking about larger-than-life heroes in multicolored costumes who do impossible, inhuman things,” said filmmaker Kevin Smith, another longtime comic fan who appears in the series along with Famke Janssen, Method Man, Van Jones and “Wonder Woman” director Patty Jenkins. “And they were created by some of the most human people in the world. People that had petty fights from time to time, people that got mad at each other, people that screwed each other over for royalties.”
The series begins by looking at Stan Lee, perhaps the biggest non-costumed name in comics and the person who helped lead Marvel toward becoming the media giant it is today. But instead of focusing exclusively on his impact, the episode primarily zeroes in on his partnership with illustrator Jack Kirby. Together they formed a sort of Lennon-McCartney dynamic that led to the creation of eventual blockbuster stars in Spider-Man, Iron Man and the Avengers.
“That’s the guy with whom he did his best work and his most memorable work. And it didn’t really end as well as it could’ve,” Smith said. “Stan can hold court on any topic, and it’s wonderful to hear him talk [in the episode], but when he talks about Jack there’s always this kind of bittersweet undertone.”
“It’s one of those situations where two people are at the center of a maelstrom of creativity,” Kirkman adds. “You can’t help but get to a point where there’s a disagreement as to who it was that brought that maelstrom about, and that kind of stuff gets messy. We were very careful to make sure we were getting firsthand information from as many sources as possible.”
With directing duties split between Daniel Junge and Rory Karpf, each episode features a different look. In the Marvel episode, animated sections re-create key moments, while other episodes call upon actors to do the work, such as the story of “Wonder Woman” creator William Marston, the subject of the second installment and the recent biopic “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women.”
Although Marston’s unconventional story and the progressive feminism of his character — which is revealed as more prominent in the 1940s than what “Wonder Woman” became decades later — makes him a natural subject, Kirkman says he isn’t thrilled with the episode’s timing, which follows the summer blockbuster’s zeitgeist-capturing wave. Had he known, “we probably would’ve avoided it and done something else for now,” he added with a laugh.
But some of the most fascinating stories in “Secret History of Comics” are further off the beaten path. The fifth installment, “The Color of Comics,” of which Kirkman is most proud, chronicles the rise, fall and rebirth of Milestone Comics. Started in 1993 and distributed by DC, Milestone was the first comic company founded by African Americans and was dedicated to addressing the lack of diversity in the form through its stories and characters, an issue that’s still relevant today. “It’s a great mix of really fascinating people that were working together to accomplish something very important,” Kirkman said.
Attempting to capture the history of a medium in six, hourlong documentaries is a superhuman undertaking in its own right, and — as Kirkman has experienced — the comic fan community can be an exacting one. As a proud member of that community himself, he approached his link in the “Visionaries” chain with a familiar feeling that with great power comes great responsibility.
“I did feel like I owed it to that audience to make sure that this was as accurate and entertaining as possible,” he said, adding with a laugh: “I’m confident that they will let me know whether or not I have succeeded in that task.”
‘Robert Kirkman’s Secret History of Comics’
When: 11 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
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