Comic Book Superheroes from the 1930s Are Back – Quick, to the Bat Cave!


“Look! Up in the sky! It’s a
bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s Superman!”

starts the The Adventures of Superman 1950s television series
theme song and I am hooked, sitting in my den at 6 p.m. every night
watching the Superman show (the indomitable actor George Reeves) on
the new nostalgia channel MeTV.

With all the
trouble we have in the world today, thank God Superman is around to
save us!

The Man of Steel (oh, the frequent
flyer miles that guy has got!) is just one of a dozen superheroes in
Superheroes in Gotham, the brand new, skillfully staged
exhibit that just opened at the New York Historical Society at W.
77th Street in Manhattan. He joins such favorites as
Batman and Robin, Spider Man, swinging from building to building,
Wonder Woman (Hillary Clinton, eat your heart out), Captain America,
Iron Man and others in a tribute to the comic book heroes from
American history, all the way back to 1938, when Superman’s rocket
ship from far way Krypton crashed in a Midwest farm field and the
baby was found by Ma and Pa Kent (Action Comics).

The exhibit is
titled Superheroes in Gotham primarily because the artists and
writers who invented so many of them lived in New York and worked
there and the city seemed the setting for both Metropolis and, in
Batman, Gotham City, but, really this is an exhibit that is national
in scope. Batman didn’t just save people in crime ridden Gotham, he
saved Americans all over the country.

“Comics are a huge cultural force,
but few remember their New York roots,” said Dr. Louise Mirrer,
President and CEO of the New York Historical Society in a statement.
Superheroes in Gotham will immerse visitors in the early
days of comics and their evolution, so they can learn more about the
genesis of their favorite characters, encounter new voices that
continue the creative tradition today and perhaps see aspects of
their own neighborhoods imaginatively captured on the page.”

The exhibit, curated by Debra Schmidt
Bach, opens with a huge, quite dramatic illustration of Superman
standing in a foreboding, dangerous looking New York alley at night.
You turn left to enter the exhibit and, whoa! –there is Superman’s
lush costume from the 1950s TV series. From there, you just fly high
over Metropolis, looking down at the Daily Planet newspaper building,
and over the dark, sinister skyline of Gotham City, where Batman and
Robin live.

The exhibit tells you, right away,
that many of these super heroes were created by New Yorkers during
the Depression or just before or during World War II and their
creators had them working for the war effort. One double page spread
in a Captain America comic in the exhibit urges all Americans to
support the country. Many of the artists and writers for the comics
enlisted and served throughout the war, creating magazines, brochures
and training manuals that featured their comic book characters.
Thousands of GIs carried superhero comics rolled up and stuffed in
the back pocket of their uniforms. The superheroes were a part of
U.S. history, cowls, capes and all. Batman and Robin urged readers to
buy government bonds and Captain America battled Hitler and the
Nazis throughout the war. One double page spread in one of his 1940s
comics had a huge headline ‘On to Berlin!” Wonder Woman (real
name Diana Prince) enlisted as a U.S. Army nurse.

The great strength of the exhibit is
not to inform you about the history of super heroes in comics, but to
remind you that all of them gave us, and still give us, a wonderful,
flashy other world to live in while we go through the daily grind of
life. How terrible can things be when you can see the Bat Signal up
in the sky or follow Superman as he carries a disabled plane through
the air, or follow Wonder Woman as she beats up the bad guys?

One large room of
the enchanting exhibit showcases the transition of superheroes from
comic books to radio, movies and television. They were the perfect
larger than life heroes to confront numerous larger than life enemies
and problems. The first to take to the air was Superman in his
highly rated 1940s radio show, Superman. Batman (Detective
Comics) and others soon had radio shows and then, in the 1950s and
1960s, successful television shows. Wonder Woman debuted on
television in the 1970s as part of the women’s cultural movement
because she was seen as a strong woman heroine. The show, starring
Lynda Carter, ran for several years.

Perhaps the best of all the
superhero television series was the 1966 debut of Batman, with
Adam West as Bruce Wayne. That was the series that rocketed to number
one. It featured campy scenes and all those POW, POP, CRUNCH comic
book balloons in the action scenes. People loved it and it kicked off
a Batman craze that has lasted fifty years, filled with all those
Batman movies and Adam West’s numerous appearances around the
country at Comic Con shows. He starred in a documentary about his
life a year ago.

The exhibit features all of the
ingenious gadgets you loved in the comics, movies and television
series, such as one of the actual flashy Batmobiles (big car)
that roared out of the Bat cave beneath Wayne Manor to bring its
dynamic duo to the streets of the city. There is a bat phone, a
Gotham City phone directory and costumes of several super hero
characters, even the Penguin’s black umbrella.

The exhibit has some of the first
edition Batman and Superman comics (worth quite a lot of money, I
understand) and enormous, gorgeous Superman radio show and early
Superman movie posters. There are the stories of Superman creators
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Batman writers Bob Kane and Bill
Finger. There are short stories that tell you how the superhero
comics influenced later artists, such as Jules Feiffer

One section of the exhibit is
reserved for the showing of an early Superman cartoons and snippets
from the 1950s Superman television series. There is much on
Spiderman, who grew up in Queens, a New York borough, before he made
so many successful movies (Amazing Fantasy Comics). There is a nod to
Iron Man (the movie Iron Man 45 is on its way soon, I understand).
Oddly, there is no mention of the current hit Fox television series,
Gotham, about Batman as a boy and the development of the
Gotham City Police Department.

The exhibit has a
lot of information on the first Comic Con, held in New York in 1964,
and those held around America ever since. There are stories of famous
super hero fans from the four corners of the globe celebrated at the
Comic Con shows.

The New York
Historical Society store sells everything you could think of
connected to the exhibit – biographies, illustrated books,
ponchos, figurines, Gotham City Police Department tee shirts, school
bags, Wonder Woman purses, Batman and Robin teddy bears, small
Batmobiles, and even Superman underwear for kids.

There are some weaknesses in this
otherwise impressive exhibit. The space for it should have been
bigger. They might have had a theater where old Superman TV shows and
perhaps a movie or two could play continuously. What is there is more
than enough and certainly enough for you to leap over tall buildings
at a single bound and battle the Joker on city bridges.

I cannot write any more for you.
The Bat Signal is high up in the night sky, the Bat phone just rang
and Commissioner Gordon needs me.

The exhibit runs through February
21, 2016.


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