ZAP! POW! BAM! The Golden Age of Comic Books - Mania.com



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ZAP! POW! BAM! The Golden Age of Comic Books

Los Angeles Exhibition on Golden Age Comic Books

By Joe Oesterle     July 08, 2009
Source: Mania.com


ZAP! POW! BAM! The Golden Age of Comic Books at Skirball Museum
© Mania

Holy fanboy wet dream! If you’re an aficionado of comic book history or just have a passing interest in the superhero genre, then you need to jump in your Batmobile (or whatever you call your particular mode of transportation) and zoom on over to the Skirball Museum’s showing of “ZAP! POW! BAM! The Superhero; The Golden Age of Comic Books” exhibit in Los Angeles before August 9th.

Objects on view include superhero movie serial posters from the 40’s, the Batcycle from the 1960’s Batman television show, Spiderman’s costume, vintage comic book-inspired toys and games, and interactive displays for the kids. But the real draw here is the opportunity to see some never-before-exhibited original comic book art from the true pioneers of the form.

The works of luminaries like Will Eisner, Bob Kane, Jerry Robinson, Joe Schuster, Jerry Siegel, Jack Kirby, Bill Finger, Julie Schwartz, C.C. Beck, and of course (for all you true believers) Stan Lee are all represented.

 

The Golden Age

The gallery focuses on the years 1938 – 1950, a period in time, which is fondly remembered by the comic book industry as the Golden Age. Many of the stories represented here seem corny compared to the gritty urban realism that was ushered in with such graphic novels as Frank Miller’s 1986 masterpiece, “The Dark Knight Returns,” or the 1987 Alan Moore classic, “Watchmen,” but the love and care these early artists put in to their work cannot be denied – especially when seen in person.

Sure it’s fun to sit back and chuckle at the absurdity of a visual of Captain Marvel wrestling a tiger shark underwater (mostly ‘cause Cap would snap that thing in a nanosecond) or the Penguin sitting confidently atop a speeding ostrich while he sprays some sort of gaseous fumes at the Dynamic Dum-Dums as he makes his (most likely short-lived) getaway. There’s also plenty of Wonder Woman illustrations, posed in any one of hundreds of light bondage predicaments she found herself victim of over the years. And let’s not forget my favorite; an original daily Superman comic strip panel which shows real-life villains, Adolph Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Hideki Tojo (drawn in wildly stereotypical buck-toothed/slant eyed fashion) discussing their plans for world domination in front of the new captive – Santa Claus. Not to give too much away, but Ol’ Father Christmas doesn’t intimidate easily.

 

Comics vs. Hitler

On a more serious note, much of the exhibition is devoted to World War II - or at least how the comic book industry handled their depiction of the campaign. Even before America officially entered into the fray, Superman, Wonder Woman, Captain America were all doing their part for God and glory - often taking on der Fuhrer himself.

The fact that fictional characters were at one time more active in the “Big One” than the actual U.S armed forces has quite a bit to do with the ethnic and religious backgrounds of the men who created these iconic champions. In the late 1930’s and early 1940’s anti-Semitism was a far greater problem in America than it is today, and while the United States true reason for entering the war in 1941 can be debated, it’s fair to say, with the benefit of history, freeing the Jewish people from concentration camps was not our country’s only concern.

American Jews had found a difficult time breaking into a number of industries during this time; one such industry was the advertising business. Hundreds of talented artists and writers were turned away from advertising companies based solely on their religious beliefs, so instead of turning to other “more accepted” professions, many Jewish artists found work in the pulp magazine business, which by the late thirties had transformed into the fledgling comic book trade.

It is said that Hitler banned Superman comics from Germany because he believed the character Superman himself was Jewish. (His creators Siegel and Schuster were, but it would be a hard sell to assume that simple 1930’s Kansas folk, Ma and Pa Kent sprung for little Clark’s bar mitzvah.) It is also interesting to point out that years later American mythologist, Joseph Campbell, compared Superman to Jesus Christ.

Campbell famously noted Superman was sent by his own father from the heavens as a baby to be raised by mortals and to save mankind. Pretty heady stuff for children’s entertainment.

Of course you’re not obligated to do a socio-religious dissertation after viewing all the amazing pencil and ink drawings at the Skirball. There is an abundance of mindless escapism on display, and if you only go to the museum to check out the original cover art of the scantily clad heroine, Moon Girl, kicking a giant Cyclops in the eye in her eponymous issue number 4 from EC comics, then you haven’t wasted any time at all.

The Skirball Cultural Center is located at 2701 North Sepulveda Blvd, in Los Angeles.

 

Gallery

Click any of the thumbnails below to view photos from the exhibit...

