Marvel superheroes are not, at first sight, the most museum-savvy creatures. After all, their bold and brightly colored designs are more familiar in the pages of a comic book or on the big screen with blockbusters such as Captain America, Iron Man or the Avengers. Yet Musée Art Ludique hardly bothers itself with such labels. Its previous exhibition on Pixar’s animation had already met an enthusiastic Parisian audience in its emplacement on the Austerlitz docks next to the Seine. Directly linked to Galerie Art Ludique, focused on an art market dedicated solely to entertainment art: video games, animation (stills and concept art) and of course, comics.
Comics have definitely acquired their own comfortable spot within the art world and its market – needless to say that an original Tintin page or a vintage Captain America comic from the 50s is going to attract wealthy collectors. Yet other smaller collectibles will also create a cheaper and more accessible market for many more collectors. The nostalgic power of the pages that we usually first perused as children and teenagers is strong, and the impulse to collect is even more intense with comics that create a saga over dozens if not hundreds of issues. As an avid reader of comics that has four bookshelves full of them, as well as art books, I can understand the appeal. And although the love of comics is universal, France in particular is known for its love and literary recognition of the genre.
The term comics is used here quite liberally of course: it can apply to Franco-Belgian comics, Japanese comics (also known as manga), indie comics and webcomics. American superhero comics are particular in that they possess a style and a narrative of their own that enters a kind of collective consciousness, even more than their European or Asian counterparts. Using a realistic yet exaggerated style with bright colours and muscular, heroic silhouettes, the spirit of comics is instantly recognizable. Creating an exhibition around Marvel’s superhero franchise is a clear celebration not only of their past evolution since the sixties and their present evolution within cinema. There is also a clear concern with the psychological and philosophical implications of superheroes and what they symbolize, as well as their future as cultural icons.
Stan Lee welcomes us in a video at the beginning of the exhibition and expresses his hopes to live long enough to see statues of Iron Man or Captain America being shown in museums around the world. Although any creator can deeply relate to this, there is another dimension to it: beyond their status as collectibles or movie heroes, these characters can transcend their format and become flexible within our collective imagination, become the point of focus of several stories and narratives…in short become a form of mythology in themselves.
This exhibition had an interesting format since it chose indeed not to focus category per category on comics then movies, but rather treat each character in relation to these various aspects. For example, we would move from Iron Man to Captain America along to Thor, etc. This meant that there was an immense amount of content to cover, which could have become a bit exhaustive; nevertheless the format worked, creating an mix between comic page originals and exhibits, sculpts and models from the films themselves, as well as concept art and storyboards.
The explanations showed a great balance between text and videos that were scattered throughout the exhibition, centered around various general themes: from colour symbolism to costume design through to historical and legendary origins. Stan Lee, as the co-creator of many of these characters is the centrepoint in most of them, as well as Adi Granov, the main concept artist for The Avengers’ movie franchise.
Yet it was an agreeable surprise to see that French voices had also been added to this discussion around comics, as a testimony to France’s serious dedication to the genre. Thus we heard from Olivier Copiel, a prominent French comics artist working for Marvel, but also from Joann Sfar and Zep, two important French artists whose work is, at first sight, quite different in its Franco-Belgian nature yet definitely inspired due to their own viewpoints and influences. A welcome presence was also that of the historian Franck Ferrand who added his own perspective on the birth of superheroes and their importance within our modern culture. For example, the fact that many of these superheroes, born in an era of Cold War and fear of the atomic bomb, were all created with a fragment of this atomic, radiation-related aspect, from a bite by a radioactive spider to a mutation in their genes caused by an elusive X chromosome. Fighting fear with a taste of its own medicine? Yes, but with an enduring flavour of athletic heroic prowess that dates back to Antiquity and that started with the Olympic Games.
The exhibition has an immense wealth of material to show alongside this extensive documentary aspect: original pages, concept art, even props and costumes from the films, including a peek at their new installment: Gardians of the Galaxy. The curatorial decision was to focus not on a travel through different formats but through different characters, furthermore emphasizing their adaptable nature. I would resent the overt advertising of the films themselves…but they do need to be considered as a huge part of Marvel’s influence and capacity to evolve with its time. As they explain and admit, there is a corny and kitsch aspect to a superhero that makes it difficult to adapt in a film format.
Yet Marvel pull it off very well. The element I appreciate the most about Marvel films (aside from the fact they managed to make Captain America’s uniform look dignified onscreen), is its refusal to sacrifice the main spirit and personality of their heroes in the process. DC has been veering towards increasingly dark territory in its film adaptations, easily enough with Batman but in a ridiculously far-fetched way with Superman, who became dark, gritty, prone to extreme violence and rebranded as the “Man of Steel”. Marvel keeps the ideals of its heroes at heart…as well as their weaknesses and the interest in the person behind the mask. And this ideal shines through this exhibition, touchingly intertwined with the hopes and fears of comics authors that wanted to make young people follow their dreams, or live them vicariously through their heroes.