Super Hero Comics and Art
I took my two sons (ages six and nine) off to the Montclair NJ Art Museum Thursday afternoon for an exhibition with the unwieldy title Reflecting Culture: The Evolution of American Comic Book Superheroes. (The picture at the top is the free giveaway comic that MAM has in lieu of a catalog or list of exhibits.)
The materials on exhibit are a roughly even mixture of original art and published comics, ranging from a 1906 Little Nemo in Slumberland page to an issue of Marvel’s recent Civil War. The focus, though, is on the major superhero comics characters, from the Golden Age through today. So there’s a lot of Superman and Batman in the earlier sections, and then a lot of Marvel heroes once the exhibit gets into the 1960s. The original art tends to be by major names – I remember seeing work by Dave Cockrum, Jack Kirby, Neal Adams, and Dave Gibbons – including some very well-known interior pages and covers.
The exhibition is organized around real-world trends and events: World War II, the Wertham years of the ‘50s, the “relevance” years of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and so on up to a display case of 9/11 comics. The small size of the exhibition and tight focus on superheroes doesn’t always work in its favor – their Wertham area contains no EC horror comics, and I didn’t even see any reference to Wertham’s claim that Batman and Robin’s relationship was essentially homosexual. There also doesn’t seem to be a guiding philosophy other than “comics reflected their world,” which is applied very simplistically and obviously. (There’s all the covers you expect from the late ‘60s, for example – the “Speedy is a junkie,” the “black Green Lantern,” the “why do you always help the purple people,” and the Nehru-jacketed depowered Wonder Woman.)
As a collection of interesting comics and art, it’s a nice accumulation, and quite browsable. (Though I’d recommend not taking two small boys with you if you go to see it.) But as some kind of coherent narrative history of American comics, or as the proof for some kind of statement about American culture and superheroes, it’s inadequate. I’d have preferred to see a more art-historical exhibit, one organized by art styles or artistic techniques. To be honest, I expected a bit more thought from an art museum.
According to published reports, the bulk of the comics and art are from the personal collection of movie producer (Batman Begins) and comics fan Michael Uslan, who deserves profuse thanks for opening up his valuable collection to the world. But I do wonder what the curators might have left behind in their intense focus on the topical.
The Museum has a smaller, related exhibition also rrunning, in one room off their main lobby: a selection of art and ephemera, mostly comics pages, by Joe Kubert and his sons Adam and Andy.
There will be other comics-related events at the Montclair Art Museum in the months to come, starting with a panel discussion tomorrow night at 7 PM, moderated by Exhibition Curator Gail Stavitsky and featuring Joe Kubert, Adam Kubert, Andy Kubert, and Greg Hildebrandt talking about the comic book industry from the artist’s perspective. Further information and events should be available on the Museum’s web site (which is down as I type this, hence the weasel words "should be").
The whole thing is worth seeing for comics fans and professionals in the New York area, but it’s not worth a special trip if you’re any farther away.
(The Montclair Art Museum is located at 3 South Mountain Avenue in Montclair, New Jersey. The museum is open from 11-5, Tuesday through Sunday, and Reflecting Culture will be showing there until mid-January, 2008. Admission is $8 for adults and $6 for seniors; children under twelve are admitted free.)