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