New Exhibition at the Museum of Science and Industry Explores the Influence and Evolution of One of America’s Most Enduring Comic Universes
Growing up, my friends and I all had our favorite, go-to Marvel Comic superheroes. Spanning over 80 years, with iconic heroes like Captain America, Spider-Man, Thor and Black Panther and larger-than-life villains like Doctor Doom, Magneto and Thanos, the library of super-personas emanating from the Marvel universe has always offered great fodder for escape, creating written storylines that have gone on to become part of American culture. Today more than ever, that is true, with the library branching out into the cinematic universe. Marvel has become more than just a niche escape for fans of comic fantasy, now seemingly influencing everything from commerce to culture. It’s contemporary popularity notwithstanding, Marvel Comics and characters have actually been influencing popular American culture, in some form, for over the last 80 years. A new exhibition at The Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) entitled Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes and its curator, Ben Saunders, hope to enlighten visitors about Marvel’s true influence while bringing to life the legendary characters we’ve all come to know.
Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes was the brainchild of SC Exhibitions, the same firm that brought Egypt’s King Tutankhamun (King Tut) to many American cities (including Chicago) just a few years ago. For Saunders, the exhibition presented an opportunity of a lifetime, given his passion and love for Marvel Comics. A professor of English at the University of Oregon, where he co-founded the minor in Comic and Cartoon Studies, Saunders realized a longtime dream when he was tapped as curator of the exhibition. Yet, he understood the opportunity presented its own unique set of challenges.
For example, how does one properly encapsulate the 80 years of Marvel Comics within a finite exhibition space? Or, how does one exactly convey the significance of Marvel Comics and their characters to American popular culture? Acutely aware of the numerous collections of Marvel Comic artifacts and documentation that existed in public and private collections across the country, Saunders’ first task was to envision just what he as a fan might love to see in an exhibition of this kind. “I really just invented a kind of fantasy show in my head,” he explained, spending several weeks writing a 75 page fantasy manuscript around the exhibition itself, creating a kind of wish list, if you will, of artifacts that would best speak to the themes that demonstrate the comic brand’s influence. Fortunately, for Saunders (and for us, too) Marvel and SC Exhibitions were on board no matter how big the request. “To my eternal gratitude and amazement, the folks at Marvel and the producers at SC signed off on even the most challenging of my ideas—such as the life-sized sculpture of The Thing and the prismatic effects of the Doctor Strange gallery—and we were able to find or borrow almost 90% of the things on my wish list,” Saunders added.
Of the thousands of historical documents and ephemera available on the subject, Saunders was forced to limit himself to 300 artifacts for the new show. During his search, he came across several unique finds, many of which represented, in his estimation, unique historical artifacts similar in cultural significance and scope as perhaps the discovery of a new, untouched royal tomb in the field of Egyptology. One of Saunders’ most prized artifacts is the sole surviving page of original artwork for the Sub-Mariner, a storyline within the very first Marvel comic book (Marvel Comic #1, printed in 1939). Hand-drawn by its then teenage creator, Bill Everett, this “golden relic” of Marvel Comic history is showcased in the new exhibition alongside an original copy of Marvel Comic #1. The copy is on loan from Kelvin Williams, the private owner of one of the nation’s oldest and most complete comic book collections. Discovering that this 80-year-old hand-drawn artwork survived and was available for exhibition, is for Saunders, a find of unprecedented historical significance in the history of Marvel Comics and American popular culture. “It’s hard to get across the importance and rareness of a piece like that,” Saunders explained, “but you have to remember—back in the ‘30s and ‘40s, once the comics were published, the original production art was not perceived as having any value and was usually destroyed. Very few examples from the ‘30s have survived. Marvel Comic #1 had 54 pages of art and there is just one known surviving original page.”
If viewing this “Dead Sea Scroll” equivalent of Marvel Comic history doesn’t sufficiently pique your curiosity, Saunders assures that there are many more original Marvel artifacts and documents that demonstrate the significance of Marvel Comics to American popular culture. Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes also showcases hand-drawn pages of art from other comic book issues and characters including the first comic book appearance of Loki (the impish villain-brother of Thor); the original Black Panther and Captain American pages by Marvel co-creator, Jack Kirby; the first cover appearance of The Vision by John Buscema; key X-Men covers by artists Dave Cockrum and John Byrne; and the famous alcoholism-themed Iron Man cover by Boy Layton from the 1970. Saunders is certain once exhibition guests stand within just a few inches of original historical pieces and observe the intricacies of the artwork, they will begin to grasp the level of imaginatively these young artists employed to bring these original characters to life. For Saunders, presenting the opportunity to see such intricate details as the pencil lines under the ink, the paste-ups, the white-out, “is a reminder that all these incredible fantasies begin as works on paper. They begin with an artist at a drawing board, with a pencil, a brush and an imagination.”
