This week I was going to plug my new course at New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies: “The Superhero as American Icon.” But then last week I received bad news: only two people had signed up for the course, so NYU was canceling it. This keeps happening. Where is this wave of serious interest in the comics medium that I keep hearing about?
Well, I saw that wave–a tidal wave–hit on the fifth of May. That was the day that I attended the press opening of a new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy.” Organized by curator Andrew Bolton for the Costume Institute, the Metropolitan’s department of fashion, this exhibition explores similarities between superhero costumes and contemporary trends in fashion. (See the Met’s own online version of this exhibition here)
Moreover, the most glittering social event of the year in New York City is the Costume Institute’s annual gala. This year the gala was being held for the opening of “Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy” the night of May 5, mere hours after the press preview. Two of the co-chairs of the gala were Julia Roberts and George Clooney, who, of course, played Batman in the 1997 movie Batman and Robin.
So there I was, heading towards the Metropolitan on a beautifully sunny, warm spring morning, clutching the envelope with my invitation to the press preview. I was amazed when I first saw the invitation: it had a reproduction of artwork by none other than comics’ premier creator of painted illustrations, Alex Ross (Marvels, Kingdom Come, Justice).
Arriving on Fifth Avenue outside the Museum, I was excited to see a sign “Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy” hanging above the main entrance of America. This is the Metropolitan, America’s leading art museum, and one of the greatest art museums in the world, on a short list with the Louvre. And there on the Fifth Avenue facade were signs advertising the Met’s Courbet retrospective and its “Poussin and Nature” exhibition, and in the center, a sign about a show inspired by comics.
I expected to see that “Superheroes” sign; I did not expect what I saw as soon as I passed through the front doors. There, in the center of the Museum’s Great Hall, standing atop an immense pedestal, were statues of DC Comics’ trinity, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, twelve feet tall, towering above the arriving guests. It was a sight that I dare say none of us ever imagined we’d see in the main entrance hall of this temple of high art. Was this the Bizarro World’s Metropolitan?
Despite what the Beat wrote in her blog, the statues, which had temporarily displaced the visitor information desk, were there only for the day of the gala. I subsequently found out that for the Gala’s dinner that evening, the Met’s wing housing the ancient Temple of Dendur, transplanted from Egypt, was decorated with gigantic mock ice crystals to resemble the Fortress of Solitude from the Superman movies–again, for one day only.
Turning left in the Great Hall, I entered the long central gallery of the Greek and Roman wing, passing an ancient statue of a wounded Amazon, on my way to see a show dealing with Wonder Woman. How appropriate it is that visitors must enter a hall of statues of idealized bodies, in a wing featuring images of ancient gods and heroes, in order to make their way to the Special Exhibitions Gallery where the Met’s new exhibit hails those figures of modern pop mythology, comic book superheroes.
Indeed, “Superheroes’” first wall text, accompanied by a 1981 Superman print by Andy Warhol, curator Bolton demonstrates that he too understands the connection: “Like the biblical and mythological heroes who are their ancestors. superheroes have served as avatars of our hopes, dreams, and desires. Perhaps because they . . .evolved from comic books, superheroes have been dismissed as frivolous and superficial. But superheroes should not be underestimated. Their apparent triviality is the very thing that gives them the ability to address serious issues of merit and worth, that frees them to respond to and comment upon shifting attitudes toward self and society, toward identity and ideology.” Bolton continues, “The superhero is most effective as metaphor.” Yes. He Gets It.
And what is the connection between fashion and superhero comics, you may winder? The wall text states that fashion and the superhero genre both deal with “the power of transformation. Fashion, like the superhero, celebrates metamorphosis, providing unlimited opportunities to remake and reshape the flesh and the self.” (The wall texts also appear as parts of Bolton’s essays in the Met’s catalogue for the exhibit.) To dress up, to thereby adopt a more glamorous persona, or to don clothing that expresses a side of your personality that ordinary clothing does not, is like Clark Kent turning into Superman.
In fact, early in the show there is a display in which, through lighting tricks, a mannequin dressed as Clark Kent transforms before your eyes into one dressed in Christopher Reeve’s Superman uniform from the movies. DC Comics, Warner Brothers, and Marvel cooperated with the exhibition, which includes a good number of movie costumes, including Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman uniform from the 1970s TV series (She attended the Gala that evening), Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman costume from Batman Returns (1992), Christian Bale’s Batman uniform from The Dark Knight (2008), and even the second version of Iron Man’s armor from the new movie. Both Tobey Maguire’s red and blue costume and the black costume from Spider-Man 3 (2007) are on display; the mannequin in the black costume clings to the wall, reminding me of Kiki Smith’s black sculpture of Lilith in the Met’s modern art galleries. Atop a rotating pedestal is a mannequin covered with the appliances simulating blue-skinned nudity of the sort that Rebecca Romijn wore as Mystique in the X-Men movies.
