News about the premier academic journal devoted to all aspects of cartooning and comics -- the International Journal of Comic Art (ISSN 1531-6793) published and edited by John Lent.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Superheroes: Good and Evil in American Comics (2007) exhibit review

"ZAP! POW! BAM! The Superhero: The Golden Age of Comic Books, 1938-1950," the exhibit curated by the late Jerry Robinson has arrived at the Jewish Museum of Maryland in downtown Baltimore. I reviewed an earlier, smaller version of the show for IJOCA in 2007 (issue 9:1) which is reprinted below. The current exhibit includes some different pieces and some art mentioned here, such as Hasen's Dondi page aren't in the 2013 version, although a superhero page by Hasen is. - Mike Rhode

Superheroes: Good and Evil in American Comics. Jerry Robinson with Ali Gass. New York, NY: Jewish Museum, September 15, 2006-January 28, 2007.

    As Art Spiegelman pointed out when withdrawing from Masters of American Comics, this exhibit was a smaller version of Robinson’s 2005 "ZAP! POW! BAM! The Superhero: The Golden Age of Comic Books, 1938-1950." What Spiegelman neglected to mention is that Robinson most likely was asked to step in and provide his exhibit to literally fill the space left by Spiegelman’s withdrawal. The curators attempted to recast it to better fit the venue of the Jewish Museum by noting the legacy of Jewish creators in superhero comic books. Quoting from the press release, “with these fictional heroes, comic book creators often reflected their own lives as immigrants– frequently Jewish immigrants from European countries. Keenly aware of their own sense of cultural marginalization, these artists struggled to define themselves in terms of mainstream American culture. By extension, they created characters whose identities largely reflected this aspect of the immigrant experience.” These argument is an old one – Jules Feiffer made it around forty years ago – but the exhibit struggled to make the point, although the text by Robinson and Gass was well done.

    However, Superheroes was an enjoyable look at comic book art, and if taken on those terms, worked just fine. The original art by Fred Ray for the iconic Superman #14 cover showing Superman in front of an American shield as an eagle lands on his forearm remains stirring, although perhaps not as much so as it did in the first days of World War II. Many of Jerry Robinson’s golden age collaborators and friends at DC Comics (National Periodical Publications at the time) were represented including Mort Meskin, Joe Shuster, Simon & Kirby, Joe Kubert, as well as those who worked primarily for other companies like Mac Raboy, Alex Schomburg, and Lou Fine.  Mort Meskin’s “Bombshell”, a hand-colored splash page from Boy Comics was especially fine and drew attention to the fact that more widespread notice should be taken of Golden Age artists. Other pieces of note were a model sheet for Captain America from 1941, probably by Joe Simon, Charles Biro’s cover of Daredevil Comics #6, an early Dondi page by Irwin Hasen – oddly out of place in a superheroes show, Alex Schomburg’s cover to Human Torch #16, and Mort Meskin’s concept page for the Vigilante. Of special historic interest were Bill Finger’s script from Batman #31, Robinson’s original Joker sketch, and a Siegel & Shuster profile of Superman inscribed to Robinson. Joe Siegel’s typewriter occupied some weird iconic space as it should; it was just a typewriter, but... In some ways, this exhibit seemed to be a selection of Jerry Robinson’s Collection’s Greatest Hits, and that was just fine -- educational and a lot of fun.

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