I’ve had an almost life long history with DC Comics. They were my entry point into the superhero genre back in the mid-sixties, just before the Batman TV series hit worldwide. It amazes me that I’ve been an unashamed fan of superheroes for over 52 years. It still strikes me as incredible that the characters I loved as a child now rank among the highest grossing films of the last decade.
I started collecting comic books back in the sixties, but often my attempts at building a collection were thwarted by my mother’s surprise cleaning attacks where my stash would be trashed and I’d have to start all over again. (There is a satisfying compensation in the fact that I remembered exactly which issues my first Batman comics were and this past year, I managed to locate and acquire them again and reintroduce them to my collection. Same with the 1966 bubble gum cards. Thank you, Ebay)
In the seventies, either my mother had just given up on trying to get rid of the comics, or as I prefer to think, my hiding places got more cunning and the survival rates of those issues were significantly higher, even if they did have to be folded to be smuggled in past her steely gaze.
During the past 52 years, I’ve spent a lot of time researching not only the comic books themselves, but the people behind the scenes, the creators of those characters, the writers and artists, the internal politics going on in the big publishing houses, and how the stories in the magazines reflected the times and events in the world. The stories behind the scenes are almost as colourful as the larger then life stories that engrossed the readers of the comics, issue after issue.
So, given this unique and long background, when I saw that there was going to be a summer-long exhibition themed on the comic books and films of the DC Universe at the O2 Arena in London there really was no other option than a family quest to the mighty city to investigate.
What I saw was far beyond my highest hopes. There were some omissions, there was no mention of the Green Lantern film that everyone seems to brush under the carpet, though personally I like it. I can’t see anything wrong with it. Also conspicuous by their absence were any exhibits about the current crop of DC shows, so no Arrow, Flash, Legends of Tomorrow or Supergirl, Gotham, Krypton or even Smallville. But what WAS there took my breath away. As the exhibition closed on Friday Sept 7, I thought I’d share a little of the experience.
Going in through the main entrance, we gain entrance into the exhibition through the gift shop, which is also where we come out at the end. Of course, some financial damage was done there – how could it not?
One of the many things that impressed me was the sheer number of original comic covers on display. By that, I don’t mean the printed versions – I mean the actual drawings that were created by the artists and submitted to the printers. Among them, some Superman and Action Comics issues from 1942.
Also on display was a reproduction of Batman’s first appearance from Detective Comics #27, May 1939 “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate”. Back then, for the first couple of appearances, he was The Bat-Man. This was a reproduction – not the actual original.
Still on reproductions, we saw the following origin pages from the Golden Age:
The original Green Lantern (Awful costume)
The Justice Society of America
And from the Silver Age, The Justice League of America (Yep - they fought a giant alien starfish)
And the first appearance of The Suicide Squad from the mid-sixties. Now, that surprised me, not least because I didn’t think that the stringent industry-wide self-regulating Comics Code Authority forbade use of words like suicide back then, even more so in titles. Second, I didn’t realise the Squad had been around THAT long.
Then, a true jaw hangs open moment as I saw an original hand drawn cover of a Superman issue I still own. What made this special for me was that I was seeing original artwork from the great Neal Adams whose work I’ve loved since the seventies.
Storyboards from Superman the Movie (1978).....
..........led us to behold Christopher Reeve’s screen worn costume from the film. Notice how bright the primary colours are to the darker colours in the more recent films.
And, of course some animation cels from Superman: The Animated Series.
In 1979, DC published an outsize tabloid sized one-off issue where Superman had to be stripped of his powers and step into a boxing ring with Muhammed Ali with the fate of the Earth in the balance. Again, it was drawn by Neal Adams and here’s the original final panel. (For the record, without his powers, Superman gets beaten to a pulp.)
Here’s Brandon Routh’s Superman suit from Superman Returns (2006). I’ve always though that the red was a little too burgundy and the “S” shield on the chest was far too small. Seeing the costume close up, I didn’t change my mind. (Apologies for my reflection being in some of these shots – it was unavoidable.)
Whoa – another Neal Adams cover to a seventies Superman issue I own. The story is pretty average, but the artwork is outstanding.
A piece of art by the legendary Jack Kirby. I liked his earlier material, but as the mid sixties arrived and particularly into the seventies, his style became less restrained and everything became exaggerated, particularly his perspective angles. This one’s from an issue of The Forever People. I have a couple of issues, but never could get on with either the characters or the storylines.
Bringing us up to date, here’s Henry Cavill’s Man of Steel (2013) suit, with the shield back to its normal size (Sorry, Brandon Routh – but with that symbol, size matters)
And artwork from UK artist Dave Gibbons from a Superman Annual. Now, I didn’t know it at the time I took this photo, but by the end of the trip, I’d have Gibbons’s autograph. He also drew The Watchmen, and co-wrote a book called How Comics Work, which I bought a signed copy of in Forbidden Planet the next day. Small world.
And finally for the Superman section, we have Henry Cavill’s slightly modified suit from Dawn of Justice. Brighter colours, different belt buckle and detailing.
This magnificent statue from The Dark Knight Rises led us into the Batman section…
Where we saw one of Frank Gorshin’s Riddler costumes from the first season of the 1966 Batman series (specifically, episode 2 “Smack in the Middle”)
And storyboards used in the planning of the title sequence of Batman: The Animated Series.
Concept sketches of Harley Quinn, who debuted in the animated series.
And the cover to Moon of the Wolf, again Neal Adams – and again, an issue that’s in the collection. (But as far as Adams goes, the heart stopping stunner was still to come.)