Among the printed backdrops behind the costume displays are blown-up reproductions of Alex Ross artwork from JLA: Secret Origins (2002) for the Flash section, and from Batman: War on Crime (1999), behind the Bale uniform. Yes, Alex Ross’s work is now on display at the Met, and he gets credited for it, too, unlike certain other artists, as we shall see.
There are a number of costumes in the exhibition that explicitly work variations on Superman’s “S” emblem. But the majority of the clothes in this show do not demonstrate direct influence from the comics. Rather, the “Superheroes” exhibition shows comic book artists and fashion designers following parallel paths in working along various themes. Hence, the section called “The Aerodynamic Body” compares the sleek uniform of the Silver Age Flash, suitable to a man who runs at super-speed, with bodysuits from Nike and Speedo intended for athletes. “The Patriotic Body” segment deals with American flag motifs in the uniforms of Captain America and Wonder Woman as well as costumes from the House of Dior. The Maguire Spider-Man costumes appear alongside fashions utilizing webbing motifs designed by Giorgio Armani, John Galliano, Jean Paul Gaultier, Thierry Mugler and others. (Armani even pointed out in an interview that he was not thinking of Spider-Man when he designed the costume in the show.)
The athletic bodysuits serve a practical function. As for the other costumes in the show, it is hard to imagine anyone wearing them on the street. That is probably the point: this exhibit is about fashion as dressing up for display at parties and galas, for putting on alternate identities, not as practical everyday wear.
The fashion designers’ costumes are not only often entertainingly over the top, but in a number of cases delve into kinkiness. The show links Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman costume, torn in intriguing places, to dominatrix garb, and the other mannequins in this display wear variations on that theme. Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man armor, its eyes and chest beam lit up, stands among female mannequins wearing “armored” costumes that, far from providing protection, expose vulnerable body parts, even the breasts.
The Beat described Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman costume as comparatively demure in this company. I’d say that it has a simplicity and regality that most of the fashion designers’ costumes here lack. The Met’s show emphasizes the side of superhero fashion that pushes against the limits of social acceptability. (Indeed, during the press conference that morning, curator Andrew Bolton reportedly described the costumes in display as “extreme, phantasmagoric, hard edged, aggressive, overtly sexualized fashion.”) But superhero costumes, like Captain America’s, Wonder Woman’s and Superman’s, have an iconic dimension, setting to inspire audiences with visual representations of the community’s ideals. This is a side to superhero imagery that the Met’s show fails to address.
Before I could finish going through the entire exhibit, taking notes, everyone moved out the other end of the gallery to what is perhaps my favorite space within the Met, the Petrie Sculpture Court, for a press conference. This usually quiet, sparsely populated indoor courtyard was now packed with press representatives, with photographers jammed together along one side.
The first speaker was the third co-chair of the gala, Anna Wintour, the editor in chief of Vogue. The Beat has pointed out that Wintour was the only guest at the evening’s gala who came dressed in a way that genuinely evoked superhero costumes. Wintour was quoted as saying she came as Storm from X-Men, but seeing the photos of Wintour at the Gala, I realized she looked like a very different X-Men character: a real life version of Emma Frost, the White Queen, as originally drawn by John Byrne!
Wintour devoted her speech to praising Philippe de Montebello, who has served as director of the Metropolitan since 1977, longer than anyone else in its history, and who is retiring at the end of this year. (He’s going to be teaching at NYU!) “This will be Philippe’s last Costume Institute exhibit at the museum,” she pointed out. “Alone among world class museum directors,” Wintour asserted, de Montebello had “the vision to acknowledge the role that style, self-presentation, and design play in modern culture,” and has “executed that vision in a way that has inspired millions to think of fashion as one of our most complex and rich decorative arts.” She extolled de Montebello for giving his curators “the freedom to explore the connections between what we wear and how we live,” even though “the fashion world may not be his world,” and declared de Montebello to be “superheroic.”
