Monday, August 10, 2009

The Golden Age of Comics exhibit

Last Friday I attended the exhibit "THE SUPERHERO: THE GOLDEN AGE OF COMIC BOOKS, 1938-1950" at the Skirball Cultural Center here in Los Angeles.

While I didn't/couldn't take any photos, LA WEEKLY has a pretty good slideshow you can check out here.

As the show title indicates, the artwork represented in the show consisted of original comic book pages and other artwork from the Golden Age of Comics, mainly the 1940s/1950s. Original works by Dick Sprang, Jerry Robinson, Frank Robbins, Carmine Infantino, Jack Kirby, Joe Simon, Will Eisner, Joe Shuster and many others were on display. I've seen lots of Golden Age comics in my time, mostly through reprints in books and such. And I've always enjoyed and admired the work those artists did. Solid craftsmen, working under factory-like conditions and grueling time schedules. These guys were often barely out of their teens, toiling on comics until they could land a more respectable job like (the thinking back then, at least) working on a newspaper strip comic.

Well, looking at these original pages really made me take a closer look at the work of these artists (literally as well as figuratively!). The amount of detail evident in the brushwork, the finesse that some of these guys used, was amazing. Even more so considering that the printing techniques and paper quality used for decades in comics never really let the superb craftsmanship really shine in the comics once they were printed.

The pages I saw that really brought me to my knees, the ones that were a joy to admire in person but humbling to a see, were four pages from Dick Sprang of a Batman VS. Penguin story. Sprang has always been my favorite Batman artist, his pure cartooning skills, and impeccable layouts, always made his Batman seem like the way Batman (and his supporting cast) 'should' always be drawn.

I was literally speechless as I admired Sprang's pages (to be perfectly honest, I was almost brought to tears...). The fun nature of his figure work was there, the very fluid, expressive cartoon feel he's always brought to his comics was crystal clear. But his attention to details, his superbly delicate mastery of his brush.... Wow. My admiration for Dick Sprang actually increased. I think also that when I look at artwork, any artwork, I enjoy it first and foremost for what the artist has created. But as an artist myself, I often look at other art and admire and study the quality and craftsmanship behind each piece. And yes, I look at my stuff in comparison to at least see what I can learn.

Besides admiring the actual artwork, a couple of things that really hit home in looking at this exhibit. It's very interesting to see just how much the comics were dealing with the reality of World War II. The superheroes were often depicted as fighting the Axis powers, even clobbering Hitler himself on many covers! All the while the U.S. was staying out of the war (pre-Pearl Harbor). It should be noted that many of the publishers and creators of the Golden Age were Jewish, so it's completely understandable how they would take a direct interest in confronting Hitler. But also, it really speaks to the very nature of heroes (least back in those times) that they would, at least symbolically, stand up to such an obvious Evil and take it down.

Another thing I noticed was in a second, smaller exhibit down the hallway. It was about the superheroes on TV and in the movies. Among the displayed items were the Batcycle from the Adam West TV show, original costumes from Christopher Reeve's SUPERMAN movies, Michael Keaton's BATMAN suit, even the CAPTAIN AMERICA costume for the 1970s TV movie. There were tons of old TV Guides, board games, action figures, and tons of merchandise from superhero movies, TV shows and cartoons. With all the hype that Hollywood has been getting from this decade's past superhero blockbuster movies, I was once again reminded as I looked at this exhibit covering 60-plus years of comic book serials, movies, TV shows, etc is that superheroes have always been, from Day One, adapted to other mediums. The ideas found in comics, the characters and stories, merit interpretation across numerous mediums. They were 'cross paltform' before the term ever existed!

I guess I really love the fact that whatever form people come into contact with comic book superheroes, whether it's the latest Hollywood movie, cartoon, toy, T-shirt, or even comic book, it always starts with someone creating something from their imagination and putting it down on paper with words and pictures.

I'm so glad I got a chance to see this exhibit. Jerry Robinson, one of the classic Batman artists and creator of The Joker (sorry Bob Kane...) curated the exhibit and in fact he owned many of the pieces in the show. I'm glad the Skirball museum hosted the exhibit and I'm really fortunate to have seen some truly wonderfully inspiring artwork.

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