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February 19 - August 9, 2009, at Skirball Cultural Center, West Los Angeles

by Jeanne Willette

For seventy years, generations have been reading, revering, and collecting the founding comics, Marvel, DC and EC Comics, which introduced Batman (and Robin), Superman, Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman. The exhibition brings together valuable artifacts from celebrated comic books created by outcasts, the sons of immigrants, many of whom were Jewish.

“We are people of the book; we are storytellers essentially and anyone who’s exposed to Jewish culture, I think, walks away for the rest of his life with an instinct for telling stories,” remarked the legendary Will Eisner, Batman creator Bob Kane’s partner. Very few of these artists would have been admitted to the mainstream art worlds of advertising or fine arts. But this motley crew of disenfranchised and unauthorized artists were independent creators, out of control subversives, who re-imagined a world saved by WASP superheroes and masked avengers who championed the weak and meek.

“We chose to be bigger, stronger, blue-eyed and sought after by blond cheerleaders,“ satirical cartoonist Jules Feiffer explained. In a pre-boomer age, comics were one of the few outlets for young people who could join an exclusive club, based on age, for ten cents. “There was practically nothing else we thought of as ours in those days,” Feiffer remembered.  By the mid-forties, this underground art form, flourishing under low expectations, sold eighty to one hundred million copies per week, with each issue passing to six to ten readers. “A national disgrace,” “a poisonous mushroom growth,” “badly-drawn, badly-written, badly-printed,” thundered children’s book author Sterling North in 1940, accusing “completely immoral publishers” of being “guilty of cultural slaughter of the innocents.”  Far from being cowed, these innocents carefully preserved “the highly colored enemy.” Many of these valuable covers can be viewed in this exhibition.

The exhibition examines not just a golden age of comics--which preceded the decades of Cold War censorship and paranoia that forced many of the pioneers to close their doors--but also a historically significant period for ordinary Americans and their superheroes: the Good War. For the Jewish creators of Superman, Jerry Spiegel and Joe Schuster, attacking the racist Nazis with their own ubermensch was deeply satisfying. Indeed all the superheroes went to war, fighting for “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.”

Fred Ray, "Superman
#14," 1941, cover art.

"Wonder Woman #1", Summer
1942, published by DC Comics.

Howard Sherman, "All Star #14," Dr.
Fate splash page, December, 1942.

Jerry Robinson, "The Joker,"
1940, first concept sketch.

In one of the most satisfying comics of the exhibition, Spiegel and Schuster did a two page spread, “What if Superman Ended the War?” in 1940, showing Superman scooping up Hitler and Stalin and depositing them before the League of Nations for judgment. Despite the fact that the superheroes were super patriots who had won the war, their comic book origins worked against them.  Like their real life hero counterparts, the Black, Mexican, and Asian troops who had also fought for America, the comic book superheroes were scorned and discarded during the Cold War. Comic books were blamed for juvenile delinquency and teen deaths and the “new spirit of violence and recklessness.”  Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman were seen as representatives of fascism, homoeroticism, and sadomasochism. Despite lack of solid evidence of any connection between comics and youth violence, city, state, and federal regulators cracked down on the distributors of comic books, spawning the censorious Comics Code Authority. Soon comic book artists were stigmatized and shunned.  By the mid-fifties, “the comic book as we knew it was dead.” Bill Gaines, who managed to survive the burnings of comic books to found Mad Magazine, remarked sadly, “Everyone was punished.  It was like the plague.”