This should remind us that there are other artforms besides our own–fashion, film, photography–that have had to struggle for serious recognition, and that it is important to have allies in the world of high culture who are open to recognizing what is important and enduring in popular culture. It’s rather wonderful from my standpoint that de Montebello’s final Costume Institute show also represents, as far as I know, the Met’s first dabbling into the artform of comics in a half century. (Readers of R. C. Harvey’s new biography of Milton Caniff will learn that the Met did a survey of American comics back in the 1950s, and still owns an original Caniff somewhere in its archives.)
Wintour then introduced de Montebello, who had not expected her lavish praise: “I have been accused of many things,” he said, “but loss of words was never one,” confessing that he felt “so utterly overwhelmed” and “surprised” by her speech. He returned her compliment, stating that Wintour “is our superheroine” in her contributions to the Costume Institute.
Agreeing with Wintour, de Montebello said that he “did not presume” to have “expertise in fashion,” but “I did give them quite free rein,” referring to the Costume Institute’s curators. De Montebello declared that the Costume Institute had proved itself to be “not an ancillary curatorial department but a full-fledged member of the academic part of this institution.”
Significantly, de Montebello made the point that art can come in a variety of forms. “Do they have to be rectangular or framed, or carved out of stone” he asked, “as opposed to being worn?” This too is a point applicable to our own artform.
Then, demonstrating that he too “got” one of the major points of the Superheroes” exhibition, de Montebello spoke of the nearby Greek and Roman wing (whose recent renovation and reinstallation is the crowning achievement of his long directorship), “which is filled with great mythic superheroes of ancient times.” He spoke of “the representations of Hercules” as the forebear of Superman, “or the huntress, Diana” which “led to Wonder Woman,” and pointed to Antonio Canova’s statue of Perseus, slayer of the Gorgon Medusa, standing before him in the Petrie Court.
Praising “the myth itself of Anna Wintour, who has co-chaired this event for the past ten years,” de Montebello then introduced “in our midst a true myth of this field,” the honorary co-chairman of the evening’s gala, and sponsor of both the exhibit and its catalogue, fashion designer Giorgio Armani.
Armani spoke in Italian, translated by a woman standing nearby. He confessed he’d lost the paper with his prepared speech, but told us he “will figure something out,” and proceeded to improvise quite well. He first thanked New York City for supporting his work for thirty years and remarked on the “love of fashion that imbues the city [New York] at all levels–rich people, not so rich people.”
Armani said he was “surprised” to be asked to sponsor this show, since he is famous for “a fashion that is worn mainly”; as I noted, one wouldn’t wear the outfits in this show in everyday life. Armani joked that the “curators must have worked very hard to find something in my past production to be in the exhibit.” Nonetheless, he “would’ve made twenty dresses to be in this exhibit, but they said, ‘Shut up, Armani!’” Though he found the costumes on display “quite spectacular,” Armani admitted to wondering, “Did these guys have the guys to show them in London and Paris?”, referring to “the brave designers.”
Armani closed by thanking the “cartoonists from the 1930s and 1940s who conceived of these characters,” and making a reference to Flash Gordon (not a superhero, but close enough!). And as soon as he was done, the translator told us they “just found the speech.” He hadn’t needed it: he was wonderful.
Next up was curator Andrew Bolton, who revealed that “Philippe admitted in a moment of candor” to reading Captain Marvel as a child. Bolton then went on to explain that the letters of Captain Marvel’s magic word, “Shazam,” stood for the names of ancient gods and heroes; thus Bolton reinforced the point of connecting ancient mythology with the pop mythology of the superhero genre. Bolton also praised de Montebello for his “intellectual elasticity,” presumably meaning his openness to doing shows not just about unusual fashions but about comic book superheroes as well.
Bolton revealed that they had first “toyed” with the idea for this show five years ago, and that originally the idea was to focus on clothing that actually enhances one’s physical abilities. There are still some of these in the exhibit, including “wingsuits” from Atair Aerospace that enable the wearer to glide through the air. (Over at the Museum of Modern Art, in its recent “Design and the Elastic Mind” exhibition, I had seen an exoskeleton-like device that amplified the strength of the wearer’s arm, much like Iron Man’s armor!)
Bolton explained that both fashion and the superhero genre reflect the “zeitgeist” and “mirror’” themes that are “social, political, even sexual,” and that both fashion and superhero stories allow you “to act out your fantasies” and “to transform yourself.”
Bolton said that the show was “partly inspired” by Michael Chabon’s novel about the early days of comic books, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and he thanked Chabon, who wrote an essay in the catalogue and was present at the press preview (although, alas, I never saw him there).
Bolton also thanked DC and Marvel for their cooperation with the show” and their patience over our somewhat idiosyncratic interpretation.” (You mean, like Catwoman as dominatrix?)
