From February 19th through August 9th, the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, CA presented an exhibit entitled “ZAP! POW! BAM! The Superhero: The Golden Age of Comic Books, 1938-1950.” The Skirball Center explores the connections between the long history of the Jewish Culture and the culture and ideals of America today. This exhibit is especially fitting – the history of the comic medium is rich with renown Jewish creators. Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Will Eisner, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby – name any “great” from the entire history of the medium, and odds are you will find they were Jewish. Even some of of the more popular names of today, from Marv Wolfman to Howard Chaykin, and Peter David continue this tradition.
Of course, the impact of Jewish heritage goes deeper than the faith of those who created the most iconic characters of today. The cornerstone of comics, Superman, certainly shares some interesting parallels with the Jewish tradition.After all, when you think of a man who was placed in a tiny conveyance to save his life as an infant, only to realize his full heroic potential after he learns the truth of his heritage, do you think of Superman, or do you think of Moses? The similarity between Kal-El and the hebrew word קל-אל (meaning “the voice of God” or “the light of God”) only strengthens that connection. While other examples might not be so obvious, it is clear that the very foundation of the medium depends heavily on Jewish creators using Jewish themes.
Of course, the exhibit itself was less theological in nature. The entrance to the exhibit featured a bit of fun – a newsstand covered with copies of papers like those you might see in a comic story, as well as a pile of comics obviously meant for people to flip through. There was a lot for the kids – starting with a box filled with Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, and other costumes, along with a phone booth to change in! A glass case contained a glowing piece of “kryptonite” that would loudly warn you away if you got to close. There was even a vintage quarter Batmobile ride (you know, like the ones you see outside the grocery store for kids?), featuring the old Batmobile design from the Adam West TV show. Kids could also watch some 1940s superhero serial shorts in a tiny theater – Superman being the main feature.
On the serious side, the exhibit featured a ton of classic comics under glass (Including a copy of Action Comics #1), and various art-boards for dozens of comics, both obscure and well-known. Everything from Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman, to even more obscure Golden Age heroes like Golden Lad, Black Cat, and Ghost Rider were on display.
Jerry Robinson is listed as a “guest exhibitor” of the exhibit, and as such, his original Joker playing card sketch was on display – the piece he claims to be the original inspiration for the Joker character. Of course, there has always been some dispute as to who actually created the Joker – Bob Kane and Bill Finger claim absolute credit for his creation, but Jerry Robinson has always claimed that this playing card sketch was the original genesis of the idea, the concept was his, and Kane and Finger simply played the role of “co-creators.” These days, it is fairly difficult to say for sure what version of the story is true, but all three are generally mentioned when the subject of the Joker’s genesis are discussed, and no matter which version of the story is true, it was great to get to see the original piece up close.
There were also several other non-art artifacts on display – many from Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, including both of their glasses and jackets, and Siegels typewriter and “thinking hat.” Scattered throughout the exhibit were biographies of pretty much every legend in the comic industry you can recall, as well as several you may not have heard of.
In conjunction with this exhibit was another fun collection called Lights, Camera, Action: Comic Book Heroes of Film and Television. As you might have guessed, this showcased some artifacts relating to comic heroes in film. There was a good deal of movie memorabilia on display, from lunch boxes, puzzles, board games, posters, and action figures, to larger items like movie props and costumes. Featured prominently was the 1966 Batcycle from the television show (complete with the go-cart sidecar), the Captain America costume (with shield) worn by Robert Brown for the 1979 TV pilots, Christopher Reeve‘s Superman costume from Superman IV, Michael Keaton‘s Batman costume from Batman Returns, and Warren Beatty‘s Dick Tracy costume from the 1990 film.
The exhibition began way back in February of this year, but there was a very specific reason I waited until the very last day to pay a visit. That was the day that they would be screening all fifteen parts of the 1943 The Batman Serial. This was ab absolute gem.
A little history – this serial was produced a scant four years after Batman first appeared on the pages of Detective Comics #27. Each chapter was roughly 15 minutes long, and a new chapter would appear each week prior to the theater’s feature film. It stars Lewis Wilson as Batman, a US government agent working to secure the homeland during World War II, Douglas Croft as Robin, J. Carrol Naish as Dr. Daka (the villain), and Shirley Patterson as Linda Page (the love-interest). The serial had an enormous impact on the Batman mythos. It marked the very first appearance of the Batcave (called the Bat’s Cave), and its grandfather clock entrance, something that was later incorporated into the comics. It can also be credited with the creation of Alfred – though he appeared first in the comics (though only a couple of months prior), it is widely speculated that he was conceived of for the film, and was written into the comic once Bob Kane was told about him. Even then, the original comic Alfred was short, stout, and bald – after this serial, Alfred was forever tall, lanky, and mustached – exactly like William Austin in the serial.
The serial’s impact on the genre didn’t stop in 1943. In 1965, it was re-released in theaters. The marathon screening was entitled An Evening With Batman and Robin, and was a smash camp hit. It directly influenced the creation of the 1966 Batman television series (complete with serial-style cliffhangers and teasers), something that had its own impact on Batman’s current form, as well as Batman’s role in pop culture.
The serial itself was a riot to watch, and well worth the four and a half hour viewing time. There was a lot that was done well – but everything that was done poorly had a strange way of amplifying the camp value of the serial, thereby making it more enjoyable. On the whole, the plot really wasn’t that bad. It centered on Dr. Daka, a Japanese spy who was working to sabotage the United State’s War Effort. Each part of the serial dealt with some part of Daka’s plan, Batman and Robin’s attempts to foil it, and Daka’s growing frustration with the masked menace.
The portrayal of Batman and Robin was outstanding and horrible at the same time. I was actually quite surprised at how well they pulled off the “Batman pretending to be a lazy playboy as Bruce Wayne” bit, but that is where the serious admiration ended. The rest was wholly entertaining, and absolutely horrible.
For starters – the costumes. Oh, the costumes. Batman, with a spare tire, wearing an outfit that made Adam West’s costume look dignified. The same was true for Robin (save the spare tire) – it was shocking to see just how bad you could get with a superhero suit. They looked like bad under-roos, and when they rolled around on the ground during fights, it was almost disturbing. And the joy the two of them showed at changing into their identity was hysterical – they almost always changed into their costume in the back of their car, sometimes mere moments after changing back into their civilian identities. There was one scene I will never forget – after Dick and Bruce decide that Batman and Robin are needed, when Dick excitedly exclaims “Swell! Let’s change into our outfits!” After which, the two of them can be seen with enormous grins on their faces, undressing in the back of the car. Alfred wasn’t much better – far from the wise old mentor, this early version of the butler was portrayed as a comedic “femme” – to the point where I was certain they were trying to make some statement about his sexuality.
And the fight scenes themselves were something of a treat. They usually sped up the frame rate slightly, much like an action scene in an old silent film – and while they used fairly standard “smacks” for sound effects, the campy music and the overdone sound made this a giggler. You can definitely see where the 1966 series got its inspiration.The body doubles also got to be a little ridiculous – I couldn’t help but laugh when suddenly Robin was taller than everyone else in the fight, and abotu twice as heavy as he used to be. The cliffhangers get more and more ridiculous as the series progresses – almost every time Batman is placed in a situation where you are sure he had to have died – but at the beginning of the next it is shown how he really survived. He was in a plane crash (just walked away, oddly enough), crushed by a burning roof (again… just walked out of it), tossed in a pit of alligators (pulled a switcheroo), sent off a cliff in a car (jumped out, last minute), and even crushed by a train! (Robin with the last-minute save). The scenarios got more and more ridiculous – to the point where you can see how the cheering and booing audience participation came into play when this was re released in the 60s. You can definitely see the origins of the death-trap cliffhangers in the 60’s TV series.
I do have to say that I was very disappointed in the hand wringing and apologizing by some of the staff, particularly in a conversation held about the serial during the intermission. They were horrified by the “racism” in the serial, to the point where he said he considered not screening it. While there is no arguing that there were derogatory elements in the serial (specifically calling the villain a “Jap,” referring to him as “slant-eyed,” and comparing his skin color to his obvious cowardice), the staff failed to note that while derogatory, it was no worse than what you heard in similar media in reference to Germans at the time. They also totally failed to give an honest assessment of Dr. Daka, the serial’s antagonist. While Japanese, he was a brilliant, competent opponent. He weaved an almost impenetrable veil of secrecy around his organization, developed a remarkable internal security system, was capable of creating “zombies” (otherwise ordinary people who’s strength was augmented and were forced to obey his every command), invented and built two disintegration rays, was able to reanimate the dead to gain information, had an almost perfect truth serum – as Batman villains went, Daka was a beast. And he was just as nationalistic and bigoted towards the American way of life as the serial’s heroes were toward him. I found it extremely disappointing that the staff simply judged the film bad because of occasional slurs, without giving it an honest, in-context evaluation. That struck me as rather unscientific – and while there was a moderated discussion on the film, the majority of the crowd weren’t prepared for a real honest discussion about the language use in the time, and the discussion was lead by someone who absolutely felt that the language itself was evil, and didn’t look any deeper than that in his analysis.
The exhibit itself was extremely enjoyable, as was the film. If you care to see the serial yourself, it is pretty widely available on DVD. The exhibit itself is over at the Skirball, but it did originalte at the Bremen Museum in Atlanta, Georgia, so there is a good bet it will pop up again.