Daniel Junge (pictured above, far left) and Rory Karpf (pictured above, third from the right), executive producers and directors of Robert Kirkman’s Secret History of Comics, discuss uncovering new details about iconic superheroes, why the comics industry has become so influential, and why every episode in this documentary series is unique.
Q: How did you guys come to this project? What was your relationship to comics like before this?
Rory Karpf: I think what’s cool is AMC wanted documentarian filmmakers to be part of the series, and Daniel, he’s got this great background, he’s won an Oscar and is a very respected filmmaker. Me, I had done a lot on the 30 for 30 series with ESPN, and he and I just had a good rapport with each other, got along really well. I was a huge comic book fan growing up. In fact, I even had a little comic book I put out at the mall that I wrote when I was in middle school because I didn’t have a girlfriend. So, I had a lot of free time to put out my own comic. And Daniel was more of an athlete and he got girls, and he didn’t have time for comics. But he wasn’t a big comic book fan, so I think that yin and yang worked really well with us.
Daniel Junge: Indeed I wasn’t a comic book fan. I read them when I was a kid, but I’m not a diehard comic book fan and so I had some hesitancy about this. But then I saw that really this was all about storytelling and that the stories that we were talking about from the get-go were all just amazing, human-driven stories. That always interests me as a filmmaker and so I think… you can see that in the final product, that it’s not speaking necessarily to fandom. We certainly hope that the film speaks to fans, but it speaks to all audiences because the story is the key to each of the films.
Q: What was it like working with Robert Kirkman? How did his involvement inform what the series became?
DJ: Robert was involved from the start, even before Rory and I were involved. From the get-go, we knew that we had this huge persona in the comic book world that helped open doors and really helped kind of advise and sculpt the series. … Having Robert on board opened many doors for us.
RK: He wanted all of the films to be different, to kind of stand on their own. And, if you watch them, they’re all stylistically unique. Some have narrators, some don’t. We have re-creations with actors, re-creations with animation. There’s all kind of styles, looks of interviews, so each film kind of really has its own vision and could stand on its own, even apart from the series, but then, at the same time with Robert and the team at Skybound, they do all kind of flow together as a series, this untold story of comic books.
Q: There are so many stories in this world to explore. How did you pick which to focus on this season?
RK: We knew… we wanted to do something on Marvel Comics. How can you do a comic book series and not have something about Marvel and Stan Lee? So, we used that as a jumping off point and realized there hadn’t been a whole lot done on Jack Kirby. So, that was that film. Then, for “City of Heroes,” AMC thought 9/11 would kind of be an interesting topic. That kind of evolved from 9/11 to kind of all about New York and how 9/11 played into that. That’s a really risky film, and it’s cool that AMC wanted to take risks on these projects because it very easily could have been a film that is offensive or doesn’t hit the mark. That was a struggle to kind of get to the right point. And “The Trials of Superman,” the story of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster — it’s not widely known how they had sold the rights for $130.
DJ: I’d say at one point we had upwards of 20 different ideas we were considering, knowing that we only had six films. And I think what informed the final selection was just which stories were the most incredible and untold. … We were really looking for those stories that people would tune in and go, “Wow, I had no idea.” And that might include unknown things about Stan Lee, who everyone knows, or might be, like in the case of “The Color of Comics,” about an African-American company that many people don’t know about and yet was really seminal in the comic book world.
Q: Without giving too much away, which untold story surprised you most/are you excited for audiences to learn about?
RK: In the premiere episode, it’s really interesting how this juggernaut of Marvel Comics came to be almost totally by accident and serendipity, in a way. Marvel Comics rules movies right now, the Marvel Universe. When you think about the origins of how it came to be, it’s pretty shocking and surprising. And Stan Lee, he’s beloved but he’s also a little controversial. So, you get into Stan and how should he be looked at or credited and people have different views.
DJ: I think Wonder Woman is going to be really timely. When we were making the film, we always knew there was going to be a feature film coming out, but we had no idea of the phenomenon that it would be, and here, at the same time, we’re telling this incredible unknown story about how it was made and how it was conceived and a film that really packs in a lot of discussion about gender and representation in comics.
Q: So many of these stories revolve around the creators behind these larger than life characters. Have you noticed any commonalities or through lines that these creators share?
