Good news, True Believers!
Not that we ever doubted it, but thanks to a new exhibit in Seattle, it can officially be stated that Marvel Comics are now indubitably museum-quality art, worthy of deeper examination and permanent preservation. So if anyone ever berated you as a kid to put down the comics and pick up some real literature — or makes that tired demand to you as an adult — you can point them toward the 10,000 square foot exhibition at the Museum of Pop Culture and suggest that you were always just ahead of the times, an art historian waiting for history to catch up.
The exhibit has actually been years in the making, and is the result of experts from a number of fields teaming up — like an academic Avengers — to piece together a worthy collection and an overarching narrative for the show. The exhibit has over 300 items from both Marvel's movies and comics, including rare issues and one-of-a-kind props. They searched across the world for the items, many of which were scattered to the winds of history and found in the homes of private collectors and former Marvel artists; a few were procured from the Library of Congress, which was really ahead of the geek curve.
Museum curator Brooks Peck and former Marvel writer/editor Ann Nocenti (who worked on iconic '80s runs of Daredevil and X-Men) helped lead the exhibit's conception and construction. They joined this week's episode of The Fandom Files to talk about the process, what it was like to write for Marvel during a crucial period in the company's creative history, and why comics-related media are more relevant and popular than ever.
While they initially considered having a narrative told by the character The Watcher, the designers ultimately decided to group the heroes into different categories and give each their own room. To give some kind of unifying theme, they open with a reconstruction of an old-time newsstand, which offers some context for just how old and historic these characters and publications have become. An even better reminder is the first-ever Marvel comic ever published, from 1939, which Peck lists as the most difficult item to procure.
Back in the early days of comics, pages were largely thrown out or recycled. Years of original artwork has been lost to time, which created a major challenge for the curators. By the time Nocenti made it to Marvel, there were some safeguards in place, but much of history was still relegated to the garbage.
"There was a strict policy that two-thirds of the pages went to the artists and one third went to the inker. The pages came back from the printer and you would physically make sure they got back to the artist or the artists would pick them up," Nocenti recalled. "But there were artists that literally never picked their stuff up. When I was working on the X-Men, some of the artists would sit there and crank out like 10 versions of what the cover could be and we'd pick one and he'd go draw and all those cover sketches with just go in the garbage."
Now, there is a rabid market for what pages remained, especially because comics have never had a more diverse audience. Geeks will tell you that the public has finally caught up, but as Nocenti suggests, comics have also finally caught up with the public.
"Black Panther is a phenomenal film, just really deep. It said, what if there was no colonialism? What if this culture developed and didn't have all those pressures? You have this incredible thing of kids going to a movie and thinking, 'That's me on the screen! That's my people,'" Nocenti said. "And you have a Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan, by G. Willow Wilson and it makes you say this is a good time for a Muslim comic that paints this tender portrait."
Peck, the outsider in this situation and the student of pop culture, agreed.
"It's just become mainstream because they are now speaking to such a wider audience," he added. "When we say in the past they were nice. Well maybe they're just niche, well maybe they were just niche because they were only speaking to a certain segment and now everybody can see themselves in the comics on the screen and, and when the storytelling is good, they're going to be into it."
For much more on the museum and comics, listen to The Fandom Files below!
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