The Wenham Museum has a simple mission: to collect and display objects that document how we, as Americans, "have worked, dressed, and played from the 17th century to today." The lion’s share of this small, Boston-area museum is devoted to childhood objects, from train sets to antique dolls, so it’s fitting that its newest exhibit, Colorful Characters: Storytelling Through Comics, focuses on another childhood pass-time: superheroes and comic books. The show, which runs until September 13, 2009, features dozens of vintage comic books, original art from local and national artists, and collectibles galore, from Catwoman Barbies to Green Lantern action figures. Last weekend, Brigid Alverson, Robin Brenner and I toured the exhibit, taking pictures and recording our thoughts on the show. In Part I of our report, we share our impressions on what worked, and what might have been improved. In Part II, to be posted later this week, Brigid sits down with curator Jane Bowers for an in-depth conversation about the exhibit.
KATE: It’s a small exhibit, but it’s well-designed. At first glance, the focus seems to be superheroes, with interactive exhibits and large cut-outs featuring perennial favorites Spider-Man, Batman, and Superman. But as you walk around the gallery, it becomes obvious that the curators made a concerted effort to represent the full spectrum of Silver and Bronze Age comics, lining the walls with some real gems: Andy Panda; Lorna, The Jungle Girl; Sergeant Preston of the Yukon; Rip Hunter, Time Master; and Bunny, The Queen of the In-Crowd. (How can you not love a comic with the tagline, "She’s hip! She’s mod! She’s boss!") The curators have also provided a few desks where kids can try their hand at cartooning, several reading stations stocked with comics, and a monitor looping scenes from the original Batman and Superman TV shows. It only takes about 15 to 30 minutes to walk through the exhibit, which seems about right for young attention spans.
ROBIN: I, too, was very pleased to see the variety of activities set out for the younger visitors. I admit to being especially taken with the wall of comics presented by young artists, including all sorts of superhero and manga-style tales. I was intrigued to see many girls signing off on their comics, and it’s always delightful to see the energy, imagination, and seriousness that kids use when given a set of panels to fill in. The very fact that they had a way for fans to express themselves aside from dressing up (there was a phone booth with a couple of Superman capes hanging inside) or jumping in the Batmobile (which I don’t think anyone resisted during the entire time we were there) was smart, and gave different types of kids a chance to add to the exhibit in a concrete way.
On the history side, I was a bit surprised to see the lack of comics from the 1980s through the present, although admittedly a lot of comics historians consider the late 1970s into the 80s a rather dark, uninspiring time for comics. However, once you hit the late 1980s, you have Sandman, Maus, and Watchmen. As someone from a generation who missed a lot of the traditional comics (Golden or Silver Age), what I remember from high school in the 1990s was everyone reading Maus for school and Sandman for pleasure, so that might have brought a personal connection to the exhibit for my generation. Part of the omissions may well be that the focus of comics started to become more adult during this era, but it would have been nice to see a nod toward more than Watchmen by taking a look at Vertigo, Wildstorm, and Dark Horse not to mention all the indie publishers. KATE: I agree about the manga exhibit: the choices were downright odd. Fist of the North Star and Street Fighter certainly have their fans, but neither are representative of what most American kids read. Why not Dragonball or Sailor Moon, both of which helped establish manga’s popularity with tweens and teens? If I’d designed the exhibit, I think I would have omitted manga altogether or focused on titles with more obvious kid appeal. I also would have liked to see more information about the comics on display. Each comic was identified by title, publisher, and date, but there wasn’t any information about the creators, nor was there much (if any) information about the comics themselves. I would have loved to know more about some of the old series: what were they about? What was the rationale for their creation (e.g. did a rival publisher had success with a jungle girl comic)? That said, I was genuinely impressed by how many girl-friendly titles were included in the exhibit. Many young fans will be surprised to see just how aggressively publishers like DC used to court female readers. Granted, the majority of these comics seem hopelessly focused on romance, but there was an astonishing range of titles on display, from straight-up Westerns (Annie Oakley) to sudsy melodrama (Heart Throbs). It would have been nice to see more female superheroes in the mix — no vintage Wonder Woman comics? — but there was a neat display of collectibles that included figurines, superhero Barbies, and a mass-produced Halloween costume that brought back fond memories for me: I’d worn that very costume while trick-or-treating back in the 1970s!
I was also pleased to see that the curators addressed the issue of censorship. There was a nice, succinct history of the Comics Code Authority, explaining their role in policing content. The exhibit also included a small display of underground comics that was accompanied by a brief description of how R. Crumb et al. used their work to openly mock the CCA — again, a thoughtful touch for folks whose primary knowledge of comics came through reading Superman and The Fantastic Four.
BRIGID: And I salute them for finding underground comics with covers clean enough to show kids!
ROBIN: I agree that a more appropriate selection of manga would have been preferable, and would have likely made today’s manga fans feel a bit more represented. The selection was puzzling given the attention given to the history of comics otherwise: Sailor Moon, Lone Wolf and Cub, and Ranma 1/2 would have been more representative of how manga arrived here in the States. I doubt it was a deliberate choice but more a question of not quite knowing what was appropriate for the exhibit both on display and as examples for visitors to page through. As Brigid notes, as the comics were mainly donated from Harrison Comics, which seems to be a more traditional comics store, then this omission is not really surprising. It also makes me want to encourage a future exhibit on the impact of manga on today’s young readers! I can offer up some action figures… I also agree with Kate — it would have been nice to have a bit more information about the covers and series on display. They were well-grouped to show off different genres and types of comics, but while I know the history myself, I would have liked a bit more of a lead through the examples.
That being said, the curators certainly used the space and display cases as well as they could, with engaging displays of action figures smartly using text bubbles to bring life to the tableaux. I am probably the only one of us that collects action figures. (I do, in fact, have a mantle piece full of them, and Oracle lives on my desk at work.) It was intriguing to me that the harder-to-find figures (female superheroes) were more plentiful as examples than the much easier-to-locate variations on Batman, Spider-Man, and the X-Men. While there were many figures from Wonder Woman to Harley Quinn, including a Barbie version of Batgirl that I admit to wishing I could take home, there were few examples of the comics these ladies appeared in to connect to the comics (Birds of Prey, anyone? Catwoman?). Still, it was an excellent chance to see some of the renowned Tonner dolls up close, so kudos for giving us that view.
"Colorful Characters" runs from now until September 13, 2009. The Museum has organized a number of special events in conjunction with the exhibit, such as a series of workshops with artist Jay Piscopo (The Undersea Adventures of Capt’n Eli) and a costume parade for young Batfans and Wonder Women. More information — including hours, admission fees, and directions — can be found at http://www.wenhammuseum.org. More pictures of the exhibit can be viewed by clicking here.