Column by Rob Salkowitz
Posted by Rob Salkowitz on April 18, 2018 @ 6:38 pm CT
Curators have made some strides in this area in the past few years. However, the new ”Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes” show opening this weekend at the Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP) in Seattle sets a new standard in scope, ambition and total experience.
Chief curator Benjamin Saunders, a comics scholar at University of Oregon, and his team (scholars Matthew Smith and Randy Duncan, comic industry pros Ann Nocenti and Danny Fingeroth, MoPOP curators Brooks Peck and Jacob McMurray, produced by SC Exhibitions) have devised a brilliant exhibit plan that capitalizes on the mass-media notoriety of Marvel’s pantheon to focus attention on the creators and the original comic storylines, which most moviegoers may not know.
The exhibit starts at a facsimile of a newsstand, the traditional point of entry for fans of a certain age and the vehicle through which comics became a popular art form in the US in the first place. The Golden Age room includes infographics tracing the development of comic books from newspaper strips and pulps, and displays a few treasures including the Sub-Mariner page and a prime copy of Marvel Comics #1. From there, it’s off to the Silver Age, with rooms devoted to the heavy hitters, from Spider-Man to Thor, Doctor Strange and the X-Men.
A Feast for Art Fans. Every room contains at least one jaw-dropping "grail" piece: an original page from Amazing Fantasy #15 featuring Steve Ditko’s first drawing of Spider-Man in costume, on loan from the Library of Congress; Steranko’s original Nick Fury #1 cover; Frank Miller’s iconic three page sequence showing the death of Elektra from Daredevil #181; Dave Cockrum’s original art to the cover of Giant-Size X-Men #1, alongside a stunning Bill Sienkiewicz multimedia New Mutants cover. Look carefully and you’ll see John Romita Sr.’s original character design drawing of the Punisher and other treasures. This show goes deep.
All this priceless original art is shown alongside full color graphics of stories and characters, as well as the original costumes and props from most of the major MCU films. There’s even a room and a half devoted to the Guardians of the Galaxy and other cosmic heroes, featuring a wall-sized infographic tracing the confusing lineage of Captain Marvel and, on a facing wall, an inventory of Marvel’s main alien races and characters, assessed by threat level.
The exhibit uses some state of the art technology to engage audiences. Visitors can stand on a special platform and see themselves transformed into Iron Man’s armor using the same effects from the movie, via augmented reality. Various workstations present and explain the production of comics art, from drawing to lettering to coloring and reproduction. The most visually striking part of the show is the Doctor Strange room, where Steve Ditko’s psychedelic art is blown up and bounced off mirrors to recreate the experience of being inside the dread Dormammu’s dimension of doom.
A Heroic Undertaking. This was all clearly the result of the collaboration between an institution with deep pockets (MoPOP was founded by Microsoft co-founder and major geek Paul Allen) and a crew of very clued-in nerd scholars on a mission. The show needed the talents and resources of both groups to pull off a show on this scale, in part because of the logistics.
"Few if any institutions collected comic art in the 20th century," said Saunders. "That means almost every major piece is in the hands of individual collectors."
The Marvel show draws heavily from two prominent art collections in addition to the materials on loan from Marvel Studios and other sources. Several times during the press tour, Saunders noted the insurance costs associated with displaying such high-value, one-of-a-kind collectibles.
Whatever the expenses and complexities associated with mounting the show, the aesthetic payoff is worth it. This is the museum show that comic fans deserve – one curated with deep knowledge of the material and reverential respect for the creators, while extending every bridge to the mass audience.
It runs through January 4, 2019 in Seattle, then will head on tour, according to the organizers.
Click the Gallery below for pics of some of the artifacts in this exhibit!