G. Willow Wilson, who writes the Ms. Marvel comics, and writer Paul Constant get an early look at the big new exhibition.
The Marvel Comics stable of superheroes, from Iron Man to Spider-Man, Black Panther to Captain America, have captured the imaginations of millions around the globe — and earned tens of billions of dollars in book sales, merchandising proceeds, and box-office revenue.
In cineplexes everywhere this month, Marvel is celebrating a full 10 years of pop-cultural dominance with “Avengers: Infinity War,” its 19th film. And here in Seattle, the Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP) is marking the milestone with a brand-new exhibition, “MARVEL: Universe of Super Heroes,” opening Saturday, April 21.
At somewhere over 10,000 square feet and with more than 300 individual items on display, it’s the largest exhibition MoPOP has ever hosted. It features enormous sets of scenes from the comics; selfie-ready statues of characters; rare comics from the company’s earliest days; original comics art; paintings commissioned just for the show; interactive displays showing how comics are created; and memorabilia culled from eight decades’ worth of television shows, cartoons, films, and other multimedia tie-ins.
For a preview of the show, I brought along a special guest: Seattle novelist G. Willow Wilson, who writes a bestselling title for Marvel Comics. With artist Adrian Alphona and editor Sana Amanat, Wilson created the Pakistani American Muslim teenager Kamala Khan — a comics nerd who fights crime under the superhero name Ms. Marvel.
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The character has become a rare recent runaway success for the publisher, with collections of the “Ms. Marvel” comic going into reprints to meet heavy demand and thousands of young women dressing up like Ms. Marvel at comics conventions around the world. (Interestingly, aside from the core superheroes who were created in the 1960s, Marvel has a poor track record of creating characters who last. Before Khan, Marvel’s last big overnight character sensation was Deadpool, who was first published in February 1991.)
Better than most, Wilson understands Marvel’s twin edicts of entertainment and art. The “Ms. Marvel” comic is packed with slam-bang action — Khan exults in her ability to “embiggen” her fists to giant size in order to wallop evil robots — while advancing a deeply personal narrative that also incorporates autobiographical elements of Wilson’s Islamic faith and nerdy roots.
Together, we set out to explore how well MoPOP’s “MARVEL: Universe of Super Heroes” exhibition rises to several challenges: How do you build a show that appeals to casual Marvel fans — people who’ve liked some of the movies, say, but don’t follow the complex mythology of the books — while ensuring that the small-but-vocal contingent of lifelong comics nerds don’t trash your exhibition for being lightweight? And how can you establish serious cultural value while still serving the corporate micromanagers at Disney — owners of Marvel since 2009? Is it even possible for a museum to present the equivalent of what filmmakers call “a four-quadrant hit” — something that appeals to kids and parents and nerds and novices?
“Universe of Super Heroes” begins with a 7-minute film establishing the story of Marvel Comics. The documentary’s narration leans toward the cheesy, hyperbolic house style Marvel is known for — it ends by promising viewers that in the exhibit “you might just find the hero within!” But once inside, “Universe of Super Heroes” thankfully does more to impress by showing than by telling.
Wilson nerds out over some of the more interactive exhibits. She poses for a photograph on a couch with a life-size statue of the Fantastic Four’s lovable monster the Thing, and she pays close attention to the fine detail on the costumes worn by actors in the Marvel films. Hela’s elaborate headdress as worn by Cate Blanchett in last year’s “Thor: Ragnarok” looks disappointingly plasticky in person, but all the bulges and contours of Chris Hemsworth’s Thor costume understandably attract their fair share of attention.
Audiences are invited to interact with every part of the exhibition that’s not in cases, including a statue of the Black Panther and a short full-body video game that puts attendees in a virtual Iron Man suit and allows them to fire repulsor rays at targets in Tony Stark’s lab. In their rush to take in the larger, louder aspects of the show, attendees might miss some of the more sublime touches, like a tiny hologram of Ant-Man running around a desktop. These flashier exhibits have the air of a theme-park ride, and they definitely help to draw in younger audiences and more casual fans.
