Expecting to Fly: A new museum exhibition on comic book superheroes and their urban origins

By on February 2, 2016

Depending on where you stand, the embrace of comic book art by curators and museums is either cause for celebration, or plain bad news. Once assigned to perdition, based mostly on its reputation as a vernacular art, mainstream exhibitions like Superheroes in Gotham, currently on display at the New York Historical Society, seem like the next step in acknowledging that high-brow and low-brow are differences not of essential merit, but of demographics.

That the two have inevitably blended demonstrates the way in which former cultural barriers having fallen in recent times. It also means more art for the collectors market.

Image 01 - Exhibition Logo

Comics, like card collecting and other types of mass-printed material, first fell victim to speculators and auction houses during the late 1980s. By the mid-’90s, collectibles-as-investments threatened to kill the hobby altogether; many of the pioneering specialists who’d amassed vast collections and insight sold off everything and walked away from hobbies they once loved.

In the the early aughts the bubble burst; the appearance of online platforms, like eBay, showed certain items, previously deemed valuable, to be not rare, but plentiful. Values plummeted.

As a result, a new industry sprouted up around a numerical grading system, where, for a nominal fee, anonymous experts will assess your comic book, or baseball card, and assign it a number from 1 to 10—one being the lowest, ten being mint condition—then place the item in an air-sealed plastic protector.

Galleries selling original comic book sketches lagged not far behind. Underground comic artists, like R. Crumb, were celebrated in penetrating documentaries; biographical histories were written of comic book publishers and their storied illustrators; trade shows and festivals—such as the annual Comic Con—left their geeky past behind to become multi-million dollar events where billion dollar enterprises could launch new comic book titles; or video games based in classic superheroes; or summer blockbuster films (based also on industry stalwarts). Even the avant-garde, which had its first brush with comics, via pop-artist Roy Lichtenstein during the 1960s, saw a new infusion of painters—dubbed the “low-brows”—who based their works on the social innuendo of comic books.

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Action Comics #1 (June 1938) features the first-ever appearance of Superman, as written by Jerry Siegel, drawn by Joe Shuster.

Superheroes in Gotham, filling just three rooms of the Historical Society’s south wing, attempts the colossal task of recounting the origins of all this big business. At its heart, the show posits that New York City and the first superheroes shared a symbiotic relationship, born of the Great Depression, postwar optimism, and onset of the Cold War. If the assertion falters, it is not because it isn’t true, but because curatorial takes leave of its premise far too quickly.

Allison Meier, writing for Hyperallergic, notes that it “dwells a little too much on some tangential pop culture, like props from the 1960s Batman’ TV series or the opulent Broadway disaster Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark,” but overlooks the show’s bigger failure, which is that it never quite connects superheroes to their urban backdrops, let alone to a cultural zeitgeist.

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The schoolboy notebook of comic artist Will Eisner (The Spirit), replete with superhero doodles in the margins.

We are told, for instance, that many of the genre’s originators — Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel (creators of Superman), Bob Kane (Batman), Jack Kirby (Captain America), Stan Lee (The Fantastic Four) — were the children of first generation Jewish immigrants. Yet there is little in the selection of works that gives us insight into this experience, despite the fact that we’re also told these artists’ work contained political underpinnings of all sorts.

Indeed, writers such as Peter Sanderson, author of The Marvel Comics Guide to New York City, have shown the real-life source material of their urban backdrops, including tenement buildings, skyscrapers, and neighborhood storefronts. Yet nothing approaching this level of research is present in Superheroes in Gotham.

As to the artists’ Jewishness, all we get is one wall of comic book covers depicting our beloved superheroes pummeling German Nazis and Japanese soldiers, using the same reckless abandon as shown in Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards.

Little, however, is made of how such exaggerations and cultural stereotypes had their pedigree in the political illustrations of European geniuses like Goya and Daumiere. The opposite could be true too—that early comic book artists were provincial knuckleheads with a taste for luridness—but we wouldn’t know; the curators never bother to parse the visual syntax with anything approaching depth.

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1940s Captain America cover, illustrated by Jack Kirby, whose title character kicks some major fascist butt.

For example, the front covers of Jack Kirby’s early ’40s Captain America portray Hitler and the Nazis as vampires, zombies, and half-baboons; his Japanese caricatures are buck-toothed, yellow, and squinty-eyed. Each foe is pounced by a ripped Captain America who looks straight out of Greco-Roman gladiator history. The fact that Kirby—himself a WW2 vet—dealt with the most sinister political movement in modern times in so violent and partisan a way is not surprising.

What the curators missed in Kirby’s art, however,—and this is true of the superhero genre in general—is the fact that the masses back in NYC (or Metropolis, or Gotham City) are often portrayed as nameless cattle, running around terrified whilst the opposing forces of good and evil duke it out on the most solipsistic of terms.