Then Bolton introduced the final speaker, Nathan Crowley, the British production designer for the films Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, who designed the exhibition space for “Superheroes.” Crowley told us that he’d never designed a museum space before, and how he’d employed a trick from the movies, using mirrors to “elongate corridors.” I can attest that he did a great job: the first floor Special Exhibitions Gallery is usually a dark, even somewhat claustrophobic space, but “Superheroes” is brightly lighted, and the mirrored walls create a powerful illusion that the exhibit space is far bigger and more filled with people (who turn out to be reflections of ourselves) than it truly is. And can we credit Crowley for the idea of using the Alex Ross printed backgrounds?
With the press conference over, I returned to the “Superheroes” exhibition. Along a wall at the end of the exhibit was a row of vintage comic books, each relating to one of the characters featured in the show. There was Amazing Fantasy #15 (1963, the first appearance of Spider-Man), Amazing Spider-Man #252 (1984, the first appearance of Spider-Man in his black costume), Sensation #1 (1942, the first cover appearance of Wonder Woman, who had earlier debuted in All-Star Comics #8), Captain America Comics #1 (1941, the debut of Captain America, famously punching Hitler in the jaw on the cover), Incredible Hulk #1 (1972), Fantastic Four #51 (1966, “This Man, This Monster,” featuring the Thing), Batman #42 (1947, featuring the Catwoman in her Golden Age costume, which the exhibit never mentions), Detective Comics #33 (1939, an early Batman comic whose cover illustration makes his cape look particularly like bat wings), Tales of Suspense #39 (1963, the debut of Iron Man), Flash Comics #1 (1940), X-Men #1 (1963), Amazing Spider-Man #129 (the first appearance of the Punisher), and Marvel Spotlight #5 (the premiere appearance of the Ghost Rider).
Yet there was something missing. The museum’s labels for the covers on display specified the titles of the comics, their cover dates, and the name of the person or company that lent the copies of the comics. But what about the names of the artists? Like Jack Kirby, who drew the covers for Amazing Fantasy #15, FF #51, Incredible Hulk #1 and X-Men #1, and collaborated with Joe Simon on the cover of Captain America Comics #1?
For that matter, in the exhibition catalogue, distributed by Yale University Press, there are many, many reproductions of classic comic book covers, and once again, the titles of the comic books and their cover dates are specified, but not the artists’ names.
The book’s essays and the exhibition’s wall texts make a practice of listing the creators of each comic book character they mention. Some errors creep in. The Metropolitan follows DC’s official line that Bob Kane was the sole creator of Batman; once again, Batman’s first writer, Bill Finger, is the forgotten man. The wall text for Iron Man lists his creators as Stan Lee and Larry Lieber, neither of whom drew the character’s first story. (I salute the credits for the Iron Man movie for getting it right, listing Lee, Lieber, Don Heck, who drew the first story, and Jack Kirby, who designed Iron Man’s original armor.) In the case of the Flash, the exhibition and the book correctly name Gardner Fox and Harry Lampert as the creators of the original Flash back in 1940. But “Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy” is concerned not with the Golden Age Flash’s costume, but with the streamlined, modern uniform worn by the Silver Age Flash. The name of its designer, Carmine Infantino, is not to be found in the show or the catalogue.
Is it imaginable that the Metropolitan Museum would exhibit artwork in its galleries for drawings and prints on the second floor without naming the artist in the accompanying label, if that artist’s identity was known? How hard is it to identify the artists for classic DC and Marvel covers in the age of the Internet’s Grand Comics DataBase, or when there are acknowledged experts both within and outside the Big Two comics companies?
No, if the Metropolitan failed to name the comics artists responsible for those covers, then it must be that the museum did not feel that their identities are important. How different is this from the way that Roy Lichtenstein would base his pop art paintings on comics panels drawn by Kirby or by Russ Heath without crediting them? Or that Warhol at the start of the Metropolitan exhibition that is so clearly based on a Superman drawn by Curt Swan–but not credited as such?
Moreover, some of the artists who helped create the superhero costumes acclaimed in the exhibition are still with us: Joe Simon (Captain America)–95 years old but still active, Carmine Infantino (The Silver Age Flash), John Romita, Sr. (The Punisher), and Mike Ploog (Ghost Rider). Wouldn’t it be wonderful if these artists were invited to appear at the Metropolitan during the run of the exhibition, which does not close until September 1?
