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Art Museum and English Prof. Take a Serious Look at Comics

We’re a little late covering this but you still have a month to catch “Faster Than a Speeding Bullet: The Art of the Superhero” which is being displayed at the Schnitzer, on campus at the University of Oregon, and runs through January 3rd.

The exhibition features more than 150 pages of superhero comic art from the 1940s to the present, including several complete stories.  Curated by UO English professor Ben Saunders, it grew out of an academic conference he organized in October to examine the role of superheroes in society.

Originally envisioned as a small exhibition for the art museum, it quickly grew after Saunders was introduced to the museum staff.  According to the Register Guard:

To my surprise, they liked the idea and have run with it. It’s become a much bigger exhibition than conference.

That’s at least in part because Jill Hartz, the museum’s new executive director, saw an opportunity to put on an original exhibit that both features work by a UO faculty member and is likely to draw an entirely new crowd through the museum’s doors.

Hartz recognized this type of exhibition would have a broad appeal, with over 70 years of history to cover.  Fans who visit such a display would include those introduced over the years from their original comic form, the various tv or radio shows that were spun out, or the more recent movie blockbusters.

“Superheroes” will include original art from some of the most influential comics in history: Superman, Batman, Spider-man, Wonder Woman, all the way through today’s Hellboy.  On display is a rare copy of Action Comics No. 1, the 1938 comic that started it all, which is on loan from a Eugene collector who bought it at auction in 1980.

The museum staff ran into some interesting issues dealing with private collectors, many of whom have never dealt with a museum or an event like this.  One of those collectors is Darrell Grimes, who owns two comic book stores in Eugene. More to the point, he also owns a copy of Action Comics No. 1.  Valued, conservatively at $525,000, Grimes was understandably reluctant to remove it from the safety deposit box where he keeps it.

“I am a little bit shy about letting people know what I have,” he said. “The people at the museum worked on me for a couple of months to get me to loan it to them. They are extremely nice. That’s what won me over. They had me walk through the museum. They said, ‘You know, honestly, this is going to be safer than your safe deposit box.’ As we were walking along, they were pointing out paintings worth $10 million. I’m thinking, ‘Wow. Holy cow!’ ”

Grimes was so impressed with the professionalism of the staff he has also decided to lend copies of Superman No. 1, from 1939, and Famous Funnies No. 1, which came out in 1934 and was one of the first successful comics ever printed.

At the other end of the spectrum is collector David Mandel, a former writer for the TV sitcom “Seinfeld” and now executive producer of the HBO series “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

He is lending the complete interior art from Amazing Spider-Man No. 26, by Steve Ditko; the cover of Giant Size X-Men No. 1 by Gil Kane and Dave Cockrum; the cover of Iron Man No. 1 by Gene Colan; the cover of Fantastic Four No. 59 by Jack Kirby; and Hellboy art by Mike Mignola.

You’ll also find work by Neal Adams, C.C. Beck, John Buscema, Gene Colan, Will Eisner, Bill Everett, Lou Fine, Ramona Fradon, Dave Gibbons, Don Heck, Carmine Infantino, J.G. Jones, Gil Kane, Joe Kubert, Mort Meskin, Frank Miller, George Perez, H.G. Peter, Mac Raboy, Alex Ross, Marie Severin, Bill Sienkiewicz and Matt Wagner, displayed at the exhibition.

An exhibit catalog will be released this fall with essays by Saunders, Diana Schultz, Michael T. Gilbert, Charles Hatfield and Rebecca Wanzo, as well as biographies of the major artists.

Superhero stories arose in a country wracked by economic disaster and headed into a world war, Saunders says. In a political and societal uncertainty much like we’re experiencing today.  And, today comic books are growing in popularity again.  Saunders, thinks the comparison of Superman and other superheroes as the equivalent to stories of early Greek gods is a simplification of their real origin.

“That tends to overlook the specific historical circumstances in which superheroes arise,” he says. “They arrive on the scene in the late 1930s at a time when the country is going through some very interesting self examination.”

Franklin Roosevelt was president and was under attack for his New Deal social programs. And the country was involved in a fierce debate about whether to enter the war in Europe.

“It’s at that moment that Superman appears,” Saunders says. “Initially he is about the most aggressive version of a New Deal Democrat that you’ll ever get. In the first year of Superman, he doesn’t have any super villains. He fights the oil companies. He fights corrupt senators in bed with arms dealers. He fights for better housing in the ghettos. He fights against automobile manufacturers for producing unsafe vehicles. He’s Ralph Nader on steroids.”

Numerous books have come out over the recent years examining the launch of modern American comic books which come out of the newspaper industry and the pulp fiction of the 1920s. Pulp characters such as Tarzan and Buck Rogers morphed into newspaper comic strips by the late 1920s. By the late 1930s, a couple of companies had begun reprinting newspaper comics without the newspaper attached.

“And then Superman happens,” Saunders says. “And within a year and a half there were 27 comic book companies in the country. And they were almost all printing original material, most of that fronted by a superhero. It was a $20 million-a-year industry.”

The industry was centered in New York and New Jersey with the artists pulling from their experience as first- and second-generation immigrants for material to write about.  Many, from Eastern Europe, where Jewish and hid their ethnic identities from the general public, often times using pseudonyms.  It is thought some of the reason so many superheroes have secret identities is a reflection on their creator’s needs to hide their own ancestry.  A reflection of societies acceptance.

“Superheroes get involved in the war very early on,” Saunders says. “Though Superman, by and large, kept out of the war until after Pearl Harbor. That was a decision on the part of the owners, not the creators. The owners said there were still too many isolationist parents and you might lose their nickels.”

But a year before Pearl Harbor, the flag-draped Captain America, a creation of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, was on the cover of a comic book, punching Adolf Hitler in the face.

Kirby was a pen name and later the legal name of Jacob Kurtzberg, a New Yorker who was the son of an Austrian Jewish immigrant. The Hitler-punching issue enraged American Nazi organizations, and it spurred New York to give police protection to its publisher, Timely Comics (which would later become Marvel). The issue sold almost a million copies.

With the art provided by private collectors, “Superheroes” is a rare opportunity to see some of this work.

Faster Than a Speeding Bullet: The Art of the Superhero

What: Original art from superhero comic books of the 1940s to the present

Where: Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, 1430 Johnson Lane, on the UO campus

When: Through Jan. 3

Admission: $5