“I like the fact that it’s transmedia,” Wilson says. “I think in this day and age, you have to acknowledge that a lot of people have been brought into the Marvel Universe through the films, rather than by the comics. So the fact that they include artifacts from all those worlds — the comics, but also the TV series and the movies — I think is very clever.”
The art that started it all
But a funny thing happens in “Universe of Super Heroes” between all the fancy sets and digital displays; once you take in the mirror-and-glass wonders of Doctor Strange’s Dark Dimension, your eyes start to gravitate back to the art on the walls that started it all.
University of Oregon Professor Ben Saunders, chief curator of the exhibition, smartly insisted that the actual, hand-drawn comics pages make up the heart of the exhibition.
“Even people who don’t think they’re fans are often very excited to see the original artwork,” Saunders says. “They’re not invulnerable to that almost fetishistic aura that we can attach to the first-ever drawing of Spider-Man in his costume.”
That page, from 1962’s “Amazing Fantasy #15,” is in the show on loan from the Library of Congress, and in person it’s unlike any Spider-Man comic you’ve ever seen. Saunders compares it to “seeing a page from Shakespeare’s pen.” The printing quality of early Marvel Comics was sloppy and tended to obscure fine details from the artwork in the production process. In the exhibit, artist Steve Ditko’s thin and, well, spidery lines lend Peter Parker and his family an almost creepy aura. And the jagged webs of Spider-Man’s costume, rendered in crisp black ink on white paper, appear awkward and more than a little scary. The hand-drawn art renders a mass-produced object into something touchingly handmade and human.
This kind of artwork is all over “Universe of Super Heroes,” and Wilson admires the human touches on every page: the Scotch tape holding the title in place on an “Avengers” cover; the little “Star Trek” joke that artist John Byrne doodled in pencil on the cover of the “X-Men” issue featuring the death of Phoenix; the actual pieces of computer circuit board that experimental artist Bill Sienkiewicz pasted onto a poster of the New Mutants in 1984.
One continuous story
It’s those details that remind Wilson she’s part of a long storytelling tradition, that “the grand stories that end up being these blockbuster, bestselling books and iconic movies start out as fights [between artists and writers and editors] in small rooms with no windows.”
In this exhibition, she says, “the false starts and the deadlines and the blown deadlines” all flow into part of a long process — one continuous story, passed from hand to hand, even if that larger design “was not obvious at the time.” The realization, she says, was “unexpectedly touching for me, to have been a very small part of it.”
Wilson learned some things from the exhibition, too. “I didn’t realize that the Fantastic Four came out of a situation in which Stan Lee [former publisher, president and chairman of Marvel Comics] was in extremis and thought he was going to have to shut everything down,” she says. “The Fantastic Four’s” publishing success in 1961 saved Marvel Comics from extinction. “It resonated for me because it reminded me in a lot of ways of what Sana and I went through in the creation process of Ms. Marvel.”
Nobody expected Kamala Khan to resonate with audiences. Wilson says she expected to write “Ms. Marvel” “for seven issues and then we’d get canned.” That sense of having nothing to lose “really gives you a kind of freedom to tell exactly the story you want to tell, which you don’t always get.”
As “Universe of Super Heroes” proves, that’s often the moment when commerce transcends corporate blandness to become genuine art.
In the end, both Wilson and I are thoroughly impressed with the exhibition. Like the best Marvel stories — movies like “Black Panther” or comics like “Ms. Marvel” — “Universe of Super Heroes” broadly appeals to parents and kids, fans and newbies. It’s got enough frenetic energy to impress the most sugar-addled young minds, and enough glamour to appeal to folks who can’t tell the Falcon apart from Hawkeye. And in the middle of all the unabashed fun, the exhibition delivers a jolt of serious cultural value in the perfectly preserved comics pages that started it all.
Before the movies and the theme-park rides and the Saturday-morning cartoons, these characters were coaxed from ink and paper by the hands of artists, one line at a time.
“MARVEL: Universe of Super Heroes,” 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon-Sun, April 21-Jan. 6, 2019; Museum of Pop Culture, 325 Fifth Ave. N., Seattle; $25-$36, 206-770-2702, MoPOP.org.