The arrival of the Superman character, at the opening of the exhibition, is viewed as something of a mystical event, and rightfully so. Yet again the curators miss the opportunity to study the character’s possible connection to German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s ubermench (trans. “over-man,” or “superman”). By now it is common knowledge that the Nazis took the deceased Nietzsche as one of their own and were even assisted by his sister Elizabeth, who re-edited her brother’s manuscripts to better fit the twisted anti-semitism of Hitler during the 1930s.

Yet what of these Jewish-American artists making their own version of the superman? We know how Americans differed from their European and Asian counterparts, but what about the things they shared?

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The costume that George Reeves—as title character of early TV show “The Adventures of Superman” (1952-58)—wore. (Currently on display at the New York History Society.)

In recent years entire intellectual treatises have been written about the Superman character (see Umberto Ecco’s “The Myth of Superman”) and the impact of Nietzsche on American thinkers. Yet little in the show was made of the fact that Superman’s breast-plate “S” logo is as distinct and recognizable today as the Christian cross, or the hammer and sickle.

What also of the similarity in style that Siegel and Shuster’s early Superman comics shared with renderings of Depression-era union heroes and square-jawed strongmen from Soviet realist propaganda? How did Superman, if at all, reflect such collectivist ideals as organized labor, or the New Deal? Likewise, in what way did he fulfill metaphysical longings in a secular age?

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An emblem as iconic as any in recent history.

We understand, from that one wall of superheroes pummeling war-era foes, that these characters served as American propaganda. What we’re never told, much less shown, however, is if they were just cheap pop culture curios; or if the artists spoke a language worthy of their now long-standing cultural influence? The latter seems obvious; the reasons less so.

The fact is, American superheroes were born of the same century that gave us Einstein’s relativity—when the old world-order collapsed; when fashion and celebrity boomed; when the classic age of war dawned and politics on a grand scale proliferated. Each new wave drew its conclusions from the “death of God” and the disappearance of the Aristotelian notion of man as a rational animal.

Yet the German version of the superman, with his will-to-conquest, was to be demonstrated with terrible thoroughness. The American version—invariably on the side of good when it came to the Second World War—was not impervious to the effects of modern thinking, despite its insistence of traditional morals.

If 20th century man was not a fixed essence, as German philosopher Martin Heidegger suggested, then what was he “becoming” exactly? The future, as it were for postwar Americans, was both progressive and regressive. All that jet-age optimism, expressed in open roads, tail-finned vehicles and amoeba-shaped diners, was juxtaposed by equal paranoia at the threat of nuclear annihilation. The same nation that defeated fascism abroad also upheld segregation at home.

If, in fact, the superhero became an emblem of hope to the masses (especially the young), the sentiment was not shared by the elites in power.

The irony is that it was the abstract expressionists — Jackson Pollock, Willem deKooning, Mark Rothko, communists all — who were embraced as exemplars of American freedom (i.e. the opposite of the Soviet realists), whilst comic book artists were increasingly seen as a moral threat.

Superman Movie Poster

Superman as art-deco-era strongman.

Indeed, in the early 1950s, a series of congressional hearings were held to gauge the effects that comic books—deemed decadent and obsessed with death—were having on American youths. The resultant Comics Code—an oversight committee whose stamp graced the cover of each book—lasted two decades, requiring makers to cleanse their work of anything grotesque or lurid.

From today’s vantage it seems silly, though in fact these hearings also showed—in a weird, twisted way—the complexity that comics had, which eventually expanded despite the censorship.

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A display at the New York Historical Society’s Superheroes in Gotham exhibition.

The strangest part of the Comics Code scandal is that those first superheroes, besides being patriotic, were also based in traditional morals. Even today, superheroes indulge our notion of a simpler existence in the past—of a collective preference for myth (simple, unreal) over history (complex, actual), and predilection for extreme states of living, which teach that all other feelings, demands, duties and rights of others, can be simplified into a single either/or.

Yet the desire to be carried away, like all religion, ends in the ultimate desire to be carried off. If the real message of superhero comics is that we are on the brink of apocalypse and extinction, aren’t the character themselves—as antidotes to the atom bomb and evil—not also capable of bringing about complete destruction?

It is these and other questions of ambiguity that would drive narrative of superhero comics as they entered the 1970s and ’80s, and they continue to drive darker, more serious superhero films such as Watchmen (2007) and the recent Batman trilogy (directed by Chris Nolan). Yet these questions are absent from Superheroes in Gotham, which focuses instead on the very limited narrative of comics-as-entertainment and eventually comics-as-consumerism.

Again, it is an interesting subject, but just as their treatment of the genre’s relationship to New York City, to American propaganda, and to the American ideal were slight, so too there is little to chew on when it comes to superheroes and the media. The best one can say of the show is that it poses interesting questions which for one reason or another are left unanswered. I suggest politics.

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A 2009 drawing of Captain America by co-creator Joe Simon, which stood in for a lacking example from the 1940s, when artist Jack Kirby made the character soar into the American consciousness. One of many bad curatorial choices in Superheroes in Gotham.

