Superheroes Rise From Camp to Art

Bloomberg View , October 05, 2011

The newest banner in the window of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh features a strikingly realistic portrait of Superman. Unfazed as bullets bounce from his chest, neck and forehead, the Man of Steel wears a calm, resolute expression, made all the more convincing by the creases and fine lines of early middle age.

To comic book fans, it’s an instantly recognizable image: Superman as imagined by Alex Ross, one of the contemporary comic world’s star artists. And the Warhol Museum exhibit “Heroes and Villains: The Comic Book Art of Alex Ross,” which opened Oct. 1, marks a significant cultural moment.

Displaying more than 130 of Ross’s paintings, drawings and sculptures, from his early childhood to recent works, it’s the first museum show devoted to a single artist’s renderings of superheroes, treating the works not as cultural history but as art.

It’s a very Warholian gesture, honoring commercial art whose subject matter is beloved by the public but traditionally scorned by critics. “Warhol was a big comic book fan, and we’re the pop culture museum,” says Jesse Kowalski, the museum’s director of exhibitions, explaining why he conceived and organized the Ross show. “What art is more pop culture than comic book art?”

Unlike some of the museum’s more esoteric shows, such as a current exhibit of Warhol’s films (“This is boring!” a disgusted visitor declared), this one is a crowd-pleaser.

More important, it also captures a significant shift in public attitudes, one with big economic consequences. Contemporary adult audiences simultaneously recognize the artifice and fantasy of the superhero world and appreciate its imaginative pleasures. Straightforward escapism has replaced scorn, embarrassment and defensive irony.

As a result, superheroes have become cultural staples --the subjects of billions of dollars in merchandise, video games, television shows and, of course, blockbuster movies, including four of this year’s top 20 box office hits so far.

It wasn’t always this way. Back in 1966, a Newsweek feature on the then-cutting-edge Pop movement declared that “not only is it permissible for adults to read pulp comics, it is a sociological necessity.” Far from making superhero comics legitimate adult fare, however, the Pop moment left them stigmatized as camp -- the Zap! Pow! Holy Ridicule! of the short-lived “Batman” TV series. Comic fans generally loathe that show.

“They made people laugh at Batman. And that just killed me,” writes Michael E. Uslan, the executive producer of the contemporary Batman movies, in his memoir “The Boy Who Loved Batman.” As a child, Uslan writes, he vowed “to restore Batman to his true and rightful identity as the Dark Knight ... a creature of the night stalking criminals from the shadows.”

As a producer, he fulfilled that vow with Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman,” demonstrating that superhero stories, if done with conviction, could be enormously lucrative. That first Batman film grossed $411 million worldwide. Uslan’s most successful production, Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” released in 2008, has taken in more than $1 billion worldwide.

These triumphs depended on taking a more direct, less ironic approach to superheroes -- one that could acknowledge the fantasy while nonetheless creating a world in which superheroes seemed real. The Warhol Museum exhibit suggests why this approach has such an enduring appeal.

There is, first of all, the pure aesthetic pleasure. Like Andy Warhol’s portraits of Marilyn and Jackie (or, indeed, of Superman), the Ross paintings offer new and beautiful ways of seeing familiar, emotionally resonant icons. The exhibit may be Pop, but it definitely isn’t camp.

“I want to convince the viewer that this is legitimate, that this is something inspiring, not something comical,” Ross tells me. “I’m on the side of the material. I’m trying to win you over.”

Like Norman Rockwell, some of whose works also appear in the exhibit, Ross works from live models and he paints (in gouache, as opposed to Rockwell’s oils) rather than, in the traditional comic-book style, drawing and coloring his figures. The result is a seemingly realistic rendering of the fantastic.

“It almost looks like history,” says Larry Levine, a graphic designer who was touring the opening with a friend. Another visitor, Stephen A. Glassman, the president and chief executive officer of the Community Design Center of Pittsburgh, marveled at the paintings’ vibrant colors and vivid forms. “I’m just knocked over by how absolutely gorgeous these images are,” he says.

Beyond the pleasures of color and form is, of course, the inspirational allure of the heroes themselves. “They’re everyone’s dream of how to solve problems and resolve all the conflicts in the world,” Glassman says. “It’s not realistic, but it makes you feel good.”

Such unapologetic, frank escapism accounts not just for the broad appeal but also for the versatility of superhero stories. Embracing the artifice of superheroes means accepting that there is no single correct approach to the genre. If you don’t treat superheroes as a joke but nonetheless admit (to yourself and your audience) that they’re obvious fiction, you can experiment -- fool around with different styles of art, different assumptions about the setting, different sorts of plots.

Stories can be grim or joyful, philosophical or silly, revisionist or traditional, family-friendly or adults-only. It is this approach, with its ample space for reinvention and reinterpretation, that has allowed superheroes not only to satisfy generations of hard-core fans but also to become such profitable mass-market properties.

With their plenitude of possible incarnations, superheroes can be deployed in nostalgic war pictures (“Captain America: The First Avenger”), mythic family dramas (“Thor”), action comedies (“The Green Hornet”), New Frontier science fiction (“X-Men: First Class”) or alien-filled space opera (“Green Lantern”) -- to stick only to this year’s Hollywood movies. (Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan, meanwhile, has his own superhero movie, “Ra.One,” premiering on Oct. 26.)

Nolan’s Batman trilogy, whose final installment, “The Dark Knight Rises,” will come out next year, is as dark as “The Incredibles” was sunny. In an agapic moment, the utterly unironic Ross even allows a place for that hated Batman show. “There’s perfectly well a need for camp in comics as well as realism,” he says. “There’s no reason not to have both.”

Outside the museum, the Superman banner flanks the front door on the right, while to the left is another banner, headlined “It’s All About Andy.” Warhol would have enjoyed the juxtaposition. He really was a fan.

Along with prints from Warhol’s 1981 Myths series, including a Superman glimmering with diamond dust, the exhibit has examples from his personal stash of comic books, including not only Batman and Lois Lane (“Superman’s Girlfriend”) comics but also the classic Fantastic Four issue “The Coming of Galactus.” Warhol gave his nephew Jules Feiffer’s lively 1965 defense of the genre, “The Great Comic Book Heroes,” and he owned superhero memorabilia (the display features a Wonder Woman pop-up book and Wonder Woman shoelaces, still in their original package!).

Seated once next to Warhol, Michael Uslan brought up his favorite subject. “Oh,” responded the artist in his affectless way. “I love the comic books.”

Born the late 1920s, Warhol knew comics in their heyday (comic book sales peaked in the 1940s). These days, the books themselves are like runway couture: niche creations that support a host of more-profitable mass merchandise. But America loves their super-powered progeny, all the way to the bank -- and now the museum.