Exhibit Review: "Superheroes in Gotham"

By Luke J. Feder


Over the past ten years, superheroes and comic books have had a meteoric resurgence within American culture. Superheroes have leapt from the pages of comic books; they appear regularly in blockbuster films (The Avengers and The Dark Knight), television shows (Daredevil, Arrow, and The Flash), and theatrical productions (Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark). Even non-superhero comics and graphic novels, such as Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, have achieved critical success and migrated to other mediums. Comic book conventions have expanded in scope and developed into pop culture extravaganzas that draw crowds of over 100,000 fans. Historians, philosophers, and literary scholars have also increasingly turned to comics as a subject of academic inquiry. Superheroes have become what legendary comic book writer and editor Dennis “Denny” O’Neil has termed “post-modern folklore.” Superman, Batman, Captain America, and others have, in effect, replaced “Paul Bunyan and mythic figures of earlier ages.”[1]

In an effort to chronicle the contributions that comics have made to American society and culture, the New-York Historical Society recently unveiled its exhibit, Superheroes in Gotham. In the main lobby of the historical society, visitors can view one of the original, George Barris designed Batmobiles -— number three to be exact -— from the 1966 Batman TV show. The main exhibit is located in the Luman Reed Galleries, which the curators have divided into three sections. The first of these introduces patrons to several quintessential comic book characters: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain America, Spider-Man, and Iron Man. The curators present each superhero with original artwork and sketches as well as a comic book containing an early, if not first, appearance. The Superman display, for example, includes a copy of Action Comics 1 -— the 1938 comic book that introduced the world to the Man of Steel and launched the superhero revolution within American popular culture. Individuals can behold other comics with important first appearances, such as Batman 1 (The Joker and Catwoman -— Batman first turned up in Detective Comics 27), Amazing Fantasy 15 (Spider-Man), and Tales of Suspense 39 (Iron Man). In addition to the copy of Amazing Fantasy 15, the exhibit has some of Steve Ditko’s original art from this monumental issue that helped to usher in an era of more flawed and down-to-earth superheroes. The first gallery also briefly notes how American comic books promoted nationalism and reflected anxieties during World War II.

The second gallery focuses on how comic books have influenced other aspects of popular culture. Visitors can listen to an excerpt from The Adventures of Superman, a radio show from the 1940s and 1950s, and see an animation still from Fleischer Studios’s Superman, a cartoon series from the 1940s. Batman’s influence on pop culture is also featured in this section. In addition to a poster of The Batman (1943), a film serial that introduced fans to the Bat Cave (an idea that quickly became incorporated into the comic books), there are props from the 1966 Batman series, such as the Batphone and Julie Newmar’s Catwoman costume. The final gallery, which is mainly devoted to fandom, holds several examples of early fanzines from the 1960s and 1970s, such as Jerry Bail’s Alter Ego (the first issue appeared in 1961) and Paul Levitz’s Etcetera (initially published in 1971). After creating his own fanzine, Levitz, a native New Yorker, became a writer, editor, and eventually president and publisher of DC Comics. The exhibit also notes the contributions of another native New Yorker and comic book fan, Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels. While more so known as an iconic hip-hop artist, McDaniels recently founded his own comics publishing house, Darryl Makes Comics. On display as well are materials from the very first comic book convention, The Tri-State Con (also referred to as New York Comicon), which organizers held in New York City in July 1964. The exhibit pays tribute to New York Comic Con (no relation to the 1964 event), which, in its ten years of existence, has arguably grown into the largest comic book convention on the planet.

The exhibit is quite informative and visitors will learn a lot of interesting facts—like how creators Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Will Eisner, and Stan Lee all attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. At times, however, the curators could offer more historical context and expand on the vital role that New York City played in the development of the comic book industry. Other than the brief discussion regarding World War II, the exhibit could provide a better sense of how comics mirrored changing American attitudes throughout the decades. Historian Bradford W. Wright, for instance, has traced how different eras, such as the Great Depression, World War II, and the 1960s, influenced the characters and storylines contained in comic books.[2] Curiously absent is Dr. Fredric Wertham, a German-born New York psychiatrist, who wrote Seduction of the Innocent (1954), a diatribe on the supposed ill effects that comic books were having on children. Wertham contended that comics promoted violence and moral depravity -- even going so far as to allege that Batman and Robin were in a homosexual relationship. Seduction of the Innocent resulted in senate hearings, publishers going out of business, and the creation of the Comics Magazine Association of America (CMAA) to self-regulate the content of comic books.[3] Despite these criticisms, Superheroes in Gotham excels with its gorgeous displays of vintage comic books and pop culture ephemera. It is sure to be a fun experience for fans and families -- I took my wife and kids along and we had a blast.

Superheroes in Gotham runs through February 21, 2016. Check it out, true believers!

When not reading Batman, Daredevil, and other comics, Luke J. Feder teaches at The College of New Rochelle, Brooklyn Campus. He holds a Ph.D. in history from Stony Brook University. You can read his last post, on Pope’s Day in early New York,

[1] Dennis O’Neil quoted in Mark Voger, The Dark Age: Grim, Great, and Gimmicky Post-Modern Comics (Raleigh: TwoMorrows Publishing, 2006), 36.

[2] Bradford W. Wright, Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001).

[3] For insight on Dr. Fredric Wertham and his affect on the comic book industry, see Wright, Comic Book Nation, 157-79.