Michael Keaton’s Batman suit from 1989. (The photo is fuzzy due to the security netting.)
And the Joker isn’t far behind….
Brian Bolland’s art for the game-changing Killing Joke graphic novel.
Not, by any means my favourite Batmobile – way too much fins and neon, but here’s a miniature of the one driven by Val Kilmer in Batman Forever (1995)
Val Kilmer’s costume looked more daunting than I remembered it on screen. I really need to re-watch that film. Maybe the years will have been kind.
A George Perez cover. This was the three parter that retold Robin’s origin Batman: Year 3. Luckily, I managed to get hold of all three issues several years ago.
I despaired, but I had to take the shot –seriously, nipples on Batman, Robin and Batgirl suits from the lamentable Batman and Robin (1997). To this day, I can neither defend or justify that decision on behalf of the costume designers. What makes it worse it that it’s established in the film that Alfred the faithful butler makes these costumes and batgirl is his niece. How did he measure her for a costume THAT tight fitting and well, get the nipple placement exactly right. It just screams of wrong.
Moving swiftly on… to an iconic sixties cover by Carmine Infantino. This is the issue where Batman was modernised as he entered his silver age, getting a yellow oval around his chest emblem, a new batmobile, a telephone hotline from Gotham Police HQ – several of the trappings later seen on the TV series were introduced in this 1964 issue.
Heath Ledger wasn’t my favourite Joker, but he had a cool costume….
And I loved the opening to the Dark Knight, when the Joker Gang wore these masks.
Dave McKean drew this piece of art from the 1989 graphic novel Batman: Arkham Asylum – A Serious House on Serious Earth, and the rest of McKean’s work is every bit as disturbing, surreal and dream-like as this sequence with The Scarecrow.
Let’s get truly personally iconic, shall we?
This original cover kicked off a three part Batman story (a rare event back in the early seventies) that started with Bruce Wayne faking his own death so that Batman could operate more freely. This adventure teamed him with super villain Ras al Ghul, and took Batman all over the world, searching for Robin, who was being held for ransom, and Talia the daughter of Ras. It soon became clear that Ras himself was responsible for the kidnapping and was testing batman to see if he’d be a suitable son-in-law and successor to his criminal empire. It all ended with a duel in the desert. Jeez, the number of times I read, re-read and re-re-read those issues, and still like to read it to this day. Wow – seeing Neal Adams’ work on that much loved and treasured epic right there….mind completely blown. Until the exhibition delivered its coup de grace. Look at THIS.
It's a full page panel from what I consider to be the finest Joker story ever written – The Joker’s Five Way Revenge. In the fifties and sixties, Joker had been relegated to just a clown. He was more of a nuisance than a credible threat. In 1973, writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Neal Adams brought the character back after an absence of a few years. It was the first step to the Joker becoming the unpredictable homicidal sociopath he is today. Having been released from prison, Joker knows that one of his gang informed on him. He doesn’t know who, so he spends the story killing them off, one by one with Batman being just seconds too late to prevent the murders. This page shows Batman running toward the final confrontation, and the number of times I copied this panel….. It’s probably one of my favourite Batman issues of all time. I still have it, 45 years later, carefully stored. I even have the cover on a couple of t-shirts and a fridge magnet. My daughter has a large canvas of it.
To me, it was worth the trip just to see this up close and personal and to examine it closely. Something I never dreamt I’d get to do. Truly an awesome moment for me.
It’s no secret that I find Christian Bale’s Batman voice irritating – he sounds so hoarse, I have to clear my throat whenever he speaks, but his costume was excellent throughout Christopher Nolan’s trilogy.
As was The Tumbler – his Batmobile of choice, seen here in a miniature used for some effects shots.
So, when the Batmobile gets trashed - go to Plan B and deploy the Batpod, complete with traffic shifting machine guns.
And so we come to Ben Affleck in Dawn of Justice. This suit looks like it could absorb some heavy calibre impact.
But when you need to stomp the crap out of Superman, you might need something a little heavier, as seen here.
That suit was inspired by a design seen in Frank Miller’s ground-breaking graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns which showed a much older Batman – and here’s the original artwork by Frank Miller. (This graphic novel proved irresistible to me at age 26. I had given up on buying comic books ten years earlier in an attempt to finally “grow up”. I kept my original collection, but didn’t really add to it, apart from a couple of specials like the aforementioned Superman Vs Muhammed Ali. As soon as I read The Dark Knight Returns, there was no going back.
Moving on, there was Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn costume from The Suicide Squad on display, as well as her pair of guns, but nothing else from that movie.
Now, we come to the undisputed Queen of the superheroes – or at least, an Amazonia Princess.
Here’s Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman costume from the TV series, along with the cape she rarely wore. A little bit faded, but then again, it IS over forty years old. I’m kind of surprised it still existed at all. A second costume on display was her Wonder Woman swimsuit, which I’d forgotten about, but vaguely remembered when I saw it.
I never thought they’d be able to replace Lynda carter in the role of Wonder Woman, but I have to admit that these days, Gal Gadot is the definitive Wonder Woman and here’s her costume as worn in Dawn of Justice.
Finally, some more original cover artwork on display as we approached the exit.
Sadly, the exhibition is now closed, we were there a couple of days before the end which meant it wasn’t too crowded and there weren’t small children running, shouting and generally distracting. Because y’know, we all know – comic book aren’t for children.
Copyright © 2010 - 2018 Robin Pierce. All Rights reserved.