Dayton Art Institute salutes comic art (not just for geeks!)
by Jason Webber
Look! Up in the sky! It’s Superman! Spider Man! Wonder Woman! A super-sized knitted Mr. Fantastic costume! And they’re all in the Dayton Art Institute! Holy highbrow, Batman!
The colorful new DAI exhibit “You Are My Superhero,” running through Sept. 23, proves that comic book characters have flown, swung, and teleported out of the gaming conventions and stores of yore and have established themselves as true works of art worthy of serious study and respect. This 225+ piece salute to comic and cartoon art isn’t geared towards the stereotypical comic book nerd, but toward mainstream Americans, who may have never pondered the artistic impact of the Spandex-clad vigilantes that we all read about as kids.
“One of the interesting things about this exhibit is that no matter what your age is, you will have some connection to this material,” says Jane Black, associate director of the Dayton Art Institute. “Whether you’re 80 years old and you remember Superman from the ‘40s, or whether you’re 50 years old and you remember the ‘Batman’ TV show from the ‘60s or you’re 14 years old and you remember when Cassandra Cain became Batgirl. That’s what’s really great about the show is that there really is something for everyone.”
Black, who was hired as the Institute’s associate director last December, said the idea for the “You Are My Superhero” exhibit arose when DAI staff was brainstorming ideas for a summer exhibit. At first, they were having trouble pinpointing a theme that would be broad enough to attract both serious art connoisseurs and people who didn’t normally go to art exhibits. Then someone threw out the fact that the summer of 2012 was going to be positively rife with superhero movies—“The Avengers,” “The Amazing Spider Man,” “The Dark Knight Rises.” And like one of Adam West’s “Pow! Whap!” punches, inspiration struck.
“We started asking the question ‘What is a superhero?’” says Black, who also remembered an exhibit she saw in Washington, D.C. featuring the works of Mark Newport, a Detroit artist whose work explored gender roles in comic book art. She also thought about Mike Peters, a former Dayton Daily News cartoonist whose work won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 and who then went on to create the groundbreaking – and sometimes controversial – comic strip “Mother Goose and Grimm.” Black had never been an especially avid comic book reader but she began seeing how much more there was behind the standard panels of a comic book page.
“I started to see how (comic book characters) are an extension of mythology and literature, how they are representing our times and how they are influencing us. So that became the theme of the exhibition—how do we recognize a superhero? What are the signs and symbols? What are the universes they live in? What are some of the hallmarks of their behavior and their worlds? And then how is all that extrapolated out into artwork by contemporary artists?”
Soon, Black called both Peters and Newport, asking them if they would help the Institute put together the superhero-themed exhibit and they both heartily agreed. The DAI also got plenty of help from local comic book experts and collectors, including Jason Young, who not only works at Maverick’s Cards and Comics in Kettering, but is also an acclaimed comic book artist/writer himself (visit his blog at buyerbeware.guttertrash.net). Young helped create a segment of the exhibit showing the various steps that go into creating a comic book page, from brainstorming and sketching to penciling to inking to lettering. The segment is capped off by providing comic panel paper and pencils for attendees to create their own comic book pages, which are then displayed in the museum.
Other comic book shops joined in on the action, such as Centerville’s Epic Loot Games and Comics and Fairborn’s Bookery Fantasy Comics, donating rare comic books from the ‘50s and ‘60s. Jake Flannery, a student at the Columbus College of Art and Design known for his animated work, was also asked to participate, and every Thursday and Friday from 2 – 5 p.m. through Aug. 24, Flannery will be sketching and animating one of his original, hand-drawn superhero creations.
Pretty amazing stuff, but rather astounding considering that once upon a time, comic books were considered a lowbrow, proletariat form of art, a fun pastime for imaginative kids, perhaps, but never a medium worthy of serious artistic consideration. According to Black, that began to change in 1978 when a movie called “Superman,” starring an unknown actor named Christopher Reeve lived up to its tagline and made the world believe that a man could fly.
“When the ‘Superman’ movie became this huge hit, it brought superheroes back into the collective consciousness,” says Black, who also credits the “Superman” film with beginning to change the way the world viewed comic book artists. “Before that time, comic book artists almost worked in a warehouse environment—pencillers, inkers, and so on. There wasn’t that recognition of them as artists with an individual style, except within a small group of people who could really recognize them. But in 1978, (Superman creators) Joe Siegel and Jerry Schuster were practically destitute because they had never been recognized for their contributions, either financially or as individual artists. But there was a tide turn to this.”
While 1960s pop artists like Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol (indeed, there’s a Warhol screen print of Superman featured in the exhibit) arguably kick-started the artistic consideration of comic books, today no one disputes that comic and cartoon art is serious business. Consider the millions of dollars that books such as Action Comics #1 (first appearance of Superman) and Detective Comics #27 (first appearance of Batman) fetch at auction houses, not to mention the astronomical box office returns for today’s big budgeted comic book hero movies such as “The Avengers” and “The Amazing Spider Man” (compare these to the low-budget, B-movie schlock of the early Marvel Comic movies such as 1990’s direct-to-video “Captain America” and 1989’s “The Punisher” with Dolph Lundgren). It’s enough to make your pop culture spider sense tingle.
Then there’s the “You Are My Superhero” exhibit itself, which is a total triumph—and not just for comic book geeks.