With “Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy,” the Metropolitan has come a long, long way towards acknowledging comics as an artform. But the Metropolitan also still has a long way to go.
There was something else at the end of the exhibit, the biggest surprise of all for me. Near that wall of vintage comics is a little gift shop, which, among other things, sells Alex Ross superhero prints and books about superior comics. And I was flabbergasted to see among them my own Marvel Comics Travel Guide to New York City! Looking further, I found The Marvel Vault, which Roy Thomas and I wrote. As I watched, one of the attendees even bought a copy of the Travel Guide, which I quickly offered to autograph. (He said yes.) And on a subsequent visit to the Metropolitan, I discovered that both books were also prominently displayed on a table in the front if this Met’s main gift shop, as well! I had never anticipated this, but I was a part of the Met’s “Superheroes” show!
Following the press conference, most of the attendees quickly left, but I stayed nearly till the exhibit closed at 1 PM, and was even interviewed by a reporter for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. (She said she had been told I was a comics historian, and I still don’t know by whom. Did any of my readers up in Canada see the CBC report on the exhibit? Did they use my interview?)
On my way out of the Museum I saw that the red carpet for that evening’s gala opening had been laid down along the Metropolitan’s celebrated front steps. I thought, why not? And I made my exit walking down the red carpet. My books were being sold at the Met, and I had just been interviewed by Canadian television; I felt like a bit of a celebrity myself.
THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK
My next stop was a nearby movie theater, where I saw a matinee screening of the new Iron Man movie. In the Beat’s annual survey last January, I wrote that one of the big comics-related stories to watch in 2008 was Marvel Studios’ first efforts at producing motion pictures in their own. There have been so many disappointing Marvel-based movies over the last decade–Ang Lee’s Hulk, Ghost Rider, Punisher, Daredevil, Elektra, the two Fantastic Four films; they may have made money, but they weren’t good. Marvel had input into these movies, but major Hollywood studios had been in charge. Could Marvel Studios, a newcomer attempting to become a new major, fare any better producing on its own? Iron Man demonstrates that the answer is yes. Iron Man has not only proved to be a commercial blockbuster, but it’s a superb translation of the comics series to the screen. To my mind, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy is still at the very top, but director Jon Favreau’s Iron Man ranks right below them, above even the X-Men movie series. Maybe Marvel Studios’ main role was simply to give Favreau and his writers and cast creative freedom, but that has proved to be a wise decision.
From seeing the trailer for the Iron Man movie, I was concerned that Robert Downey, Jr., despite looking like Tony Stark, complete with mustache, would project too lightweight a persona for the character. I was expecting a more conventional leading man performance. But watching the movie, I was quickly won over, just like the soldiers accompanying Stark in the opening scene, who swiftly segue from seemingly regarding him as obnoxious to be charmed and delighted by him.
When Stan Lee and his collaborators introduced Tony Stark in 1963, he was a “millionaire playboy” in the mode of Bruce Wayne and other pulp and comics heroes.
It’s now well known that Lee was inspired by the young Howard Hughes in depicting Stark. Movie reviewers who find it unlikely that there could be someone like Stark who was a brilliant inventor, a multimillionaire, and a handsome ladies’ man should be reminded that the young Hughes was all of these things before he was swallowed up by madness. After the Fantastic Four movies caricatured the genius Reed Richards as a stereotypical geek, it’s refreshing that the Iron Man movie makes it clear that you can be smart and simultaneously be the complete opposite of a social misfit.
Moreover, the “playboy” persona fit the early 1960s, with the rise of Playboy magazine and its definition of cool. I suppose that makes Stan Lee’s Hitchcockian cameo in this movie particularly appropriate: a gag in which Stark mistakes him for Hugh Hefner. (But Stan is so entertaining at comics cons that I wish more filmmakers would let him talk in his cameos! He’s wonderful in his bit parts in the FF movies.)
In retrospect, Stan’s treatment of Stark as playboy seems rather naive. If Stark was trying to keep secret the fact that he wore a metal chestplate that kept his injured heart beating, how did he hide it from his lovers? Even if he never took off his clothes, which would seem downright strange, wouldn’t they feel the chestplate?
How do you make the “millionaire playboy” persona work in the 21st century? Isn’t it dated? Downey, Favreau and company found a way to make it work. In the early part of the movie Downey’s Tony Stark is self-centered, often irresponsible, and frequently exasperating. And yet he’s also witty, charming, ingratiating, and genuinely fond of his friends like James Rhodes. You can see how he annoys and irritates his friends and close colleagues, like Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts, and yet it’s also perfectly clear why they continually forgive him and why he wins their loyalty and love. Downey’s Tony Stark has genuine charisma, and that is an essential part of the Stark character. Moreover, after he becomes Iron Man and develops a stronger sense of responsibility, he is credibly heroic and committed to his newfound ideals as well.