London stands up to Hitler in this comics page on display at Skirball Museum

Skirball Museum: original artwork from Action Comics

An early cover to Captain America on display at Skirball Museum

The Joker looms over Batman and Robin in this cover art on display at Skirball Museum

A poster for an early Batman movie serial on display at Skirball Museum

Superman applauds as Santa gives Hitler a stern rebuke in this comic strip on display at Skirball Museum

The Superman costume worn by Christopher Reeve on display at the Skirball Museum

The Dick Tracy costume worn by Warren Beatty, on display at Skirball Museum

 

COMMENTS AND RESPONSES

Showing items 1 - 4 of 4
1 
8Sofia8 7/8/2009 4:46:51 AM

Hey,

Great article, I don't have anything to add. I went there in March and thought the exhibition was very weel organized and kid-friendly. If it wasn't for the recent Superhero movies, the kids wouldn't know who wrote Batman and how many versions exist. This exhibition clarifies things and fills in the gaps.

Also, awesome photo gallery, I should have brought my camera.

Good Job

Sofia

gauleyboy420 7/8/2009 11:14:22 AM

Great Article, I love museums that treat comics with respect, and showcase a truly original American contribution to literture. (Super Heroes)

 

I do believe there may be a mistake with the Jesus/Superman comparison, or perhaps I read a differentarticle on the topic. The only Biblical character I've seen Supes compared to is Moses.

Superman #1 begins with a brief synopsis of the hero's escape from Krypton, which draws heavily on Jewish sources. Superman's journey closely reflects the story of Moses. Like the people of Krypton who faced total annihilation, the Israelites of biblical Egypt faced the murder of their male offspring. To ensure her son's survival, Jochebed places Moses in a reed basket and sets him afloat on the Nile. Her desperate decision is clearly echoed by Superman's father, Jor-El, who launches the little rocket ship containing his son into outer space.

Moses and Superman are eventually discovered and raised in foreign cultures. Baby Moses is found by Batya, the daughter of Pharaoh, and raised in the royal palace. Superman is found by Jonathan and Martha Kent in a Midwestern cornfield and given the name Clark. From the onset, both Batya and the Kents realize that these foundling boys are extraordinary. Superman leads a double life as the stuttering, spectacle-wearing reporter whose true identity no one suspects. In the same way, for his own safety, Moses kept his Israelite roots hidden for a time.

I will have to research the Jeesus comparison  by Campbell.

mikemc2 7/8/2009 11:33:48 AM

Great article.  Love these older comics.  Too bad going to L.A. for it is out of the question (too expensive).  Is there anything like this on the east coast?

JoeArtistWriter 7/8/2009 10:15:42 PM

8Sofia8, glad you enjoyed the article, and very glad you were able to experience the exhibit for yourself. BTW, they don't let you take photos of the Superheroes gallery, but they let me because it was a journalistic piece. That's the kind of clout I receive when I throw the Mania.com name around.   ;)

Gauleyboy420, I'm not at home right now, so I'm not near my Joseph Campbell book, but if he didn't say it, I've heard the Superman/Jesus comparison a number of times by others. (Including a philosophy teacher in college.) The Moses/Jesus take is a fair one as well, but here's something I found during a very quick Google search. Enjoy.

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, both Jewish, invented Superman in the late 1930's as a typically Jewish mythical hero. Jews were being oppressed by Adolph Hitler at that time and Superman or Super-Jew was their answer to Hitler. The "S" on Superman's shirt also stands for the last names of his creators. Superman comes from the planet Krypton -which sounds like "Tikkum olam" a Hebrew concept of restoring the world's wrongs. Joanne, the wife of the late Jerry Siegel, says she had often heard about the Jewish connection to Superman. Jerry Siegel is listed in the book Jewish 100 as one of the 100 most influential Jews of all time. He is listed along with Moses, Henry Kissinger and Steven Spielberg.

The Jerusalem Post quotes Daniel Schifrin of the US National Federation for Jewish Culture as saying, "The older I got the more I saw there was something profoundly Jewish about Superman, that he was one of us." He further states, "Like Clark Kent we've been Diaspora Jews for so long, being viewed as timid and bookish when underneath there are fierce Hebrew warriors doing God's work."

The 1978 movie was an 80 million dollar blockbuster - a phenomenon in its day. It was written by Mario Puzo (The God Father) and David Newman (Shena) and, of course, based on the comic book series by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

The movie Superman essentially retells the life of Jesus Christ -the ultimate Super Jew. Richard Donner, the director of Superman, had just completed filming The Omen (1976) which was a film about the Antichrist.

When Superman was released in Communist China in 1985 the Worker's Daily called Superman "a brave hero of incomparable strength who clearly distinguishes what to love and hate and culls strength from weakness." Sounds very Christ-like to me.

Mikemc3, my friend Arie Kaplan (who was a guest speaker at the Skirball recently) has written a couple of books on famous Jewish comic writers and artists. He lives in NY. I'll send him an email and maybe he'll know of a place.

I've been to the MoCCa. (597 Broadway) It's kind of small, but there's some worthwhile art hanging there.

http://www.moccany.org/

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