The selection of original sketches, for instance, is third-rate. Granted, an original drawing of Superman, or a first appearance of Batman on storyboard, may no longer exist. Or maybe acquiring them for the exhibition was beyond the reach of the Historical Society’s budget. But that hardly explains why the original example used for Captain America was a poorly-drawn sketch from 2009, by co-creator Joe Simon, who was more known as a writer/businessman than a graphic artist.

Why not get a Jack Kirby original from the 1940s? Even a cursory search on the internet finds hundreds of sketches by Kirby of this most enduring character for sale. Could the recent legal wranglings between Marvel Comics and the Kirby Estate—whose untold settlement is said to’ve been in the millions—have something to do with it?

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Spider-Man display from Superheroes in Gotham.

Kirby not only created Captain America, but later — with Marvel — practically invented their larger stable of titles. From Iron Man to X-Men, to Thor, Silver Surfer, Incredible Hulk, Fantastic Four (pretty much all of them but Spider-Man), Kirby, with writer Stan Lee, re-made Marvel into the only valid rival to the DC Comics empire (which had Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and the Flash).

By the end of the 1960s, Kirby had—as a freelancer—developed Marvel into a kind of modern pantheon, with integrated storylines and characters that defined comics and fandom for decades to come. As a result, posters, toys, trading cards, and other fan-targeted products were pushed out based on Kirby’s work—none of which he was compensated for.

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An example of Jack Kirby’s early 1970s illustration style, which expanded the superhero form into psychedelia and the youth counter-culture.

Stan Lee, then editor-turned-publisher, watched as Kirby left Marvel for DC, where he would create his most experimental work (from 1970-75). Titled New Gods, the esoteric series was part of larger saga known as Kirby’s Fourth World. (It also included Mr. Miracle and The Forever People.)

By this time, Kirby’s graphic sophistication far surpassed the populist surface of this supermarket genre. Characters were stretched and exaggerated into extreme positions; plotlines dealt with earthly situations from an even more distant perspective, which struck some as cold; others saw it as distinctly psychedelic.

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An example of Jack Kirby’s early 1970s illustration style, which expanded the superhero form into psychedelia and the youth counter-culture.

Kirby was influenced by ancient alien theories, then popular in best-selling books by Erich von Däniken; his interest in old mythology grew boundless too, and Kirby’s many acolytes were, for the first time, recognized a true genius at work here. Marvel wanted him back and in 1975 Kirby acquiesced, though his work never returned to its more conventional ’60s style. Instead, he got just weirder.

A series titled The Eternals was so strange that Marvel had difficulty integrating it with their other titles. Kirby’s comic book extension of the Kubrick/Clarke film 2001: A Space Odyssey was later dubbed “The Weirdest Sci-Fi Comic Ever Made,” in a book by Julian Darius titled Understanding Jack Kirby’s 2001.

By the end of the ’70s, Kirby again left Marvel, this time heading to Hollywood, where he created storyboards and character sketches for sci-fi films and animated television. He returned to comics in the ’80s, though not with Marvel or DC, but with a handful of indie labels. When Marvel started licensing Kirby’s characters to the major film studios, in the 1990s, Stan Lee became the label’s spokesman—equal parts affable proletariat and practical aesthete.

Kirby, all but unknown to mainstream moviegoers, died in 1993, still at odds with Marvel, a bitter man.

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Superheroes go international… a display of comic product made outside the U.S., as seen in the exhibition Superheroes in Gotham.

None of this is apparent in the Superheroes in Gotham exhibition. In fact, there are a number of placards that cite important contributions by Stan Lee that can only make sense if he, or Marvel, hold some sway over the actual curatorial direction. How else to explain one that speaks of key editorial suggestions by Lee, written in the margins of the first Spider-Man storyboards, which are nowhere to be seen on the two actual panels displayed? Surely if Lee’s pencil scrawls are enough to credit with the success of Spider-Man, they are enough to show to museumgoers.

And what again of that lousy Joe Simon sketch of Captain America? Why, when hundreds of far-superior Kirby sketches are readily-available? In fact, if Marvel and Lee didn’t direct the narrative for the show, why is there no mention of the way in which publishers profited for decades from these original artists without compensating them beyond nominal freelancing fees? Surely this is a major facet of superhero history, yet for reasons which seem thinly-veiled, it is omitted. (No love for labor!)

No doubt the originators of comic book superheroes deserve a large-scale museum show—one which pulls out all the stops and examines the depth of their work, with its vast influence. Unfortunately, this isn’t it. (Brian Chidester)

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A last look from Jack Kirby’s late ’70s series The Eternals.

About Brian Chidester

Brian Chidester is a regular contributor to "The American Prospect," "L.A. Weekly," and the "Village Voice." He was a former editor with Yahoo.com and the author of "Pop Surf Culture" (Santa Monica Press). Chidester lives in New York City.