Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Superheroes in Gotham at the New York Historical Society

The oldest museum in New York City is also one of its finest: The New York Historical Society.  This terrific venue on the Upper West Side just across the street from Central Park routinely creates stunning exhibitions, all of them in some way connecting to New York.

The museum also regularly provides film shows (the life’s blood of any museum – there is nothing better for cultivating a crowd of ‘regulars’), free lectures, and special events and days for children; it is, in short, as much as a cultural center as an exhibition space.  The smartest museums have come to realize that even the finest exhibitions draw only so many people; it is continuing programs and attractions that drive membership and attendance, and the NYSH has managed this balance with a savvy mix of dignity and razzmatazz.

There is a terrific show at the NYHS right now that shouldn’t be missed.  Regular readers of The Jade Sphinx know of our interest in the history of comic strips and comic books, as well as our soft-spot for those Titans in long underwear, superheroes.  Deftly curated by Debra Schmidt Bach and Nina Nazionale, Superheroes in Gotham argues that superheroes and New York are inseparable.

The show opens, of course, with the first and greatest of them all, Superman.  Created by youngsters Jerry Siegel and Joel Schuster, Superman’s adopted base of operations, Metropolis, is clearly a stand-in for the Big Apple.  (In fact, some of the earliest stories are set in New York, rather than Metropolis.)  We move quickly onto Batman, where Gotham City is certainly New York’s seedier sections, at night.  (An old DC Comics editorial guide used to insist that writers think of Metropolis as New York around Rockefeller Plaza, and Gotham as New York, under 14th Street.)

The show then charts the rise of heroes who are explicitly New Yorkers, including Brooklynite Captain America, Queens-boy Spider-Man and Iron Man, with his Manhattan home and Lone Island offices.

For a small show (three good-sized rooms), Bach and Nazionale have densely packed their treasures.  On hand is the original costume of George Reeves (1914-1959), worn during his run on television’s The Adventures of Superman (1952-1958), as well as Julie Newmar’s Catwoman suit from the series, Batman (1966-1968).  There is stunning production art created for the Batman series, original drawings of Superman by artist Schuster, pages of original Spider-Man art (by controversial artist Steve Ditko), as well as Jerry Siegel’s typewriter, incubator for the very first superhero stories.

Also on hand are original animation cells, film posters, schoolbooks featuring doodles and/or finished drawings by comic artists while still schoolkids themselves, and a host of other treasures, including the Batmobile used by Adam West (born 1928) in the television series. 

It’s not surprising that the genre was born here in Gotham.  This Metropolis was the home to many of its creators; in fact, of the first generation of creators, Will Eisner (1917-2005), Stan Lee (born 1922), Bob Kane (1915-1998) and Bill Finger (1914-1974) had all attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx.

The exhibition underscores beautifully how essential to the overall myth of the superhero New York City has become.  Larger-than-life heroes need a suitably large background canvas, and New York has so often been shorthand for the grandiose, the dramatic and, sometimes, the absurd.

There is also a raw energy on hand here that comics (and superheroes) no longer seem to possess.  It is as if the cauldron of the Great Depression, a gleaming art deco city (home to the world’s tallest building), and a still-possible American dream galvanized a legion of First Generation Americans to actually create our myths for us.  These have since been corrupted into mere corporate commodities, made slick and unmemorable by loud, over-produced films and stridently-seeking-relevance comic books.  But that crude power found in the original works is astonishing to behold.

If comics and superheroes are both as exciting and oddly poignant to you as they are to us, then this is a show not to be missed.  It runs until February 21, and more information can be found here:  www.nyhistory.org.

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