“Face front, True Believers!” —Stan Lee
Do people know when they’re starting a cultural revolution? At the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry right now, and running until April 9, is Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes, an exhibition that’s all about the juggernaut that is Marvel Comics, where it started, how it evolved, and what it means to society today.
Walking through this really remarkable, two-story installation, one can’t help but wonder, did any of the writers, artists involved, any of the newsstand and 7/11 vendors, any of those readers in the early days, did any of them realize – could anyone ever imagine – that they were taking part in or witnessing a tectonic shift in the pop-culture landscape whose rumblings and reverberations are still being felt to this day, sixty-two years later?
The first actual Marvel Comic that was ever produced under that publishing rubric, The Fantastic Four #1, sold for a whopping 10 cents, and by today’s standards contains relatively crude art and decidedly unsophisticated storytelling. That comic, which, to young Bobby Bermea was the four-color equivalent of the Dead Sea Scrolls and fills me with that same sense of wonder and awe to this day, is at the OMSI exhibit.
But in 1961, when that issue first hit the newsstands, comic books were understood to be a largely disposable medium, primarily aimed at and consumed by (or at least, according to conventional wisdom) younger readers. It’s mind-blowing — to me, at least — to think about the delivery guy who dropped off the bundle, the vendor who broke them out and stacked them on their shelves, the kid who came in with his dime and went home with that first piece of history that would literally, actually, in a very real sense, alter the cultural trajectory of a nation, if not a planet.
Mere months later comics would inflate to a staggering twelve cents — just enough to where you needed more than a dime to get a comic, maybe you had a nickel or a quarter so you might just find yourself stuck with some extra change with which to pick up another comic or some candy, never knowing, never comprehending, that sixty years later, that comic book in your hand might be in a museum exhibit that adults were paying $30 to get into. In those days, just that thought would have been almost as fantastical as the idea that someone might be bitten by a radiation-laden spider and suddenly be able to climb walls.
(That same comic, today, with my amateur eye I’m going to say it’s about a 2.0 (the comic book grading system goes up to 10 – 9.8, really, but 10), would cost you about $11,000. If you were looking for one that on that same scale graded at a 9.2, it would set you back a cool $1.5 mil. How’s that for appreciation? I’m just waiting for the check from this piece, and then I’m picking one up.)
The exhibit goes deeper than that, though. True Believers already know that “Marvel” wasn’t even Marvel’s original name. That was Timely (and later, Atlas). In 1939, eighty-four years ago, Timely Comics started with a book called, natch, Marvel Comics #1 that featured an android that burst into flames, the Human Torch, and the super-powerful Prince of Atlantis, Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner. This comic is at the exhibit. You can stand a foot away from it and it’s right there on the other side of a thin layer of Plexiglass! This is literally “where it all began”! I think about its path to this moment. When it got published, at what store, what mom and pop shop, what newsstand, was this comic sold? Who bought it? What did they do with it? Who had it afterward? What attic was it rediscovered in? How did it wind up here? It’s astounding.
Marvel Comics #1 is an interesting precursor of what was to come. The reason Marvel spoke to me as a kid more than other superhero comics is that the heroes were often outsiders, even straight-up monsters like the Hulk and the Thing. On the cover of this very first issue, the Human Torch is a monster burning through a wall that a much more human character is shooting at in terror. You could be forgiven if you thought this was the thing the world needed protection from.
Inside, the Sub-Mariner, in his on-going beef with the surface world, kills two people for invading his territory. These were the heroes. Spider-Man was a neurotic mess for whom everything always went wrong. The X-Men were hated and despised by the very world they were trying to protect. Luke Cage was an ex-con. The square-jawed goody two-shoes at the Distinguished Competition were never going to compete with that. Not for me.
The flip side of this is that the exhibit is also very much about the present moment to which Marvel Comics have arrived. There are the actual costumes that Tom Holland, Angela Bassett, Scarlett Johansson, the late, great, Chadwick Boseman and so many others wore in their various Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. Tom Holland, by the way, is tiny. And can Cate Blanchett actually fit into that Hela costume?
Thor’s hammer, Cap’s shield, it’s all there. One of my favorite installations is the one that has 3-D holograms of Ant-Man and the Wasp, the size they would be if they existed, running, jumping, hiding behind life-sized objects to give you a sense of scale. You can sit or stand or crouch and pose with the life-size statues of Spider-Man, the Hulk, or The Thing. And with the Thing, you’re sitting in front of a skyscraper “window” through which will appear perhaps another hero or two flying or jumping or swinging through the city.
There are displays about creators Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, the tentpoles that hold up the entire Marvel Universe. Of course, you could teach a college course about any one of these writers/artists, but for the brief space/time allowed, the exhibition manages to teach you just a little about their contribution to the Marvel phenomenon. Writer/artist Frank Miller also gets his due, for the role he played in the evolution of Marvel in the late ’70s/early ’80s with his run on Daredevil, expanding the emotional and narrative palette that comics creators worked with, and for his “everything-old-is-new-again” approach to revolutionizing comic-book storytelling.
There is a ton of original art pencil and ink pages, before the color gets added, in mid-process before the actual comic is produced and published. For a lot of nerds, this will be mouth-drooling material. (“Is—is—is this the original art for Amazing Spider-Man #121??”)
There’s a hall of mirrors, where you can enter the world of Dr. Strange and if you wait long enough, see Eternity take shape right before your eyes.
Interactive exhibits talk about what “four-color” means and how it works, what the “Marvel Method” of producing comics meant, or who are the other people besides the writer, penciller and inker responsible for making a comic book exist.
