DVD Review: Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics

This documentary film about the storied history of Detective Comics should please fans and newcomers alike.

Iann Robinsonby Iann Robinson

Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics

There are two kinds of people who will enjoy Secret Origin: The Story Of DC Comics and they’ll enjoy them on two very different levels. The first are people who know very little about comic books whose interest has been piqued due to the recent explosion of the medium in pop culture. The second are people like myself, comic book obsessives who live for any new kernel of information we can get. While Secret Origin is aimed at the first group (Ryan Reynolds who stars in the upcoming Green Lantern movie narrates it), Secret Origin never forgets the second.

Secret Origin spins the tale of DC Comics from the company’s tiny origins all the way through its current turn as a giant corporation. Ryan Reynolds handles the segues but the story is told through the eyes of writers and artists. Neal Adams, Len Wein, Julie Schwartz, Mark Waid, Walt Simonson, Joe Kubert – the list is pretty amazing for comic book fans and still interesting for those who don’t know these names.

I enjoyed how Secret Origin used animation to help bridge this epic, seventy-five year story, into a ninety-minute documentary. The animators and editors use art from landmark comics and combine it with motion animation to give some real depth to the work. It also helps emphasize how important these various issues are to the history.

Writer/Director Mac Carter is good at picking out the best lines and stories from the plethora of guests. Nothing here is too specific for non-comic fans, but the stories still contain enough insider knowledge to please the experts. I was surprised at the honesty in the film. While there’s a decent amount of self-congratulatory stories, there’s also a lot of discussion on the hardship of the comics industry. How the artists and writers were looked down upon by the mainstream, how the post-war era of happiness in the country almost led to the downfall of comics, and where the future might take it.

One bone I do have to pick with the film is how they handle the Comics Code story. For those unaware, in 1954 a psychiatrist named Fredic Wertham nearly brought the entire comics industry down with his book Seduction Of The Innocent. In it, Wertham alleges that comic book imagery is directly related to a rise in juvenile delinquency. Embraced by an already nervous social climate, the government held hearings on the validity of Wertham’s statements and unanimously decided that comics had a negative effect on the culture.

One comic series that was singled out during the trials was EC Comics, who published mainly horror and pulp titles. EC publisher William Maxwell Gaines was the only one from the industry to testify during the hearings, a decision that cost him nearly everything. In Secret Origin, veteran comic scribe Mark Waid seems to leave the blame squarely at the feet of Gaines’ testimony, saying Gaines’ lack of eloquence torpedoed the proceedings. While Waid is respectful, there is an unjust air of “it was his fault” to the whole segment.

Balancing the good with the bad, the section of Secret Origin dealing with Julie Schwartz is amazing. For so long Schwartz has been an unsung hero outside of the comic book industry. When Schwartz took over as editor of DC comics in the sixties, superheroes were nearly extinct. Under Schwartz’s hand Batman became the Dark Knight again, the new Flash and Green Lantern were created and superheroes were saved across the board. Secret Origin not only shows great footage of Schwartz speaking, but it announces to the world, finally, how truly important he was. I also enjoyed the discussion of how Alan Moore was hired to redefine Swamp Thing and how that decision led to another major move forward in the world of comic books.

With so much happening now with comic books, and so much of that finding its way into pop culture, Secret Origin: The Story Of DC Comics is a much needed reminder of where the medium started and how far its come. For anybody who wants to look past the glitz and glamour of Hollywood’s prostituting these characters for a buck, and find out the story behind it all, Secret Origin is a great place to start.