Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 9.24.2009

Affection and Nostalgia
The UO’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum gives comic books a hero’s welcome
By Aaron Ragan-Fore

“Can I touch this?” I ask, gesturing to the 70-year-old magazine sitting on the glass top counter of Nostalgia Collectibles, a Eugene comic book store. Darrell Grimes, the owner of both the shop and the comic book in question, gives his assent, and I lift the object carefully, reverently, as if I’m handling an illuminated manuscript from the Dark Ages.

Green Lantern #70, page 20, 1975, Gil Kane (pencils) and Vince Colletta (inks), On loan from Ethan Roberts, Ph.D, TM & © DC Comics
Fantastic Four #73, page 9, November 1967, Jack Kirby (pencils) and Joseph Sinnott (inks), On loan from Ethan Roberts, Ph.D, TM & © Marvel
Photo by Todd Cooper

Even encased as it is in clear, hard, protective plastic, the illustration on the comic book’s cover exudes a kinetic sense of exuberance: a boyishly grinning Superman leaps high above the rooftops, his cape billowing behind him.

This is a copy of Superman #1, published in 1939. Fewer than 200 copies are thought to exist. It’s worth $50,000. The very fact this comic book resides in Eugene makes this city noteworthy, in some circles. 

And I’m holding it. For me, comic book nerd that I am, that’s like touching the Holy Grail.

This comic, and the nearly 200 pieces of original comic book art it will soon be joining on the campus of the UO, matter to the dozens, perhaps hundreds, of hardcore comic book aficionados in the area.

But they’re also a point of pride to the citizens of Eugene as a whole, or at least they should be. Because the artwork that has been collected for “Faster Than a Speeding Bullet: The Art of the Superhero,” an exhibition opening Friday, Sept. 25, at the UO’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, is one of the most expansive gatherings of superhero comic book art ever assembled. And it’s not hanging on a wall in N.Y. or L.A. or London, or even Portland. It’s here.

“I do think this is the best museum exhibition of superhero comic art to date,” says Ben Saunders, an associate professor of English at the UO, and curator of the exhibition. “‘Best’ in the sense of broadest, most historically comprehensive,” he continues, “and with a large number of key pieces by key artists from the 70 years of the genre.”

It may sound as if Saunders is bragging about the show he’s assembled. But to be frank, the man has a right to brag: Works are on loan from the Library of Congress as well as from 18 private collectors from around the country. 

But this show is about more than just volume. Saunders is an expert on this stuff, and he has taken care to present the original artwork. Orginals are created on card stock pieces larger than the comic book pages to which they will eventually be reduced, in a manner that tells a story: not just the thrilling tales of spandexed champions or the story of good winning out over evil, but the story of the creation of a wholly new and inherently American way to tell stories in the first place.

“I went in pursuit of key works by key artists,” says Saunders, who revels in name-dropping from the collection’s impressive catalog: “Not just ‘something by Jack Kirby,’ but Jack Kirby’s cover to [Fantastic Four] #74. Not just Bill Sienkiewicz, but one of his large collage poster/covers from the mid ’80s. Not just Neal Adams, but Neal Adams on Batman.” Care has also been taken, Saunders says, to include “once-influential masters of the form” of the 1940s Golden Age of comic books, “who deserve to be better known.”

An Artistic Thesis

It’s possible I’ve overstated. Not about the importance of this collection, but rather that “Holy Grail” bit. No, for me, the Holy Grail would probably be a copy of 1938’s Action Comics #1, the magazine in which Superman first appeared, before he graduated the next year to his own eponymous comic book series. That particular issue can fetch up to $525,000, and fewer than 200 copies are thought to exist.

Darrell Grimes owns one of those, too, a companion for his Superman #1. And he’s loaning both to the J-Schnitz, along with a copy of Famous Funnies #1, a 1934 publication hailed by comics experts as the first monthly newsstand comic book; and a full page of art from 1965’s Fantastic Four #40.