In the movie Stark starts out being irresponsible in many ways, from being inattentive to schedules to perhaps drinking too much (in an allusion to Stark’s becoming an alcoholic in the comics, quite possibly a storyline that will emerge in the movie’s sequel), to womanizing, to, most importantly, manufacturing weapons of mass destruction, even if they are intended for the U. S. government. The movie suggests that Stark’s brush with death, which leads to his becoming Iron Man, shakes him out of his immaturity, and makes him realize Stan’s famous lesson, that with great power- must come great responsibility. On returning to his factory after nearly dying in Afghanistan, Stark immediately announces that he is getting out of the munitions business. Indeed, in the movie Stark is fatally injured by his own weaponry, which has fallen into the hands of terrorists: his own bad karma has struck him down.
I didn’t think that in Stan Lee and Larry Lieber’s origin story for Iron Man back in Tales of Suspense #39 that they meant for Stark to be presented in a negative light. As noted, the playboy was considered the epitome of cool in the early 1960s. Moreover, Lee and company created Iron Man during the Cold War, only a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis (Lee’s 1960s Stark could also be regarded as Kennedyesque), and although the origin story is set in Vietnam, this was long before the antiwar movement if the 1960s became a major political force. Stan’s Iron Man stories of the 1960s take a militant Cold War viewpoint, with a parade of Communist villains, like the Titanium Man, and, of course, Wong Chu, the terrorist who captures Stark in the origin tale. I believe that Stan Lee thought that Stark was entirely admirable, both in devising weaponry for his country’s defense, and in traveling to Vietnam to witness his weaponry used in combat. In becoming Iron Man, a weapon himself, who could battle Communist super-menaces hand to hand, Stark was going to the next level.
But I don’t object to Favreau and Downey and company turning Iron Man’s origin story into a saga of personal redemption. That is very much in the Stan Lee tradition, and perhaps more specifically, in the tradition of the Stan Lee-Steve Ditko collaboration on Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. On becoming Spider-Man, Peter Parker starts turning into, well, an a-hole, using his amazing new abilities merely to seek fame and fortune, and allowing a fleeing criminal to escape because it’s none of his business. But it is indeed his business: that same Burglar murders Peter’s Uncle Ben, and Spider-Man must forever live with the guilt of knowing that he could have prevented Ben’s death but didn’t. Dr. Stephen Strange is an arrogant New York City surgeon, who is more interested in using his medical talents to make himself rich than genuinely concerned with the health of his patients. When an automobile accident injures his hands enough so that he can no longer perform operations, Strange loses everything, sinking into poverty. Only when he discovers a new purpose in life, selflessly battling evil as the student of the Ancient One, does Strange begin moving towards redemption.
I have no problem within Favreau and his collaborators turning Iron Man’s origin into a similar take of pride going before a fall, and that fall leading to moral rebirth. This is true to the overall themes of Stan Lee’s Marvel work, and it is an excellent way of making a hero whom Lee portrayed as a munitions maker and playboy acceptable to contemporary audiences.
Even in Stan’s and Larry Lieber’s original version of Iron Man’s origin, I perceive a theme that crops up repeatedly in Lee’s work. Tony Stark is a man who has everything, who seems to lead a perfect, charmed life, when it is abruptly taken away from him without warning: the multimillionaire genius is unexpectedly felled by a booby trap in Vietnam and left near the point of death. Similarly, Peter Parker did not expect that the Burglar would kill Uncle Ben, Reed Richards did not anticipate the radiation storm that struck his spaceship, Stephen Strange did not realize he would be in a car crash, and Bruce Banner did not predict that his assistant would try to kill him in the gamma bomb test. There is a disturbing side to Stan Lee’s classic origin stories: happiness and security and life itself are unstable and ephemeral, and can end at any time.
As a comics historian. I am impressed at how the Iron Man movie skillfully weaves together elements from throughout the character’s history. I do not expect movie adaptations to literally transfer every detail from the comics to the screen. It does not bother me that the site of Iron Man’s origin has been moved from Vietnam to Afghanistan: that is an intelligent updating. Moreover, given the shift in venue, I could not have hoped for a better, more powerfully effective dramatization of Stan Lee and Larry Lieber’s Iron Man origin story. The fact that in the movie the terrorists have gotten hold of Stark’s own technology makes it easier to believe that Stark could have created the original Iron Man battlesuit in primitive surroundings than it is in the original comics story.
