A Love Letter to New York: Superheroes in GothamOctober 7, 2015
When you think of New York, you think of its famous landmarks, the native accents, fast-paced, well-dressed, and a culture that cannot simply be replicated anywhere else.
But would you think of comics?
The New York Historical Society Museum & Library’s latest exhibit Superheroes in Gotham testifies to the culmination of New York City culture that has produced the most iconic comic book characters around. Sitting alongside some of New York’s most prominent and poignant works, such as the Al Hirschfeld Gallery and a twisted FDNY truck door from the September 11th attacks. On October 7, I was invited to the press preview day, where curators Nina Nazionale and Debra Schmidt Bach were on hand to discuss the pivotal role New York has played in comics and the impact they have had on the broader, global scale.
The Superheroes in Gotham exhibit is sectioned off into three galleries. The first room, Born in New York, features the most popular superheroes whose information is displayed on a ‘collector card.’ Flanking the wall information are original artwork and standing glass cases containing the first issue or appearance of each of these characters. You’ll gaze upon the front covers of Action Comics #1, Sensation Comics #1, Amazing Fantasy #15, and others. One of the original George Reeve The Adventures of Superman costumes greets visitors upon entrance. The wool-based costume was not the only costume used for the show, as the earliest episodes were shot in black and white and used a neutral brown, grey and tan suit to pick up on film better.
“The origins of superheroes were from an era of war and depression. Most creators were sons of Jewish immigrants and had trouble finding work. They were influenced by the city, everything around them was exciting, it was a bustling metropolis,” Nazionale explained, nodding to some of the industry’s earliest creators.
There are some truly wonderful national treasures in this room, such as two of Steve Ditko’s panels for the first issue of Spider-Man. Pages 4 and 11 are showcased, complete with rubbed out and amended dialogue from one of the comic book’s industries greatest minds.
World War II is featured quite significantly as well, as the exhibit teaches how comic books were used to help train G.I’s. Will Eisner, who was drafted during WWII, helped to establish this form of training, recommending the use of comic book characters. His character, Joe Dope is one such example, showing what Nazionales calls a rather bumbling soldier transform into the caliber of infantryman the U.S. Army expected. WWII helped globalize the industry as soldiers carried comic books oversees with them.
The second gallery expands on other media and global interest. The Society has compiled tidbits from comic book heroes’ earliest media adaptations. For instance, pressing a button next to an old radio will bring you a snippet of the 1940’s The Adventures of Superman radio show. On another wall is one of Julie Newmar’s catsuit from the 1960’s Batman show. Props, script books, and other smaller, fascinating detail paint the picture of how quickly, and wide comic book heroes were adapted to other streams of media.
The third gallery, entitled Influence & Inspirations cycles back to the notion of New York as a central and common entity in comic book lore. There are comic strips from the 1970’s created by classes from DeWitt Clinton High School, the high school Stan Lee gradated from, made by students who were prompted to tell their own stories like their fellow notable alumni did. DMC, from famed hip-hop group Run DMC also contributed to the exhibit as he has launched his own comic book publisher Darryl Makes Comics that focuses a lot on his adolescent years growing up in Queens.
Fandom plays a big part here, too, and not only because New York Comic Con has grown to such a large culture event. It’s here we learn the first ever comic convention was hosted in, you guessed it, New York City in 1964.
Superheroes in Gotham exposes a comic book character seen, but never heard from. The city that has sparked young minds to create fantastical characters and has played backdrop to iconic moments in American, and global pop culture. New York is certainly the city of dreams, and this exhibit at the New York Historical Society pays overdue patronage.
The exhibit officially opens on October 9 and closes on February 21, 2016. Click here for more info.
Check out my Periscope footage of the exhibit: