In the Seattle Times last week, I wrote about MoPop's new Marvel: Universe of Superheroes exhibit, an ambitious world premiere of a museum show featuring original comics art drawn by titans of the industry including Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, John Byrne, and Frank Miller; statues of Marvel's superheroes; interactive exhibits; and paraphernalia from Marvel's movies, television shows, and cartoons. The show is huge - the largest ever assembled at MoPop - and it came together in record time for the institution.
To meet the deadline established by corporate synergy — presumably, this Friday's launch date of Avengers: Infinity War — MoPop assembled Universe of Superheroes in just under a year-about half as long as it takes to put together a typical show. To get a running start, the museum recruited University of Oregon Professor Ben Saunders as chief curator. Saunders tells me over the phone that U of O hired him to teach 16th and 17th century English - "my first book is on the poet John Donne, and I taught Shakespeare for many years" - but he's gradually insinuated his lifelong passion for comics into the curriculum. "I direct the comic studies minor" at the university, Saunders says, "which is, I believe, the first minor of its kind in the country."
In recent years, Saunders curated a series of popular comics art shows at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene. His exhibits began attracting national attention, and when MoPop reached out about hosting a show in conjunction with German touring exhibition company SC Exhibitions, Saunders says he considered the opportunity to "play with the extraordinary space and resources" of MoPop "kind of a dream."
This was Saunders's first show for a non-academic setting. Did he find it difficult to balance the corporate edicts of Marvel and the profit motive of SC Exhibitions with his serious love of the medium? "It's a genuine balancing act," Saunders admits. "There are a lot of factors that, as an academic, I don't usually have to think about - things like issues of brand assurance, for example."
Saunders says that Marvel wanted "to make sure that the audience is not going to get confused" by the many versions of characters on display. Of course, no curator of a mass-market exhibit wants their audiences to leave the museum more confused than when they went in. The solution to that particular concern was to do a good job of educating and clearly marking the exhibits. And Saunders managed that with Universe of Superheroes: previous or alternate iterations of long-running heroes - Carol Danvers as Ms. Marvel in the embarrassing 1970s bare-belly costume, for instance, or Jack Kirby's initial sketches of the Black Panther under the name Coal Tiger - are clearly marked as such.
Saunders says the process of reconciling corporate interests with historical importance wasn't a particularly difficult one. "Marvel understands what a museum is," he tells me. "They understand that this isn't about creating a walkthrough infomercial for current products. And frankly, I wouldn't have said yes to it if that's what I thought this was going to be. I would have no interest in doing that."
And Marvel has always had a strong relationship with its own past. "They understand that they have a history, and they're proud of that," Saunders says. Marvel has always self-mythologized its early days, even going so far as to draw Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and the rest of the company's Bullpen into the comics.
Saunders says one of the secrets of putting a comics art show together is that you need collectors to loan the exhibit comic art from their collections. And "a good rule of thumb," he says, is "you don't want too many lenders. Because the more lenders you have, the more expensive [the exhibit] becomes."
Saunders realized this the hard way. "My first show had 19 different lenders," he says, "and I realized that was a mistake." Logistically, that's a lot of moving parts to track and a lot of personalities you have to keep happy. "What you really hope to do is track down people who are generous and willing to lend from their larger collections, and then, you don't have to go to 30 sources - you can go to between five and ten."
One of Universe of Superheroes's major lenders is Dave Mandel, a lifelong collector of original comics art. Mandel is a comedy writer who has worked on Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. He's currently a showrunner of HBO's incredible comedy Veep. "The show wouldn't be happening without him," Saunders says. "Most of the key X-Men pieces come from his collection. Dave has one of the best collections of original comic art on the west coast."
"I was always a comic book reader," Mandel tells me over the phone. "I still am to this day. I go every Wednesday to Golden Apple Comics here in LA. I'm a regular weekly reader still." Back when he was a teenager, Mandel says, he collected comics as an investment. "I thought everything I was buying was going to be worth a billion dollars someday."
"So I was buying multiple copies of issue one of whatever the new book was, like Team America," he laughs, remembering a 1982 Marvel flop about a super-powered team of motorcycle stunt riders. "Of course, that and a million dollars is worth a million dollars."
"I sort of bumped into [original comics art] by accident" at San Diego Comicon, Mandel says, "and I was just blown away by it."
To hear Mandel tell it, original comics art is the next step after the gateway drug that is collecting comics. "If I own Giant Size X-Men #1, then I have a copy and so do, I don't know, twenty thousand other people. Now, I might have a really nice copy - but so do three thousand people. But years later when I was able to purchase the cover of Giant Size X-Men #1, the original hand-drawn cover by Gil Kane and Dave Cockrum - which is also in the exhibit - that is the only one of its kind. It is the one. And that certainly appealed to my crazy collector genes."
Surely aesthetics played into it, too. What about the art appealed to him? "First of all, I think I'm a little bit of a frustrated artist," Mandel says. "So those who can't, collect." Additionally, "I love seeing the pages, seeing the notations where sometimes the writer would be talking to the artist on the sides, or a note from the artist to the inker, or the artist to the colorist, or even an editor's note." And the imperfections that don't make it to the printed page really appeal to him, too: "I love seeing the corrections, I love seeing traces of the pencils under the ink."
Mandel owns a lot of X-Men pages from the Chris Claremont era - "that X-Men run for me, that was my soap opera. I watched it the way a housewife watched General Hospital" - and Steve Ditko art. But he's not only a Marvel collector. "Just for the record, I do own Batman art. I do own Superman art. So if anyone's looking to do a big DC exhibit, call me."
An exhibit like Universe of Superheroes relies on the original artwork to give the show artistic merit, to remind audiences that this is not just intellectual property - it's real artwork drawn by real human hands. But in the future, original artwork is going to be harder to come by, as more and more artists work entirely on digital drawing tablets. Many comics artists today never put pen to paper as part of their process. "There's a wonderful artist that does a lot of work for Marvel these days by the name of Phil Noto," Mandel says. "And he basically is all digital, and I bug him about it all the time." Noto draws gorgeous covers and interior artwork, but those pages, to a collector, simply don't exist.
Mandel understands why the shift is happening. "I know some older artists that moved to digital because it's easier on their eyes. I know for other guys it can be quicker and faster. Also, a lot of guys they want to draw it, color it, and ink it - on a computer, all those steps are a lot quicker than doing them manually."
But he doesn't have to like it. "As a collector, especially with new stuff, I'll read something from time to time and really fall in love with some new book or new story and go, 'oh, who's this artist?' I'll reach out, and then I'll get disappointed: 'oh, there's no art.'"
Mandel is happy to share his collection of original comics art with the public through the Universe of Superheroes show, but he wonders what the next generation of curators will be able to show the public. He laughs: the all-digital drawing process "will make the sequel exhibit much harder, I guess."