The Superman room opens the exhibit and provides a virtual treasure trove of all things related to the Man of Steel, including an original pen and ink drawing by Superman creators Siegel and Schuster, and original copies of Superman #53 (July/August, 1948) and Action Comics #203 (April, 1955). As an added bonus, there are some beautiful glossy photos of the late Christopher Reeve on display. If you’re on the DAI’s guided tour of the exhibit (highly recommended), your guide will explain the backstory behind the copies of Golden Age comic hero (i.e., comic books created from the late ‘30s to the early ‘50s) Captain Marvel. Everyone knows that Captain Marvel’s power word is “Shazam!” but you might not know that this word is actually an acronym for various mythological figures including Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury. With those guys on his side, it’s no wonder Captain Marvel was such a badass.
Of course, superheroes aren’t just limited to the pages of Marvel and DC Comics. There are two great exhibits devoted to both the Lone Ranger and Zorro (during our visit to the exhibit, an elderly man couldn’t help but hum a few lines of the beloved TV show theme: “Out of the night/When the full moon is bright…”). And what would the world be without the Technicolor brilliance of Joseph Hanna and William Barbera? There’s a beautiful, original mural on display from the creators of Yogi Bear, Jonny Quest, Scooby Doo and Grape Ape, with all their characters collected together in a colorful group shot.
Even hardcore comic scholars will find something to learn at this exhibit. Take Wonder Woman for example. Everyone knows she has the invisible jet and the glowing lasso, but you might not know that Wonder Woman was actually created by the same guy who invented the polygraph machine, Mr. William Moulton Marston.
Then there’s the aforementioned Mark Newport exhibit, which presents a more thoughtful, philosophical side to the collection. Newport, who teaches fiber artwork at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, specializes in embroidering comic book covers and knitting one-piece superhero costumes. Several of his costumes are on display here, including a super-sized, elongated Mr. Fantastic costume, keeping in sync with the Fantastic Four leader’s ability to stretch his body.
“(Newport’s) work is really about gender roles and so he uses what people consider ‘women’s work’ to create artwork that examines ideas about strength and protection and how we define men’s roles and if you can really protect your family,” says Black. “There’s a real tension between material and message and it’s really the most serious part of the show. It will help people see the underlying ideas that there are these visual languages that are part of our world and that’s what we’re talking about in this show.”
The ponderous question ‘What Is A Superhero?’ seems to constantly hang in the air like a speech balloon from a comic book panel and this question was another thing that inspired the exhibit. Among the artistic artifacts on display are original drawings from both Dr. Seuss and Chuck Jones of Horton the Elephant, from “Horton Hears a Who!” fame. According to Black, Horton is just as much a superhero as Captain America.
“I remember seeing those pictures and going ‘That’s my superhero!’ Horton saved the Whos! He believed in them when no one else did! That’s a superhero!”
And of course, there’s the mad comic genius Mike Peters, who has an entire wall devoted to his offbeat, superhero inspired artwork. Prior to creating “Mother Goose and Grimm,” Peters became well known in the Dayton region for his snarky, Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoons in the pages of the Dayton Daily News and also for his eccentricities. He once donned a Superman costume and stood on the roof of the former downtown Dayton Daily News building for about 30 minutes before crawling in through a window—similar to how Superman actor George Reeves would enter The Daily Planet on the ‘50s TV series “The Adventures of Superman.” His comic book art continues to regularly feature comic book icons in humorous situations, such as one panel in the exhibit where a morose Superman is leaving a voicemail on Lois Lane’s phone saying “I think I kryptonite dialed you last night.”
So the “You Are My Superhero” exhibit truly does have it all. Laughter! Tears! Yarn! But most of all, it shows that comic book art is a bona-fide artistic medium that captures each generation’s hopes, fears, and dreams.
“There’s now a recognition of this art form that wasn’t there in the past,” says Black. “I hope when people come, even if they’re a little skeptical that this could be true art, that they come away with a real appreciation for this format.”
“You Are My Superhero” runs through Sunday, September 23 at the Dayton Art Institute, 456 Belmonte Park North. For more information visit www.daytonartinstitute.org.
Reach DCP freelance writer Jason Webber at JasonWebber@DaytonCityPaper.com.
Don’t miss these special events from the You Are My Superhero exhibit!
Sunday, Aug. 5, 2 p.m.
Mark Newport Lecture
Come see the acclaimed fiber artist discuss his superhero–inspired creations, which ponder society’s gender roles.
$5 (DAI members), $15 (non-members)
Friday, Aug. 10, 5:30 – 9 p.m.
Saturday, Aug. 11, Noon – 4 p.m.
Join the Handmade Dayton team and make yourself a costume for the Superhero Costume Ball (see below). Reservations recommended.
$25 (DAI members), $30 (non-members)
Friday, Aug. 17, 7 – 11 p.m.
Superhero Costume Ball
Put on your best superhero/villain costume (optional) and come enjoy an evening of great food, drink and music.
Advance tickets: $20 (DAI members), $25 (non-members)
Tuesday, Aug. 28, Noon – 7 p.m.
Read Comics in Public Day
Come enjoy this national day at the DAI and read comics for free in the permanent gallery collection or in the ‘You Are My Superhero’ exhibit for a discounted price.
Call for details.
For the full schedule of events, visit www.daytonartinstitute.org