Now at CAM: Batman, Yesterday and Tomorrow

Posted by on January 29th, 2010 at 4:26 PM

When I first started dating my now-husband Andrew, he took me home to meet his parents and I got a look at his childhood bedroom.  The walls and ceiling were completely plastered with comic-book posters.  At the center of the ceiling, the teenage Andrew had fashioned an image of Batman, about four feet tall, out of silver, black and yellow electrical tape.  It was, clearly, his Sistine Chapel.

I stopped by the Cartoon Art Museum yesterday to find Andrew outlining a Bat-Signal on the wall with painter’s tape.  All his high-school experiences, it turns out, were training for his job as a curator.

The newest show up at the Cartoon Art Museum is Batman: Yesterday and Tomorrow, a retrospective of Batman’s many peculiar comic-book incarnations.  Included are the first Batman story (the art is a lightbox reproduction DC made at some point), a Neal Adams Christmas story, a sequence from The Dark Knight Returns, a bunch of production art from Pepe Moreno’s Batman: Digital Justice (remember that?  It even made it into Reinventing Comics), and, FedEx willing, pages from Paul Pope’s Batman: Year 100.  The Frank Miller art is sweet, and I have a dopey fondness for the Neal Adams story, which has been in the museum’s collection for years.  The heartwarming message is that Batman gets Christmas Eve off because the combination of Christmas spirit and Batman’s self-sacrifice the other 364 days of the year inspires potential criminals to refrain from crime.  Until the 26th, anyway.  I am a sucker for stories where a character inspires the masses to do good.  Do I cry at the scene in Spider-Man 2 where the subway passengers refuse to turn Spider-Man in?  Why, yes, I do, thank you for asking.

Also: Bat-Manga!  Chip Kidd loaned a story from the bizarre 1960s Batman manga by Jiro Kuwata.  In his recent TCJ review of Kidd’s Bat-Manga: The Secret History of Batman in Japan, Simon Abrams called the book “a catalog for an exhibit that never was.”  Well, now that exhibit exists, sort of.  I don’t get to see original manga art very often, so I was very curious about these pages.  They’re very clean and crisp.  Batman and Robin fight dinosaurs.  It’s really not as insane as, say, the 1970s Spider-Man manga by Ryoichi Ikegami, but it’s pleasantly nutty.

The first show Andrew curated for the Cartoon Art Museum was a Spider-Man retrospective.  Since then, this has been the Museum’s only show devoted to a single superhero character.  Such shows end up being, more than anything else, about the history of the industry that produced the work.  Batman is a particularly good character for this because he’s been through so many different, weird iterations.  There’s only so much variety in artists’ interpretations of Spider-Man (my favorite piece from the Spider-Man show was a Marie Severin-drawn house ad: Spidey cringing before a newsstand, crying, “Life has no meaning without my latest Marvels!”), but there’s a gulf of style and intent between Bill Finger and Frank Miller, Paul Pope and the Bat-Manga guy.

To be frank, this is the kind of show that attracts casual visitors and the press, because everybody loves Batman.  Even more than Superman, he never stops being popular.  Other people may not have fallen asleep every night staring at an electrical-tape Batman, but they all dig the guy.

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