Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes (which opened this past Friday at Seattle’s Museum of Popular Culture) merits the hype. The exhibition turns the history of the Marvel superhero brand into a heroic narrative, framed in terms of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that is, with focus on the Marvel of recent movies and television. Yet running through it and grounding it is a rich sampling of original comic book art from 1939 to the 21st century. Staged in colorful, immersive sets, the show juxtaposes originals, published comic books, and outsized reproductions with newly created paintings and statues, movie props and costumes, and other memorabilia, all set to a thrumming music score in Avengers mode (courtesy of Lorne Balfe and Hans Zimmer) and introduced with a breathless seven-minute film prologue. From the start, the show packages the origin story of Marvel as high drama. Meanwhile, amid the celebration, curators’ text and interactive digital displays provide, for the very interested, historical depth and nuance. In other words, the exhibition strives after solid historiography within the context of gosh-wow mythology, a tension that leads to intriguing complexities for those willing to engage every medium and mode of learning that the show offers. My wife Mich and I spent hours in the show last Friday, and could have spent hours more if only we had had the superpowers needed to overcome aching feet and the need for food and sleep! It’s pretty overwhelming.
Curated by Ben Saunders in collaboration with Matt Smith, Randy Duncan, Andréa Gilroy, and a complex team, and designed by SC Exhibitions, the show realizes the curatorial dream of “a comic book come to life” and exhibition-as-theme-park-ride. (I should acknowledge that Saunders and several other members of the team are close colleagues and friends of mine.) The largest official showing of Marvel artifacts ever, it seeks to appeal to multiple audiences, and I saw evidence last Friday that it had succeeded. During my time in the galleries, I watched visitors gush over everything from Steve Ditko originals (including, incredibly, a page from Spider-Man’s origin in Amazing Fantasy #15) to the prop Walkman used by the cinematic Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) in Guardians of the Galaxy. These auratic items—veritable talismans—are punctuated by succinct blurbs and digital displays, and by interactive artist’s “studio” simulations that shed light on comic book production methods, then and now. (I loved the simulation that allows users to “ink” a Kirby Thor page in the style of Colletta, Royer, or Theakston.) Some of the displays really get down into the weeds; attentive visitors can learn something about under-sung Marvel figures like Stan Goldberg, Marie Severin, Artie Simek, and Flo Steinberg.
Certain stops along the way raise bigger cultural questions that could support large exhibitions of their own. For example, exactly why were comic books targeted for suppression in the forties and fifties? Why did other genres eclipse the superhero after World War II? How can the formal affordances of the comic book page be used to depict action and violence? These issues are touched on glancingly, often in ways that might prod the curious to ask for more (or to go research the issues on their own, I hope). Other issues are posed more implicitly. For instance, why are many classic superhero stories premised on the death of beloved women? How or to what extent does this testify to sexism or misogyny? The exhibition includes examples of original art from three famous stories based on the deaths of prominent female characters: Gwen Stacy, Phoenix, and Elektra. All are impressive and important pieces, superhero classics even, but their co-presence in the exhibit calls out the genre’s reliance on this kind of gendered (and sometimes sexualized) violence.
I should say more about this. The show’s climactic presentation of Frank Miller’s influential work on Daredevil—including Miller/Klaus Janson pages from issue #181 (April 1982) depicting the murder of Elektra that still have the power to shock—walks a tightrope between acknowledging the voyeurism and extreme violence of the story and OTOH keen analysis and appreciation of Miller’s artistry, especially in the area of page layout. Indeed, viewers are invited to reassemble comic book layouts jigsaw puzzle-style—a kind of pedagogical exercise I’ve often asked my students to do—in the very same alcove where the death of Elektra leaves such a disturbing impression. (Mich and I stopped and had a long talk here with scholar-artist-activist-teacher Leonard Rifas, whom we happily met while looking at the Miller pages.) The way formalism and ideological criticism collide in this space is a bit startling, suggesting a tug-of-war between different perspectives that seems to mark the exhibit as a whole. I would love to take a class full of students to the exhibition so that they could tease out some of these tensions on their own.
There are gaps in the show, naturally. My guess is that recent or still-ongoing interactions between Marvel and some of its licensees may have shaped what got included. For example, though The Fantastic Four’s founding role in Marvel Comics is clearly noted, FF pages are few. To be fair, a full minute of the opening film is devoted to the FF, and this lovely installation grabs your attention as soon as you’ve walked out of the film:
This selfie-inviting space is one of the show’s highlights. I would have liked to see original art that demonstrated the FF’s importance as a source of other characters, such as the Inhumans, Silver Surfer, and Black Panther—but I did revel in this opening installation. Given the poor reputation of the FF’s film adaptations to date, and the state of editorially-enforced limbo that the title has been for more than five years, it’s encouraging to see Ben Grimm front and center.
