Written by: Terrence Butcher, Special to CC2K
They say that everything becomes respectable, given enough time. The lowly comic book, once the scourge of polite society and pea-brained Red-baiting demagogues, is currently enjoying a stint in the catbird seat. The “graphic novel” got the ball rolling. First appearing in the 1980s, these long-form comics lent the medium a patina of literary seriousness, and things have never been quite the same. Paradoxically, sales of comic books have gone into the crapper, as 12 year-old boys decamped for the virtual pleasures of the Web, reality TV, and assorted other time-fillers. It’s clear that the primary audience for comics now – especially superhero titles – is composed of adult males, some old enough to ground those tweeners, when necessary.
No surprise, then, that among the most popular traveling exhibitions is ZAP! POW! BAM! The Superhero: The Golden Age of Comic Books, 1938-1950, and its companion piece, Lights, Camera, Action: Comic Book Heroes of Film and Television, both of which I recently took in at L.A.’s tony Skirball Cultural Center, in the verdant hills of Brentwood, a stone’s throw from the already-fabled Getty.
As I entered, I was greeted by a towering poster of the Man of Steel, one arm held aloft to support a massive eagle, which seems to have just arrived from the wild blue yonder. Yes, Superman, who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel in his bare hands…well, you know the drill. Anyhow, Kal-El and his pet stand against a backdrop of a vaguely triangular stars-and-stripes shield, surely Captain America’s weapon of choice. Could any image be more suffocatingly patriotic? Ironic, really, considering that the powers-that-be in postwar America sought to banish these icons from shelves, as detailed in David Hajdu’s seminal historiographic tome, The Ten-Cent Plague, which describes the little-discussed blacklisting of comics in the conformity-obsessed 1950s, and even suggests that comic books invoked a spirit of social anarchy in kids years before Elvis and Chuck Berry howled from bedside radios.
I moved on to a holographic city…Metropolis, Gotham?, then ogled a faux-brick wall which Supes was bursting through, his common modus operandi in that quaintly cheesy TV series which featured the doomed George Reeves.
Encased in glass were numerous early issues, some of which could probably finance a Hyundai, accompanied by printed bios of Golden Age luminaries, among them Joker creator Jerry Robinson(on hand that evening), impressionistic wunderkind Jack Kirby, Whitney Ellsworth, Mort Weisinger, and of course, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.
Shoring up the patriotic connection were displays of World War II-themed issues showing our boys kicking some Teutonic butt. I’ve never read any of these – I’m an early Gen Xer at best – but I doubt that any real atrocities of the Third Reich were depicted. Like so much other media content of that era, the aim was to inspire, not disturb.
As for the little tykes – you know, the younger brothers and sisters who watch Bakugan and Spongebob Squarepants with relish – there were tables for drawing and a scaled-down Batmobile for sitting. All empty. Had Mom and Dad left Junior with a babysitter? Was he too engrossed in his Nintendo DS to be dragged to a museum? Too bad, ‘cause they also provided costumes to model, and a ‘real’ hunk of kryptonite, which you didn’t dare touch, as a vocal alarm would quickly set you straight. Who knows, the overly inquisitive might be banished to the Forbidden Zone!
The best playthings were relegated to the second hall, including the Batcycle used in the 1966 Batman feature. This wild conveyance can only be described as a Goth eco-transit wet dream, a superb example of mod-era Hollywood kitsch. The damn thing even includes a detachable go-kart! Speaking of queso, I also noticed Dick Tracy’s legendary yellow coat, looking terribly polyester. If the Tracy character were created today, would any artist drape him in such a goofy thing?
Of course, toy paraphernalia was omnipresent, including items from the Popeye and Flash Gordon universes. Most of us are aware of Mike Hodges’ blinding Day-Glo Flash Gordon spectacle, but how many of you have seen the early FG serials of the 1940s? During my 70s childhood, my older bro would sit up late to watch TV repeats of these, a prelude to his interest in comic book superheroes, which in turn begat my coming obsession with Marvel Comics. Ah, memories!
An eerily accurate Chris Reeve mannequin was clad in the costume from Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, an 80s curio from the Cannon Films cellar if there ever was one. I also spotted Michael Keaton’s bondage-influenced outfit from Batman Returns. The dreadful piece de resistance, however, had to be Reb Brown’s 1970s Captain America suit, a lavender-blue nightmare which might look appropriate in Rollerball, had that been a variety show set in a roller disco. Cap was topped by a wing-embossed helmet, something Thor might wear if he’d been drafted by a Krofft Brothers football league. Shudder!
Continuing the unfortunate memories of 1970s superhero portrayals was a lackluster poster advertising 1977’s Spider-Man television movie, which spawned a worthless prime-time series, devoid of super-villains, and with The Sound of Music’s Nicholas Hammond as a mop-topped Peter Parker. But you watched it, ‘cause aside from Wonder Woman, what else was there?
In discussion that evening was the immortal Jerry Robinson, co-creator of The Joker and the man who named Bruce Wayne’s teen sidekick, Robin. Well into his eighties, Robinson’s appearance and raspy tenor reminded me of Prizzi’s Honor star William Hickey, and he seemed a tad frail. Moderated by comics veteran Mark Evanier, Robinson spoke readily about his upbringing in Manhattan’s storied Lower East Side, a mecca for Eastern European Jewish immigrants, who largely created the great Hollywood studios, and whose offspring would revolutionize superhero comics.
Robinson’s work enjoyed an early 70s exhibition at the Louvre; leave it to the French to celebrate a distinctly American art form before we recognize its value. Legend has it that Robinson sketched the Clown Prince of Crime from an ordinary playing card. Whatever the outcome of the game, he clearly played a winning hand.
“Zap! Pow! Bam! continues through August 9th at the Skirball, and will hopefully snag plenty of tourist eyeballs as the unwashed hordes descend upon the City of Angels this summer. I’ve no idea when it’s coming to your Metropolis, but I know you’ll be there.