New-York Historical Society: Superheroes in Gotham

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Superheroes and popular culture. They’re like peanut butter and jelly. For almost as long as there’s been a “popular culture,” there have been superheroes. I mean, Edgar Rice Burroughs had superhero archetypes in the Barsoom and Tarzan novels as early as 1912 . . . and he wasn’t even the first.

But, realistically, when people think of superheroes, they’re not thinking of John Carter or Dejah Thoris. They’re thinking of Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, Iron Man, and all the rest. In short, they’re thinking of DC and Marvel characters.

Even those characters are much older than many people think. Mention Superman, and odds are people think of Christopher Reeve. Mention Batman, and people probably think of Christian Bale, Michael Keaton, or his animated form. Iron Man? That’s easy. Robert Downey, Jr. essentially introduced the character to a huge population that had never heard of him before.

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Original Superman art signed by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel

But these characters are older, much older, than their recent Hollywood incarnations. Superman (created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster) first appeared in 1938. Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s Batman showed up a year later, and many of DC’s most famous and enduring characters were created in the 1930s.

Joe Simon and Jack Kirby launched Captain America into the fray in 1941, and he was punching Hitler and battling the Nazis before Pearl Harbor and long before the United States even entered the war.

Marvel came along a bit later, but Stan Lee and Steve Ditko unleashed Spider-Man onto the world in 1962, and most of the Marvel universe, which only recently became part of the mainstream popular culture, was a product of the 1960s. Heck, even Ant-Man first appeared in 1962.

Superheroes, for better or for worse, have become part of our daily lives. Though they certainly have flaws, at their core, they personify the best that we hope to be as a species. The genre in which they exist forms a true mythology for the 20th and 21st centuries.

And they were born in New York City.

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George Reeves’s Superman costume

Beyond the literal meaning (DC and Marvel both trace their roots to small New York publishing companies), many fictional superheroes protect New York and call it home. In a very real sense, superheroes are a New York invention that remain in many respects distinctly American.

For the next few months, the New-York Historical Society is mounting an exhibit that takes a fascinating look at the history of superheroes in the city. Superheroes in Gotham traces their development from idea to printed page to radio to television to film to fandom.

Through iconic artwork, costumes, props, photographs, and books, the exhibit tells the story of how superheroes (and their fans) grew up on the streets of New York and how the city continues to be a breeding ground for intense creativity and fandom.

On display in the museum lobby is one of the three original Batmobiles from the 1966 Batman television series.

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But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Among the many artifacts on exhibit, you’re able to see

  • George Reeves’s Superman costume
  • Action Comics #1 (first appearance of Superman)
  • Batman #1
  • Sensation Comics #1 (first cover appearance of Wonder Woman)
  • Amazing Fantasy #15 (first appearance of Spider-Man)
  • Tales of Suspense #39 (first appearance of Iron Man)
  • Original Batman cover art by Jerry Robinson
  • Original Iron Man cover art by Gene Colan
  • Original Wonder Woman cover art by Irwin Hasen
  • Steve Ditko’s original interior pages from Amazing Fantasy #15
  • Jerry Siegel’s typewriter
  • Fleischer Studios Superman animation cel
  • Catwoman’s costume, Penguin’s umbrella, and other props from the 1966 Batman show
  • Will Eisner’s original art for The Building
  • Spider-Man costume from the Turn Off The Dark musical
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Jerry Siegel’s typewriter

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Costume from Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark

If you find yourself in New York City with a few hours to spare before February 21, 2016 (when the exhibit closes), you should definitely make your way to the New-York Historical Society Museum and check out Superheroes in Gotham.

Admission to the museum is $20 for adults, $12 for students, $6 for kids 5-13, and free for kids 4 and under. The ticket price grants access to the entire museum, which includes several other fascinating exhibits and the Dimenna Children’s History Museum downstairs.

You will not leave disappointed.

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