The movie’s terrorist group is called the Ten Rings, an obvious allusion to Iron Man’s archenemy, the Mandarin. It was John Byrne, in reworking Iron Man’s origin, who first established that the Mandarin was the mastermind behind Wong Chu. Some have speculated that the bald terrorist leader in the movie will turn out to be the Mandarin in the sequel, although I would think that the filmmakers would try to cast a leading Asian star in the role. Stan Lee’s Mandarin is one of the great Marvel villains if the 1960s. But he is clearly inspired by Fu Manchu, and it will be interesting to see how Favreau and company can revamp the Mandarin to keep him from seeming to be a racist stereotype. (To Stan Lee’s credit, I never got the sense reading his stories that he meant the Mandarin to represent the Chinese in general.) with China as a rising economic power, perhaps it makes sense to portray the Mandarin as a Chinese counterpart to Tony Stark as high tech entrepreneur.
Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow even visibly has Pepper’s freckles in some close-ups) and Happy Hogan (played by Favreau) come from Stan Lee’s Iron Man stories from the 1960s. Stark’s decision to stop making munitions reflects Mike Friedrich’s Iron Man run in the 1970s. James Rhodes comes from the David Michelinie/Bob Layton collaboration that began in the late 1970s. Editor Mark Gruenwald challenged Denny O’Neil to come up with an Iron Man villain who would rival O’Neil’s great Batman villain Ra’s al Ghul: the result was Obadiah Stane. (So O’Neil has co-created the main villains for both the Iron Man movie and Batman Begins.) Initially, Jeff Bridges’s portrayal of Stane as a glad-handing corporate master of spin doesn’t seem anything like O’Neil’s sinister, enigmatic figure, but in the film’s final half hour, Bridges’s Stane projects evil worthy of O’Neil’s character. I like the fact that the movie turns Stane into the business partner of Tony’s late father. This makes Stane into a symbol of the dark side of Tony’s father, a morally ambiguous figure who went into the munitions business. Initially Tony reveres his father’s memory in the movie, but he must turn against his business.
As in O’Neil’s storyline, the movie Stane dons his own armored battlesuit, becoming the Iron Monger. The movie’s Iron Monger is enormous, like a monstrous version if Iron Man himself, representing the dark side of Tony, had he remained a munitions merchant and acceded to Stane’s policy of selling arms to any buyers, including terrorists. After seeing the movie I realized that this enormous Iron Monger also reminded me of Iron Man’s Cold War nemesis, the equally gigantic Titanium Man, and their epic combats in the 1960s.
And then there’s Samuel L. Jackson’s surprise cameo as Nick Fury after the movie’s closing credits. Marvel had already been depicting the Fury of the alternate continuity of its Ultimate line as a Jackson lookalike. With all that has been written lately about the Jewish-American heritage of early superhero comics creators, and Mark Evanier’s observation in Kirby: King of Comics that Jack Kirby regarded Nick Fury as an idealized version of himself, casting Jackson as Fury seems to be missing a big point. On the other hand, if I had to choose between David Hasselhoff, who played Fury in a TV movie, and Samuel L. Jackson, well, of course I’ll pick Jackson!
I wound up the day by attending one of the “Monday Nights with Oscar” monthly screenings that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences holds at its theater at Lighthouse International on 59th Street in Manhattan. (Yes, this is the Academy that gives out the Oscars, and an enormous reproduction of an Oscar statuette looms in one corner of the theater.) This evening’s program was titled “Tex Avery, Michael Maltese: Putting Looney in the Toons: A Double Centennial Tribute.” Avery was the great animation director who pioneered the classic “Looney Tunes” style of comedy but who created his surreal, absurdist, even postmodern, and explosively funny animated masterpieces for MGM (see “Comics in Context” #100, 101 and 188). Animation writer Maltese worked on cartoons with Warners director Friz Freleng, and later in the early Hanna-Barbera TV cartoons, but reached his peak collaborating with director Chuck Jones in the 1940s and 1950s.
