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Super exhibit brings Marvel U (and Ben Grimm's pants) to Philly's Franklin Institute

By Josh Weiss
The Thing at Marvel exhibit Franklin Institute

Philadelphia is a city of living history, and with the arrival of Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes, a brand-new exhibit at The Franklin Institute, comic books stand side-by-side with the Constitution. Packed with incredibly cool (and in some cases, extremely rare) artifacts from Marvel's comics, TV shows, and films, the collection is meant to document not only the origin story of Marvel Comics but also the general history of the medium.

"I wanted to tell the story of how this really tiny or vestigial wing of the publishing industry called 'comics,' and how a company goes from being just a couple of offices in a Manhattan building, producing what is seen as pulpy trash for kids ... to becoming one of the most powerful media giants of the 21st Century with characters, who are used to tell stories on every available storytelling platform," head curator and professor at the University of Oregon Ben Saunders told SYFY WIRE during a phone call.


Obviously, there was a lot to sift through when it came to Marvel's prolific past, as the company has pretty much always been more than just comics.

"We're talking about 80 years worth of pop cultural product that have been multimedia, transmedia from very early on if you count the Captain America movie serial of the 1940s or the animated [Spider-Man] cartoons of the '60s or the Hulk TV show of the '70s," Saunders says. "So, the art from the very humble beginnings of both the medium and the company to their present series of transmedia dominance is one the things that I wanted to [explore]."

With plenty of support from Marvel Entertainment, Saunders and his creative team were able to run wild with an original 80-page script for the exhibit. What Saunders didn't account for was Marvel opening his eyes to some of the more minute details in the company vault. For instance, when it came to a sculpture of Ben Grimm/The Thing dozing on a couch at the Baxter Building with the wider Marvel universe passing him by outside the window, the company was all for it, but had one simple question.

"I got a phone call [from Marvel] saying, 'Okay, we've approved this sculpture installation that you've come up with, we love the idea, so what kind of pants do you want Ben Grimm to be wearing? Because I hadn't thought of that!" Saunders says. "I'd never once imagined that I would be having a conversation about what kind of pants I want The Thing to be wearing... If you're gonna approve a design, you really have to decide, 'Well, okay, which version of The Thing are we looking at here? Or, 'Are we talking knee-lengths or briefs?'"

The sculpture, while very good for photo ops, is also meant to symbolize just how important the Fantastic Four were to the evolution of the Marvel Universe. While casual fans may only know the team by their failed movie adaptations, the original FF comics helped build out the Marvel comic book mythos as we know it today by debuting Doctor Doom, Black Panther, the Inhumans, and many more, as well as reintroducing Namor.


Then there's the original artwork, such as the cover of 1984's Amazing Spider-Man #252, which first introduced the black Spidey suit, or Jack Kirby's design for Tales of Suspense #98, which pit Black Panther against Captain America. Since Marvel has made a practice of returning artworks to their creators since the 1980s, most of these pieces are on loan from private collectors, such as Albert Moy and Eric Roberts. Other artworks, like a watercolor of Jane Foster's Thor, were commissioned especially for the exhibit. In this case, the Foster piece was done by Esad Ribic, who worked on Jason Aaron's Thor comics run.

"If you're walking through an exhibition and you've got the page of original art by Jack Kirby showing the first time Loki ever appeared in a Marvel Comic next to the helmet that Tom Hiddleston wears in the [movies], you've just drawn together 1962 and the 21st Century by juxtaposing these kinds of objects, and they're really cool to see side-by-side," Saunders says.

The show does not skimp on the modern era of Marvel media. As you walk through, you'll see costumes and props from projects such as Black Panther, Captain America, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Guardians of the Galaxy, Iron Man, Daredevil, Luke Cage, Captain Marvel, Thor: Ragnarok, Doctor Strange, and even Sam Raimi's first Spider-Man film.


When it came to the Doctor Strange gallery, Saunders wanted to capture the trippy nature of the '60s-era comics by Steve Ditko, which, in turn, influenced the 2016 live-action movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch. To achieve the look of a universe folding in on itself, the design team went with mirrors and projections with a very old-school wrinkle.

"I took my old comic book, took my 1960s Doctor Strange [comics] — one of the last stories Steve Ditko ever did where Doctor Strange goes on this long dimensional journey," Saunders says. "It's like 'What if Kandinsky decided to draw a comic book? There are these totally geometric abstract backgrounds that Doctor Strange is moving through. I sent them to the design team and they animated individual elements out of these panels, which they then projected onto the glass. So, when you move through that space, you're seeing actual Steve Ditko drawings but they're moving on a refracted multi-reflective surface."


While Stan Lee didn't have much to do with the exhibit prior to his passing last November, as he was too ill, the legendary creator did write a preface to the collection's official catalog — likely one of the last things Lee wrote before he died. There's also a memorial wall dedicated to Lee, but Saunders points out that he wanted to pay tribute to all of the classic Marvel creators (e.g. Lee, Kirby, and Ditko) without showing favoritism due to the fact that there's been a lot of contention over who deserves the most credit.

"I think about that, how lucky we were that we got Stan's blessing... even though he wasn't able to see the show. That was important to me," Saunders says. "At the same time, I very much wanted, before he passed away and I [as] was designing this thing, I wanted particularly Kirby and Ditko to get equivalent billing... I tried to avoid getting down into those particular weeds. It seems to me that no Jack, no Marvel; no Stan, no Marvel; no Steve, no Marvel... Let's pay some tribute to all these guys."


The Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes exhibit runs from now until Labor Day, so you've got the entire summer to check it out if you live in the Philly area or will be visiting the city soon. Ticketing info can be found here.

In the meantime, head on down to the media gallery below for an in-depth look at all of the artifacts this new exhibit has to offer fans, both old and new!