Grimes doesn’t usually keep such valuable components of his art collection below the shop counter. In fact, they’re usually in safe deposit boxes, like all of Grimes’ major pieces. But today he’s letting me take a peek at these comics on Saunders’ say-so.

At first Grimes was reluctant to let his babies go on display. He trusted the JSMA’s security, but the clincher was his trust in Saunders. The earnest professor, who teaches an undergraduate class on superhero comics, is so sincere, so enthusiastic in his commitment to helping this artwork take its place in the American canon, it’s difficult not to trust that his intentions for the comic medium are genuine, and dare one say … superheroic?

Saunders has narrowed the focus of the exhibition to the superhero end of the comic book spectrum. He appreciates the intent of other festivals and exhibitions that mix superhero material with work by independent and alternative cartoonists such as Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware and Joe Sacco. “I understand wanting to say there’s more to comics than superheroes,” Saunders says, but he asserts that exhibiting the two genres side-by-side muddies their respective impacts, like trying to do a festival on ‘film’ as a topic, mixing the work of John Waters, Woody Allen and Steven Spielberg into an unwieldy whole: “There’s no coherence there.”

“Faster Than a Speeding Bullet” features 172 pages of original comic art and is arranged chronologically, demonstrating the development of the art form from adventure newspaper strips of the early 20th century to the advent of comic books and superheroes in the 1930s-40s to today’s established comic book professionals. “We have work from Joe Shuster” — Superman’s co-creator and first artist — “through to Alex Ross,” a modern fanboy favorite, Saunders says.

“There is an artistic thesis being developed here about the nature of superhero art,” Saunders says. Newspaper adventure strips such as Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon and Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant (examples of each are featured) serve as “a kind of ‘origin story’ for the superhero genre.” The art of these adventure strips showcases a naturalistic style of figure drawing and layout even in the midst of winged aliens and knights on horseback. “Prior to the days of television, you spread these out on the floor and fall into the page,” he says.

As superhero comic books evolved in the latter 1930s, Saunders says, more elements of cartooning, such as exaggerated figures and impressionistic layout, began to emerge. “This is the balancing act of all comic book artists,” he says.

Situated along this chronology will be groupings of related works, such as the original art comprising all 18 story pages from 1965’s Amazing Spider-Man #26, and all seven pages of a 1949 The Spirit comic book.  

The exhibition also tracks the visual development of Superman from the character’s emergence in the late 1930s as a barrel-chested strongman to a more lithe frame Saunders describes as “balletic,” as tastes changed over the decades. Saunders sees Superman not only as a useful tool in academic discourse on the place of virtue in an ethical society but also as a pivotal figure in the development of the comic book industry itself. “While there’s always been more to the comic book than superheroes,” Saunders says, “there would be no comic book industry without Superman.”

Saunders, who carries the mannered lilt of his native Wales, is perplexed at Americans’ evident lack of pop cultural support for the Man of Steel, evidenced by the poor critical and fan reception of the 2006 film Superman Returns. “How can you not care about this?” Saunders asks. “Superman is yours. Superman is your gift to the world.” 

Approaching the Work from the Inside

Accompanying “Faster Than a Speeding Bullet” is an academic conference Saunders has organized, which runs Oct. 23-24. Titled “Understanding Superheroes,” the event is free and open to the public, though limited to 300 guests, who must pre-register on the JSMA website. The conference sports panels and lectures with impressively scholarly titles like “My Best Enemy: The Signifying Super-Villain,” and “Secret Identity Politics: Religion, Ethnicity and Superheroes.”

In addition to a veritable Justice League’s worth of brainy academics from various universities (the forerunner of which is no doubt MIT’s Henry Jenkins, who is presenting a keynote address on comic book artist and writer David Mack), the conference will also host Oregon-based, A-list comic book writers Kurt Busiek (Superman, Astro City), Greg Rucka (Gotham Central, Whiteout) and Gail Simone (Wonder Woman, Birds of Prey) as discussants on a panel on writing for superhero comics. 