DJ: When you think about what goes into comic books, obviously the people behind this are incredibly creative and eccentric and, in some ways, lead pretty extraordinary lives themselves. So, in that sense, it’s great fodder for documentary because they’re great on camera. The Image [Comics] guys, for the Image film, it’s almost like a competition of which one of them can be more charismatic and passionate on camera. Whether you get them in a room or individually, you’re going to have a great story.
Q: Another aspect of the show focuses on how comics reflect the cultural and political issues of their times. Is there something unique about the way comics can comment on those issues that isn’t true in other mediums?
RK: When we made “City of Heroes,” I wasn’t aware that comic books were one of the first on the scene to comment on 9/11. [Having] this fantasy world of heroes and then trying to tie in reality, the real world, what a balancing act that is. There’s a lot of commentary you see in the film, like with Captain America, that guy who kind of represents patriotism and, during that time period and the years that followed, “What is patriotism?” was really questioned. Does patriotism mean that you just hang a flag on your front porch and go along with whatever is happening in your country? Or does true patriotism mean you question your government and you stay true to your ideals? Captain America really represented that. Comic books took a real risk at the time, took a real risk with the “Civil War” storyline and they were kind of at the forefront of that. … And it goes back to even Siegel and Shuster with Superman, how he was fighting this kind of representation of America in World War II. So, comics have always, I feel, tried to be at the forefront of social issues and I think we see that in the series
DJ: I think certainly comic books aren’t the only art form that speak on contemporary issues, but it’s hard to name another art form — a mass media, pop culture form — that goes out to so many people but that can be done ultimately by one man or woman in a room with a pen. That’s why it’s so immediate. And because it’s not an immensely collaborative effort like, for instance, moviemaking, you may have a strong voice and draw something up in one day and weeks later it can be on a stand and being read by millions.
Q: The comics industry has obviously become so much more than just books. Why do you think these characters remain so popular and influential in today’s media landscape?
RK: I think there’s always a level of escapism, being able to picture yourself as the hero. I think all of us want to be a hero. A lot of these characters represent our best ideals, and I think the reason why the Marvel movies work so well is because they put the human in superhuman and they try to make them realistic, with real foibles and problems, and we, as an audience, like that. But it’s also pretty cool that Tony Stark is a billionaire and has a super suit. And the problems of Spider-Man as a teenager, you wonder what you would do with superpowers. So, I think the theme of the kind of live-vicariously-through-the-characters, that was always the appeal for me.
Q: Because there is so much interesting work done in this area, how do you think this show takes a new approach toward telling the stories of these iconic characters?
RK: Comic Books, not a niche anymore. They’re clearly mainstream. When I was growing up, you kind of didn’t brag to people that you read comic books, but now it’s different. Everybody’s involved, and we’re taking these characters and these stories that reach a mass audience and we’re digging deeper. We’re trying to really get to the bottom and tell a story that you haven’t been told. So for comic book fans, they’re going to be interested. But I think it’s hard to find somebody out there right now who isn’t interested in the superhero genre in some way. I mean, Avengers made over a billion dollars, so I think our series has real mass appeal to comic fans and just pop culture fans.
DJ: I think if we had made a series that only did Wonder Woman, Batman and Superman, and that was our series, I don’t think it would reflect the world of comics today. If you go to a comic book store today and look around, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what comic books are. I mean, there’s everything from traditional superhero stuff for kids to a very alternative lifestyle, incredibly bizarre comics. And in fact our Image episode talks about that, about the diversification of the industry and how comic books have really been democratized in this era. And I think our series talks about that. It’s not just about the classics that people identify with comic books.
Q: What about the show would appeal to non-comics fans?
DJ: There’s just a human drama behind each of the stories. I know for a fact that plenty of people watched 30 for 30 on ESPN and aren’t necessarily sports fans or aren’t necessarily fans of the sport being profiled for a particular film. But you know the stories are always going to be amazing and heartfelt and sometimes surprising and revealing, and I think that’s the same for our series. You know when you tune in that you’re going to get an incredible story about things you didn’t know and you don’t need to be a comic insider to watch a film.
Robert Kirkman‘s Secret History of Comics premieres in a two-night event on Sunday at 11/10c followed by a new episode Monday at 10/9c in the show’s regular timeslot. For news and exclusive extras, sign up for the Secret History of Comics newsletter.Read More