How and why we imagine Superheroes in the first place
The exhibit on Superheroes at the California Center for the Arts (Escondido, California; Summer 2016) is unexpectedly good. Brilliant, even.
It’s not what you might expect. Forget the tribalism of Comic-Con. Forget eager families lining up outside movie theaters to see the latest blockbuster Marvel movie. We’re not talking about Consumerism. We’re talking about nothing short of Revelations: How and why we imagine Superheroes in the first place.
The adult side of this two-part exhibit is a professional show: “My Hero: Contemporary Art & Superhero Action” curated by Carrie Lederer. It features artists from all over the world who work in different media. Many of these question the exceptionalism of Superheroes.
- The paintings of Andreas Englund (Stockholm), for example, present legendary heroes in ordinary circumstances: carrying bags from the grocery store, swelling out a leotard with a senior-citizen paunch.
- The sketches of Hannah Rothstein (San Francisco) make a point about the behavior of Superheroes; the titles to her series of mugshots suggest that if they were regular folks, they would be charged with “Indecent Exposure,” “Trespassing,” “Reckless Endangerment,” “Disorderly Conduct,” and the like.
- And the artists of the Foto Marvellini Collective (Milan) provides antique photographs of Batman’s ancestors–quite dashing in their pointed-ear costumes–that might hang in the caped wonder’s living room or den.
But most impressive are the photographs of Dulce Pinzon from Brooklyn who turns the concept of Superheroes on its head by looking at those at the bottom of the social ladder: immigrants in the invisible economy who wash windows and deliver pizzas. My favorite is the picture of Minerva Valencia seen in a cluttered New York apartment with the two kids she watches. Everything in this photo seems ordinary except that this nanny from Puebla, Mexico, is dressed in a full-size Catwoman costume. We learn in an accompanying note that, super-heroically, she sends home $400 a week.
The other half of this exhibit consists of a wall of dozens of pieces of student artwork (grades 6–10) that have been organized by Terrilynn Quick and Ann O’Neill, art teachers in the Escondido Union School District. Often sketches and drawing in colored pen and pencil, these are the work of youngsters and, predictably, beginning artists. But the stories the students penned to accompany these pictures are heartbreaking.
Take the fact that the Superhero always has a double life and double identity. Where does that come from? Many of the students’ stories include the phrase “by day,” and then follows a description of their own imagined Superhero as “average, a loner and shy” or “regular, just a junior in high school.” Next comes the formula “but at night . . .” where we learn there is something exceptional about the hero, a boy or a girl, that makes them different from everyone else. Especially touching is a story from a fourteen-year-old girl that addresses bullying: “By day, I am a shy girl that everyone likes to pick on. By night, I am a superhero who [helps other kids who are being bullied].”
Perhaps it is not surprising that a number of these stories feature horrible accidents that injure body parts and the addition of gadgets in place of those body parts; for these young artists, between the ages of 12 and 17, a lot of changes are occurring in their own bodies. And costumes and masks–well, clothes in general–are important in establishing the Superhero’s identity. I love the comment by one eighth grader: “It’s all about looking good in battle.”
What also emerges in these school stories is something shared in the more well known accounts of Superheroes: namely, a vision of a world in constant jeopardy, where crime is abundant and lives insecure. And then, as if in answer to a prayer, a Special Someone appears to make things right — a savior, a vigilante, a crime fighter. In everyday life, of course, that Special Someone does not seem special at all.
You don’t have to be a psychologist to understand what is being revealed here. All you need is a sympathetic heart to understand the issues that beset this age group, the target market of Superhero stories.
Consider these issues as you view this exhibit. But leave behind any patronizing notion that kids don’t grasp these connections or are unaware of what their stories and Superhero stories reveal. As Jacob, a seventh grader, observed:
To most people, Superheroes are just superior beings with masks and powers who dash around, protecting others and defeating the villains. However, what most people don’t realize is that without their masks, Superheroes are regular people just like us. They have to conquer “everyday villains” that come with having jobs, relationships, families, and feelings.
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