The Academy had already presented this program in Los Angeles, but for the New York screening it was hosted by animation historian and New York University Professor John Canemaker. (Apparently NYU students sign up for his classes!) In last years I’ve attended Canemaker’s lectures at the Museum of Modern Art, where he promotes one of his books and shows animation relating to it, including a program of Winsor McCay animation, Disney’s Peter Pan (1953), in which Walt Disney’s great animators known as the “Nine Old Men” all worked, and Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (1951), to illustrate Canemaker’s lecture on his book about the Disney conceptual artist Mary Blair. Canemaker always presents a well-spoken, informative lecture, and I keep meaning to mention them in my column; now I finally have. He’s also written a book about Tex Avery, hence his presence this evening.
But Canemaker also pointed out that 2008 was also the centennial year for Warners’ master voice artist Mel Blanc, and the program served as an admirable retrospective of his work as well.
I could quibble with the selection of cartoons. None of the Avery cartoons on the bill reached the manic energy and reality-warping heights of his Northwest Hounded Police (1946), King Size Canary (1947), or Bad Luck Blackie (1949). For dazzling dialogue and masterful gag construction, I would have picked one of the cartoons from Jones and Maltese’s Bugs Bunny-Daffy Duck-Elmer Fudd trilogy of Rabbit Fire (1951), Rabbit Seasoning (1952) and Duck! Rabbit! Duck! (1953).
But still, the selection we got was good enough, including Avery’s Porky’s Duck Hunt (1937), in which Blanc took over voicing Porky Pig and also played Daffy Duck in his debut cartoon.
The show also included Avery’s A Wild Hare (1940) in which the trickster rabbit from previous Warners cartoons finally became the Bugs Bunny we know, complete with a New York-accented voice provided by Blanc. It was wonderful to see this cartoon again and study how well constructed the gags were; even apart from Bugs’s debut, it demonstrated how far Avery had already come in defining and mastering animated cartoon comedy.
Avery’s sultry songstress Red and stoic Droopy turned up to good effect in Little Rural Riding Hood (1949) and the Western parody Drag-a-Long Droopy (1954).
Freleng’s You Ought to Be in Pictures (1940), combining animation with live action, was shown because Maltese turns up on screen vividly playing a nasty studio guard–with a voice dubbed by Blanc!
Sometimes I feel uneasy about Pepe le Pew cartoons, since they’re really about sexual harassment, but I like it when the female cat turns the tables on Pepe as she does at the end of Jones and Maltese’s For Scent-imental Reasons (1948) in this program, providing another showcase for Blanc, channeling and parodying Charles Boyer.
By showing both the Freleng-Maltese Back Alley Oproar (1948) and the incomparable Jones-Maltese What’s Opera, Doc? (1957), the program enabled us to compare examples of Maltese’s ability to turn not only opera but even death scenes to humorous effect, as well as demonstrated Mel Blanc’s talent at conveying comedy through song, whether as Bugs acting Brunnhilde or Sylvester imitating Spike Jones (see “Comics in Context” #101 and 102). Putting A Wild Hare and What’s Opera, Doc? on the same bill also makes clear that the latter is, in effect, Jones turning his mentor Avery’s cartoon into an opera!
The program came to a satisfying close with Avery and Maltese’s collaboration on The Legend of Rockabye Point (1955) for Walter Lantz’s studio (see “Comics in Context” #189).
And what a pleasure it is to see these classic cartoons on a big theatrical screen with a large, appreciative audience, as they were originally meant to be experienced!
So: in the morning, an exhibit honoring superhero comics at America’s leading art museum, in the afternoon a critically acclaimed commercial blockbuster if a superhero movie, and in the evening, the Motion Picture Academy honors giants of the Hollywood theatrical cartoon. It was a good day for cartoon art.
But then I got the bad news about my comics course at NYU, and I thought, perhaps the cultural status of comics still hasn’t changed as much as I’d like to believe. Yet later that same week, I was invited to be a keynote speaker at an academic conference on superheroes, to be held next year. (I’ll tell you more about it when they’re ready to make a public announcement.) And I was invited specifically on the basis of my work writing “Comics in Context.”
We’re not in the Bizarro World. No, the world is changing around us, faster than we could have imagined. Many of us who have long taken comics and cartoon art seriously have dreamed that someday the world would recognize the true value of our artforms. Our dreams are now becoming realities.
LINKS IN THE AMAZON CHAIN
The Metropolitan Museum’s illustrated catalogue Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy, written by curator Andrew Bolton, is available at Amazon. com here.
As for the books by John Canemaker I referred to, their titles are The Art and Flair of Mary Blair, Tex Avery: The MGM Years, 1942-1955, Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men and the Art of Animation, and Winsor McCay: His Life and Art.
-Copyright 2008 Peter Sanderson
Leave a Reply