One true great American art form is comic books. The genre burst from the darkness of the Great Depression with unbridled enthusiasm and creativity. It imagined wild universes of action and adventure, good and evil, far beyond on the ordinary domain of everyday life.
Not surprisingly, the arrival of Superman in 1938 unleashed a tidal wave of imitators, flooding the newsstands with the capes, masks and colorful gimmicks of many still-popular characters, such as the Flash, Green Lantern and Hawkman. The men who made the early comic books were young, ambitious, hungry and predominately Jewish, escaping from tough neighborhoods in Brooklyn and the Bronx to take Manhattan by storm; a lifestyle recently romanticized in Michael Chabon's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.
The latest exhibit Zap! Pow! Bam!: The Golden Age of Comic Books at the Janice Charach Epstein gallery pays tribute to the birth of comic books in an appropriately dynamic fashion. The show is a major undertaking for the Jewish Community Center's West Bloomfield campus, incorporating numerous multimedia elements throughout to add sparkle to an already exciting display.
Perhaps the show's best asset is guest curator Jerry Robinson, an accomplished artist and authentic Golden Age player himself; he worked for most of the major and minor publishers of the era, drawing the big guns like Batman and Superman as well as smaller stars like Johnny Quick and the Black Terror, often alongside his good friend Mort Meskin. While working for the Batman creative team of Bill Finger and Bob Kane, Robinson had a hand in creating the costumes and names for not only the Dark Knight's sidekick, Robin, but for his greatest foe, the Joker. A large chunk of the Zap! Pow! Bam! exhibit comes on loan from Robinson's personal collection, including vintage issues and priceless original artwork cultivated over his many decades in the industry.
The 84-year-old Robinson is alert and articulate about those early days and though his voice is soft his memory is still potent.
Robinson eventually left the comic book field, continuing a long career in illustration and newspaper strips, but he never forgot his friends from the old days. Most importantly, he became an advocate for artist rights, first as president of the National Cartoonists Society and then as founder of the Cartoonist and Writer's Syndicate. He was instrumental in winning a pension settlement for Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. The pair had been shut out of the huge financial rewards from the Man of Steel until the 1978 movie hoopla and protests of fellow artists finally shamed DC comics into making amends.
These days Robinson enjoys his role as a historian, preserving the legacy of comic book art. He spoke at last week's opening reception, recalling how comics were often assembled almost production line-style, with artists grouped together desk-to-desk in crowded offices known as "bullpens," where everyone traded ideas and encouragement.
"In those days they never knew the value of the work, and the original art would just be destroyed, so if there was something I really liked or thought was aesthetically strong I'd take it home," Robinson says.
It's fortunate that he did, since his collection includes sketches, scraps and gorgeous full-size finished pages. On display are works from many of the medium's finest there's everything from the bold styles of famed writers Will Eisner, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby to the elegant line work of master draftsmen like Lou Fine and Emanuel "Mac" Raboy.
The exhibit works hard to place that artwork in a social context, demonstrating how the comic books reflected the passions of the times, and even served as very effective propaganda.
The superheroes helped lead the country to war, with likes of the Human Torch and Captain Marvel taking it to the Axis on paper before America's real life WWII heroes had ever fired an official shot. The comics offered a chance for the young, mostly Jewish creators to strike prophetic blows against fascism, as when Simon and Kirby depicted Hitler taking a right cross on the chin from Captain America on the cover the March 1941 debut issue. While it's a well-known image now, it was infamous at the time called inflammatory by conservatives and even prompting Nazi sympathizers to protest and threaten to bomb the cartoonist's studio.
Zap! Pow! Bam! is a treasure chest for fans and history buffs, but it's also a great deal of fun. The planners have shrewdly included the center's existing child development center in the show, with a host of cool interactive installations like a "kryptonite machine," drawing stations and a video area where kids can act out their favorite super powers. Also on hand is a screening room to watch classic movie serials, video displays, dozens of animation cels and enough amusing distractions to make anyone feel like leaping over tall buildings in a single bound, if only for a moment.
Runs until Thursday, Dec. 14, at 6600 W. Maple Rd., West Bloomfield; 248-661-1000. Closed Fridays and Saturdays.Corey Hall is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]