I’m this close to typing, “… and so much MORE!” I don’t mean to be shilling for OMSI or Marvel, and they surely don’t need me to do that for them. For me, this surprisingly thoughtful, extremely polished, multi-faceted, meticulously planned-out and -executed, obviously expensive exhibition was a very personal experience. I grew up reading and collecting comic books, and Marvel Comics in particular, and even though I was far from alone, comics were never “cool” when I was a kid. When I was in elementary school, superheroes weren’t in movies or on TV(!) to the extent that they are today, or looking as cool as they do.
Once I started getting interested in girls, and they started to come over to the house, the boxes of comics were slid into the closet and never spoken of — but never gotten rid of, either (thanks, Mom and Dad). When I wear a Marvel T-shirt and some passerby or grocery store clerk says, “Hey! I love your shirt!” that’s still odd for me. When I hear a kid somewhere around six years old expertly discussing what is and is not Marvel canon with his father, it stops me in my tracks. Nobody used to discuss “what’s Marvel canon” in public, except like, at conventions.
It’s still a little hard to wrap my brain (or heart) around the fact that a lot of young people nowadays first encounter Spider-Man, the Avengers, the X-Men, etc. via TV or the movies. And that’s fine. I first encountered Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, the Wizard of Oz, or any other number of cultural touchstones, at the movies or on TV before I read the books — and sometimes, I never even did wind up reading the books. It’s fine.
But (old man yells at cloud) young folks these days will never know what it was like to get to the end of X-Men #132 and see Wolverine drag himself out of the sewer, look directly at the viewer in the last panel and growl, “Okay, suckers — you’ve taken your best shot, now it’s my turn!” — and then have to wait for a month to see how Wolverine was going to exact his revenge.
But heck, maybe kids these days are more like, “Thank god I never had to go through that bullshit.” Maybe they’re right. I would, however, argue that that single panel led directly to Wolverine being one of the most popular characters on the planet. And I would argue that the anticipation was part of the engine that made that possible.
This particular panel came up for me because you see it highlighted at the OMSI exhibition. I own that comic. Bought it off the stands. One of my favorite experiences of the exhibit was saying, “I have that comic,” over and over again. My partner was very patient.
In that respect, the singular, most important success of the exhibition in my not-exactly-humble opinion is that no matter how old or young the Marvel fan in question, no matter what your entry point is, there is something there that you will find thrilling, fascinating, educational, or all three at the same time. And I appreciate that. I love that the exhibits have interactive displays that go into the process of how a comic book artist tells a story, why size and placement of panels might matter, or the history of the Black Panther as a concept (at one point the thought was to call him the Coal Tiger??).
To that point, Marvel Comics have always tried to be ––or at least, thought they were being — progressive. They’re based in New York, one of the most multicultural cities in the world, after all. Still, in the early days the results could be mixed (at best). If you ever read Fantastic Four #54 with the first appearance of the Black Panther, or the ensuing issue, you’ll see that even the titular heroes of that comic can have ultra-cringey responses to what they encounter in Wakanda.
Luke Cage’s “jive talk” in his early days made us uncomfortable even back then. Quiet as kept, Black Panther was strictly B-tier for years. Luke Cage sustained his own title for longer but also was never a major player in the ’70s. Still, if I ever saw a comic with either, which sometimes wasn’t often, I snatched them up. Representation matters.
Recognizing this, the exhibition makes sure to get the popular movie hero Black Panther out in front early. Cuz without him, Marvel is mighty white for a time. In this exhibition, as you move deeper into the history of Marvel, closer to our own time, you see more diversity in the heroes. The world is clearly better this way. And so is the art.
An addition I would make to this exhibition would be to create an exhibit to celebrate the artists of color who have worked at Marvel, artists including (but not limited to) Ron Wilson, Billy Graham, Keith Pollard, Ernie Chan, Alfredo Alcalá, or writers including Christopher Priest, or a host of others, and talk a little about how their journey was different from other writers’ and artists’. Or maybe a similar exhibit for women who were around in the early to early-ish days, such as Marie Severin, Mary Jo Duffy and Ann Nocenti.
I think it’s too bad that Marvel’s so corporate now, just because I think corporations are bad, in general. But in this country, if you hit big in the mainstream, that’s what you do. And for me, personally, the MCU has been falling off in quality for years.
But at this exhibition, frankly, I didn’t care about any of that. Like blues, jazz, and hip hop, comic books are an American art form that has become one of our greatest cultural exports. I grew up reading them. This exhibition is like a “This Is Your Life” of my imagination. (Though, This Is Your Life pre-dates me, thank you very much.)
It was cool to see very young kids enjoying themselves and appreciating, experiencing, these heroes, this art form, as I did when I was their age, albeit in a very different way. Here I go again. “People of ALL AGES…” — but there were! People of all ages were digging it. Most, with a very different experience of Marvel than my own. Part of me wants to say to this treasure house of my childhood, “You’ve come a long way, baby!”
But of course, none of those artists back in the day are the artists now. The stories being told then aren’t being told now, and the most popular medium for those stories isn’t even comic books anymore. And that’s okay. Change is inevitable, and should be embraced. Which, honestly, in regards to Marvel Comics, hasn’t always been easy for me.
Even though you don’t realize it, you want them to stay the same. The trick is realizing that they have. There is a lot that is different. But the sense of excitement, adventure and wonder, the hope that good will triumph over evil and that we will be wise enough to always know which is which, is still very much the same. This exhibition brings that home.
“Excelsior!” — Stan Lee
Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes
- Where: Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, 1945 S.E. Water Ave., Portland
- Through: April 9
- Hours: 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Sundays and Tuesdays-Fridays; 9:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturdays; closed Mondays
- Admission: Adults 14+, $30/members $14; Youth 3-13, $24/members $11; Seniors 63+, $27/members $12; Children 2 and younger free.