It does seem to me that, while the exhibition is a treasure trove for comics fans, to some degree the history of the comic books is now hostage to the MCU brand. Properties that have proven generative in the comics but not yet spawned hit films, such as Kirby’s Eternals, are scanted. While certain properties are well represented by both comic book art and movie costumes and props (the Black Panther installation does great work with the film’s costumes, for example), others have fewer or no movie items. Notably, the X-Men and Wolverine section lacks any film-related documentation. However, I should note that the sampling of original art in the X-Men section is very strong, with historic examples such as the Kane/Cockrum cover of Giant-Size X-Men #1 (1975), the Byrne/Austin cover of Uncanny X-Men #136 (1980), two Miller/Rubinstein covers for the first Wolverine miniseries (1982), and a staggering collage by Bill Sienkiewicz (1984) that became this much-reproduced poster and cover image for The New Mutants:
(Longtime Marvel writer and editor Ann Nocenti, another key contributor to the exhibition, told me on Friday night that when she saw this piece on the wall she wept. Nocenti began her long tenure as editor of Marvel’s mutant titles in 1984, just before Sienkiwicz became lead artist on New Mutants.)
Other original art highlights in the show include Gene Colan and Joe Sinnott’s cover for Captain America #117 (1969) introducing the Falcon; Jim Steranko’s brilliant cover for Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. #1 (1968); and, holy cow, a surviving “Sub-Mariner” page by Bill Everett for Marvel Comics #1 (1939–the very first “Marvel” comic!). Generally, the exhibit places comic book art and movie artifacts side by side where possible, but the mix is ever-changing. In some cases the absence of original art seems to call forth the designers’ creative powers as if to compensate, as with the Ben Grimm installation or a splendid, disorienting Doctor Strange installation that I call the Ditkoverse. Said installation uses animated Ditko images and mirrors to dizzying effect (while also displaying costumes from that film).
(All photos by Mich Hatfield.)
As pure history, the exhibition does present some problems, including neglect of other comic book publishers and of Marvel comics outside of superheroes, inattention to the ways that other genres influenced the superhero, and only fitful attention to socio-historical context, that is, how shifts in social mores and entertainment media reshaped the superhero and the industry. The superhero genre does not stand in isolation—not in comic book or in film history—and attention to how Marvel worked with and against the times would help. (On the plus side, one digital display notes the company’s long history of frankly imitating other publishers’ successes—that’s really the story of “Marvel,” as we now call it, for most of its first twenty-plus years.) I suspect that spacing and design constraints, as well as a complicated collaborative process with multiple stakeholders, discouraged the exhibition from wandering too far from the path of “Marvel” per se, but I’ve long held that the history of the superhero, or of any company’s superheroes, cannot be told without reference to other genres and forces.
Those caveats aside, I feel like gushing—and that is an odd position for me to be in, as one who has spent time boycotting Marvel comics and films. I was happy to see Jack Kirby spotlighted from the very start of the show, essentially presented as cofounder of the Marvel Universe. The exhibition takes up the official history of Marvel as revised since the Marvel v. Kirby settlement of 2014, and fills out that history more than I usually see. Essentially, it brings Kirby to the fore as co-creator, with Stan Lee, of most of the founding Marvel properties. Lee and Kirby are characterized here as a partnership, with Kirby supplying characters and concepts even for Marvel titles he did not officially launch as penciler. This somewhat makes up for the relative shortage of original Kirby pages in the show (note that giant reproductions of Kirby art are all around). However, the official narrative of Lee deciding to give comics one more try and then reaching out to Kirby to help him—a narrative that I can’t quite credit—remains. Martin Goodman, the company’s founder, longtime owner, and boss, registers in this story but vaguely; Kirby’s interactions with Goodman are not discussed. Stan and Jack (the two Disney Legends) are the thing. Me, I wonder whether Kirby presented Lee and/or Goodman a raft of ideas in the early sixties, ideas that became the backbone of the Marvel Universe. I wonder about Kirby’s role as catalyst, and about his understanding of the terms of the collaboration, going in. That remains speculative. Suffice to say that Kirby has moved front and center, or alongside Lee at least, in the official narrative, and I was glad to see that repositioning affirmed in the show from the entryway onward.
I will say that Mich and I had a wonderful time at the exhibition. It’s a joy. I would love to be able to see it again and luxuriate in its spaces. More than an assemblage of stuff, Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes is a feat of habitable design and spatial and visual rhetoric—in Disney parlance, imagineering. More importantly, at least to me, it is anchored by an informed respect for the artists who first built the Marvel Universe and a fascination with the pages they made. This navigable spectacle is not just spectacular—it’s a scholarly work, even if perhaps hemmed in by commercial considerations. Credit must go to Ben Saunders and his fellow scholars for highlighting the artists who drew Marvel into being—for making clear, by design, that it is comic artists who are the source of Marvel’s expanded, transmedia universe.
(All photos by Mich Hatfield.)
Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes runs at Seattle’s MoPop until January 6, 2019. It will be traveling to other cities after that, over the next three to four years. If you care at all about comics or superheroes or contemporary blockbuster movies—or about the role of Kirby in launching Marvel—I highly recommend you find a way to see it. Plan on spending some hours with it, and wear good walking shoes!
Personal PS. What a pleasure to talk to people at the exhibition like José Alaniz (a.k.a. Reed Richards), Randy Duncan, Danny Fingeroth, Andréa Gilroy and Shaun Gilroy, Tobias Kunz, Annie Nocenti, Eric Reynolds, Leonard Rifas, Jenny Robb, Rob Salkowitz and Eunice Verstegen, Ben Saunders and Larisa Devine, Christophe Scholz, and Matt Smith and his family. Good company! And thank you above all to Mich Hatfield for sharing these trips with me (and taking photos!) and making everything better.