Situated throughout the exhibition space and framed by life-sized sculptures of the main Marvel characters are various infographics, touch screens, and listening stations for guests to learn about the unique history of Marvel Comics and the characters themselves. Visitors will get a sense of the vast cultural impact that Marvel Comics has had on popular American culture and the American lexicon. The exhibition underscores the characters’ respective storylines, the aesthetic innovations each character represented, and how some of the longest running Marvel personalities have evolved over time. Saunders was particularly thrilled with the number of actual Marvel costumes, direct from Marvel Studios, included in the exhibition.
One element of the exhibition that Saunders is quick to point out is the fact that the legacy of the Marvel Universe did not emerge over the past 80 years from a historical or cultural void. Characters were imagined and brought to life on paper by artists living their lives during respective times within contemporary American history. These characters personified many of the cultural beliefs, both the good and the bad, of their creators over the course of the last 80 years. Captain America, for example, came to life on paper in March 1941, a time of rising global conflict as America resisted calls to join its European allies in resisting Hitler’s Nazi armies. Despite the military defeats of Poland and France and the ongoing threat to England, the Roosevelt Administration adhered to an official policy of neutrality. As Germany’s armies marched across Europe, a growing number of Americans came to believe that the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler represented an existential threat to western democracies and western ideals and that America could no longer remain neutral in this fight between good and evil. It was from this seemingly hopeless trajectory that Marvel Comic’s Captain America swept into the American consciousness. Upon the cover of the premiere issue, a muscled American clothed in a stunning red, white, and blue body suit holding a shield emblazoned with the strips of the American flag, is shown punching Adolf Hitler as his Nazi stormtroopers take shots at Captain America. Faith in the power of comics to shape popular culture is often seen by scholars as one of the oldest and most enduring aspects of Marvel Comics, Saunders argued. The anti-isolationist/anti-neutrality message by Captain America’s Jewish-American creators, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, cannot be understated. The America that existed in Captain America’s world was not one cowering in isolation against an existential enemy but one of a nation built upon western ideals of democracy over fascism, right versus wrong, and good versus evil—all embodied in a super hero clad in patriotic colors. Captain America’s America, though fantasy, imagined an alternative vision of what 1941 America could and should be.
It is that freedom of imagination, that ability to imagine something different than reality, that Saunders maintains is the greatest gift and cultural influence of Marvel Comics. “The appeal of the superhero genre general, and the work of Marvel in particular, is rooted in a recognition of the primary, generative power of the imagination. We have to imagine things can be otherwise in order to change,” he insisted, for “all revolutions begin in the head.” For him, the exhibition details that the entirety of the Marvel universe in the last 80 years stands as testament to the, “primary shaping power of human creativity and imaginative storytelling.”
This creative reimagining has continued within the pages of Marvel Comics (and now major motion picture scripts) for the last 80 years, as Marvel designers and creators have developed characters which embody those ideals often found missing from the public eye during various periods in American life. For example, only a year following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, codifying voting rights for all Americans, regardless of color, creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced Marvel Comic’s first Black character, the Black Panther, King of the fictional African nation of Wakanda. With images of confident, technologically advanced Wakanda citizens, the creators of The Black Panther furthered the reimagination already occurring within the United States and the world as black Americans and black Africans each sought to create their own new realities within the voting booths across the America and the corresponding African independence efforts sweeping the continent of its colonial past. In fact, during the 1976 bicentennial year, Marvel readers found Black Panther traveling to the heart of Georgia to fight the continued intimidation efforts of the Klu Klux Klan, offering a reimagined rallying cry for African Americans to fight all efforts to negate their rights as citizens.
While the creativity of reimagining our world is evident, these Marvel comic artists and writers were still human beings living and working at various times throughout the 80-year history of Marvel Comics. As a result, many of the Marvel characters were developed with some of the inherent cultural biases and prejudices prevalent during their respective times. A classic example of this was the character of Luke Cage, Marvel comics first African American superhero. Cage was created by Archie Goodwin and John Romita, Sr. in 1972. Imagined during the time of the “Blaxploitation” movies, the character’s creators sought to emulate the image of Black male masculinity seen within this particularly popular genre. Saunders admits that while considered “cool” during the times of this genre, Luke Cage’s character reveals the unfortunate reality that many Marvel characters have not held up well against as America’s ever-evolving standards of acceptable racial and gender representations. Correspondingly, Marvel Comics has actively sought to shed the inappropriate mannerisms of many of its long-standing characters to ensure that they embody the cultural realities and representations of 21st century America.
Saunders noted that Marvel has always recognized and respected that their characters may undergo cultural transformation, particularly the earlier developed characters, and that character images and traits once considered progressive during the time when they were first created, can now appear outmoded or inappropriate when seen through the lens of 21st century America. In fact, Saunders pointed out that Marvel officials were insistent that the MSI exhibition reveal the entirety of the characters highlighted, not just their contemporary representation. It is that willingness to explore the full historical evolution of the library of Marvel characters that, for Saunders, makes Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes unique among others of its kind.
Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes is open to the public until October 24, 2021. Additional information on the exhibition can be found on the museum’s website at www.msichicago.org.