Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s two Jewish kids from Cleveland!
The fact that Superman, the defender of truth, justice and the American way, as created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, was not so much from Krypton as, in the words of cartoon artist Jules Feiffer, “from Planet Minsk,” is one of the many things to be learned from “Zap! Pow! Bam! The Superhero: The Golden Age of Comic Books, 1938-1950,” which opens at the Skirball Cultural Center this weekend.
The exhibition originated at the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in Atlanta and was curated by Jerry Robinson, an artist during the golden age of comic books, who joined the cartooning staff of the Batman comic series as a teenager, creating both Batman’s sidekick, Robin (inspired by Robin Hood), and the hero’s first supervillain, The Joker.
Robinson, who will speak at the Skirball on March 5, lent the show many artifacts from his own collection, including the artwork from many iconic covers for Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman comics, as well as Robinson’s own first concept sketch for The Joker from 1939.
“Zap! Pow! Bam!” sets these comics “in context and celebrates the Jewish artists who shaped the values of an entire generation,” according to Erin Clancey, Skirball associate curator. The show includes an impressive collection of original artwork, including early Superman sketches, as well as artwork for Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel and Captain America, among many others.
It also offers facsimiles of the original Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman comic books; a minitheater where 1940s movie serials, such as “Superman vs. The Atom,” play on a continuous loop; a vintage Batmobile ride for children under 7; as well costumes for kids to try on, instructions on how to draw superheroes and even a phone booth that rings with calls for Superman’s help.
There are issues of both iconic and little-known heroes (The Green Lama for example). And as for the Kryptonite — I can’t tell you what happens when you walk by, all I can say is watch out. Kudos go to the Skirball for managing to display so much in one of their smaller galleries.
Also, exclusively at the Skirball is an adjunct exhibition titled, “Lights, Camera, Action: Comic Book Heroes of Film and Television,” curated by Clancey, which makes the connection to Hollywood, including some of the earliest film and animated versions of Superman, Captain Marvel, Captain America and Wonder Woman. Original posters and costumes are included, among them ones worn by George Reeves as Superman, Michael Keaton as Batman and Warren Beatty as Dick Tracy. Also on view is the Batcycle, with its Robin sidecar, from the 1960s TV show.
Visitors will also appreciate the special items in the gift shop, which include not only super-hero themed books and DVDs but an assortment of T-shirts, capes, superhero-themed kitchen magnets, bobble heads, trading cards, Band-Aids and even Superman-themed kippahs and mezuzahs.
“Zap! Pow! Bam!” is particularly well curated to make the point that for a brief span of time, a small group of Jewish Americans dominated the nascent industry. Similar to the early days of the movie industry, they were for the most part children of immigrants, eager to assimilate but lacking the entrée into the higher reaches of design or literature. In the comics, they found a tremendously powerful medium for self-expression, through which they were able to both change and influence American culture.
Bios of artists, writers and editors from the golden age of comics are on view, including Superman creators Shuster and Siegel, Batman’s Bob Kane (born Kahn) and Bill Finger, the multitalented Robinson, Jack Kirby (originally Jacob Kurtzberg), Mort Meskin, Emanuel (Mac) Raboy, longtime editors Mort Weisinger and Jules Schwartz, as well as Stan Lee (born Lieber), the former president and chairman of Marvel Comics, who would come to embody comics in the 1960s and beyond.
What is striking is that most of these men were from New York, all were young (17-24) when the got involved in the medium, and they all were Jewish. Much has been made of the similarities between the stories of Moses and Superman, or how, like Samson, Superman has a secret vulnerability (Kryptonite).
However, unlike almost all the other superheroes, Superman is the character’s true identity, while the human Clark Kent, is his alter-ego, and Superman is less powerful in his costume of assimilation. Above all else in these stories, readers have always responded to the fantasy that whatever our shortcomings, our true identity as a superhero is hidden inside us, waiting to be revealed.
The exhibition also makes a convincing case that popular comic books influenced American attitudes about World War II and that it was these Jewish writers and artists who helped cast fighting the Nazis in simple terms as a battle between good and evil.
In the late 1930s, at a time when American icons like Charles Lindbergh and William Randolph Hearst — let alone President Franklin Delano Roosevelt — were counseling America to stay out of the war, comic book heroes, such as Captain America, already were battling Hitler. In one volume on display at the Skirball, Hitler refers to Superman as “swine,” and Superman refers to himself as a “non-Aryan.” Another asks, “What if Superman ended the war?” and has Superman taking Hitler and Mussolini by force before the League of Nations to stand trial.
The comics also supported those already fighting. For example, Robinson created a hero called London to dramatize the heroism of the English during the Battle of Britain.
Once America entered the war, comics continued their propaganda function. It is estimated that comic books were 80 percent of what American servicemen were reading.
The battles against Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito gave a focus, a mission to many of the comics’ heroes. Some fought their way across France and into Germany. And although the existence of Nazi extermination camps took a while to make it into print, concentration camps appeared in a 1942 volume on display at the Skirball.
During World War II, sales soared. By 1944, according to Robinson’s catalog essay, combined sales of comics reached 20 million a month. Yet after the war, they seemed to lose steam.
After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they tried to embrace the atomic age, and atomic energy was portrayed as a superforce for both good and evil, with heroes and villains alike having atomic powers.
The comics continued, but society as a whole became less interested. By the 1950s, comics came to be characterized as corruptors of youth, and they began to be regulated for the first time. The golden age was over.
My own golden age of comics was in the late 1960s and again in the early 1980s, as I was reminded recently when I opened a battered box containing my childhood collection that had been sitting in storage for many years. There were the legion of superheroes — the Fantastic Four, X-Men, Sgt. Rock and the Silver Surfer.
Re-reading them, I was struck by, first of all, how well they were written. They seemed more complex in terms of story, as well as their political allegories, than I remembered and much more complex than the movie versions that have become staples of studio summer entertainment. Still, in one way or another, they were all about war and imminent destruction.
In the forward to the exhibition’s catalog, Jane D. Leavey, executive director of the Breman Museum, makes the point that superheroes took on the role of tikkun olam, repairing the world, between 1938 and 1950, giving Americans the sense that even ordinary people could be heroes. This was both an appealing and urgent message for a society already deep in an era of economic depression and now facing a foreign war.
As the catalog’s prologue states: “During the long depression that followed the Crash, the American people craved not only humor to lift their mood, but also strong men, Super Heroes, to correct their world.”
Given that, the appearance of “Zap! Pow! Bam!” could not be better timed. Is it a coincidence that in “Amazing Spider-Man” No. 583, released Jan. 14, Barack Obama gave Spidey a fist-bump?
The golden age of comics may be long over, but this exhibition offers a great reminder of the role that storytellers and artists can play in our culture, as well as how it is times like these that call upon ordinary people to be heroes.
“Zap! Pow! Bam! The Superhero: The Golden Age of Comic Books, 1938-1950” continues through Aug. 9 at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. For information, call (310) 440-4500 or visit www.skirball.org.