Mike Allred, a comic book artist and writer who grew up in Roseburg and now lives near Reedsport, provided a new piece of original art for the exhibition featuring a number of major heroes, including his own creation, Madman. In conjunction with the exhibition and conference, Allred will also deliver a Nov. 18 talk about the life of a comic book creator. “I wanted to give people the perspective of what it’s like to go from having this art form in your life casually as a child, to transitioning to being one of the people who creates [superheroes].”

Allred’s work frequently incorporates the color palette and stylistic tropes of 1960s comic books and pop art. “It was the sheer joy of them,” Allred says of the comics of midcentury America, that brought him into the field.

In planning the conference and its associated events, Saunders engaged in a concerted effort to balance academic guests with journeyman practitioners like Allred. “Critical discussions of superheroes have a tendency to drift into generalities about mythic systems, or abstract discussions about the sociological meanings of power fantasies,” he says. “But one can also learn a great deal from a comic creator who approaches the work ‘from the inside’ as it were.”

Saunders says he is lucky to work at the UO, an institution at which he feels “very supported at every level, both departmentally and administratively,” in pursuing academic work with comic books, and in another research area, popular American music. Beyond pop cultural topics, Saunders’ primary research and teaching focus centers on the poetry and drama of the English Renaissance. He sees a great deal of promise in the study of comics, likening a study of the themes of family relations in Hamlet, for example, to questions of virtue and morality in Superman.

“Comics studies is an emergent field, not an established one,” Saunders says. “The tiny handful of tenured academics currently working in that field were all hired to do something else.” And as much as he loves superheroes, Saunders doesn’t want perceptions of his career trajectory colored by a mistaken view that the UO supports a tenured faculty member solely so that he can sit in his office and drool over Gil Kane’s line work on Green Lantern.

“The work I have done organizing this exhibition and conference has been undertaken in addition to my regular duties but not at the expense of those duties,” Saunders says. “Eight out of every 10 classes that I teach are in the traditional field of Renaissance literature.”

Saunders notes that, like himself, many of the most ballyhooed comics creators of recent decades have been residents of, or expatriates from, Western Europe. U.K.-born creators such as Watchmen’s Alan Moore, The Sandman’s Neil Gaiman and All-Star Superman’s Grant Morrison have injected complex writing and more adult-level themes into comics work, a shift that comics critics and fans liken to their industry’s own “British invasion.”

Saunders cites the “magical aura of foreignness” that comic books exude overseas, an inescapable siren song which has for seven decades packaged American culture and values as a mass-mediated commodity, every bit as marketable to kids in Manchester, Mumbai and Mexico City as are flight, super-speed or a magic lasso. “One of the reasons I probably live in this country is the comics I read when I was five,” he explains. “They transcend American-ness.”

“When I was a kid, every kid wanted to be the president of the United Sates,” says Darrell Grimes. He explains the lasting appeal of the superhero by noting that since his childhood, increasing public scandals have revealed that sports figures, movie icons and politicians all possess feet of clay. “They fall short in the eyes of humans,” he says. To find real heroes, today’s youth (and maybe even a few adults) look to fiction. “It’s all we have left,” Grimes says. “We don’t have any real heroes anymore.”

Mike Allred also looks to his boyhood to keep himself inspired in his work. “I just kind of regressed into my childhood” in creating the Madman alternative superhero comic, he says. But even his work for industry heavyweights Marvel Comics and DC Comics fires his imagination. “It’s always been out of affection and nostalgia,” he says.

Now Ben Saunders and the Schnitzer Museum are counting on that same pair of superpowers, affection and nostalgia, to make twin successes of the exhibition and conference. And if Saunders’ own passion for the world of comic books is any indication, museum patrons will soon be flying as high as the man in the cape.