Friday, October 30, 2009

The kid in me goes to an art museum.

One of the nicer parts of the University of Oregon campus is the art museum, which overall has a nicely diverse selection of works on display, ranging from ancient artifacts to classical fine art to contemporary abstract horrors. Not having been on campus for a while, I was surprised when a friend of mine tipped me off last night about the museum's latest featured exhibition: Faster Than a Speeding Bullet: The Art of the Superhero. Greatly excited by the notion, I rushed off this morning to size up the exhibit, and enjoyed it thoroughly.

The majority of the pieces on display are original pencil and ink drawings of covers and pages, the real nitty-gritty of composition, as it were. There are a handful of vintage issues on the floor, including a copy of Superman #1 in very good condition, and a number of paintings, posters, and special commissioned works to add a dash of color to what is otherwise a lot of black and white. I was especially pleased to see the work of Alex Ross out in force, but it would of course have been ridiculous not to include some of his paintings, given his completely unique take on super-hero visuals. There was also plenty of love for Jack Kirby, as is plainly the man's due.

The exhibit is arranged roughly as a visual history of the genre, but while it covers a lot of ground, it's not as comprehensive as it could have been. Most of the important points are covered, but some are notably absent; for example, one piece of handy guide text on the wall explains the political circumstances that led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority, the self-censoring body that kept explicit references to drugs, sex, and other naughty things out of the industry. No subsequent text or pieces get into the story of how the stifling atmosphere under the CCA was ultimately dispelled in the wake of this issue of Amazing Spider-man (with help from the Nixon administration, no less). Instead, we simply jump from the largely sanitized Silver Age of the 60's to the gritty, violent, and (sometimes) socially relevant 70's. But while the factual element of the history is patchy (though by no means inaccurate), the visual element is totally satisfactory. Most of the most famous and influential books and artists are represented, including classics (and personal favorites of mine) like Marvels, The Killing Joke, and Watchmen.

There's not a lot of focus on the writing of comics, apart from a corner devoted to the inimitable Alan Moore and the sadly over-imitated Frank Miller. There is a great deal, however, devoted to the examination of themes like race, gender and the perceptions thereof. Writers haven't always been smart about these issues (witness the over-the-top blaxploitation lingo of early Luke Cage comics), but there's some pretty smart essays about them in the reading material on the gallery's big round couch. I didn't read most of them, but the exhibit's open until January third. Presumably, I have some time.

The gallery housing the exhibit has an alcove, which inexplicably holds exactly two small paintings. This section is devoted to the comic book industry's reaction to the terror attacks of 9/11, often cited as a clear demonstration of the cultural relevancy of comics in the 21st century. Overplaying that angle might have been in bad taste, but it's easily the most boring part of the exhibit; setting aside that much space for so few pictures is just a bad call. "Here, Superman plays with children of various ethnicities and builds new towers out of blocks. Here, Superman admires the Real Heroes. Move along." That section could have really been fleshed out more, or at least put in a smaller space.

The most unusual object in the whole show (and thus, my favorite) is a large mixed-media promotional painting for the New Mutants, an X-Men spin-off from the 80's. It's a mad mixture of swirly abstract paint and embedded computer chips, with a handful of the series' characters placed in one corner like an afterthought. Easily the most arty thing in the room, I had half a mind to take it home with me. Getting the wheelbarrow full of money needed to accomplish this task, unfortunately, is slightly impractical for my budget.

I loved the exhibit. I only wish it were bigger, but as it is, it takes about an hour to view and fully appreciate everything there, which is plenty of time to make a point about a much-maligned art form. Super hero comics come alive in vivid colors on a page, but I doubt any true fan of the genre would be disappointed to see the art they loved taken seriously in an academic setting. The exhibit is great for children, too; I feel confident in saying this because I shared the gallery with a pair of hyper-excited eight-year-old boys. Here's hoping that comics don't grow up too much.

Finally, here's a short video, showing some of the pictures on display, along with a little academic commentary by the guest curator of the exhibit.

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