Friday, July 18, 2008

Geek Purgatory

So much nerdy crap to blog about, so little time or will to do so. Where does one begin? Should we talk about The Dark Knight, easily the best comic book movie since the last comic book movie? Should we talk about the ennui-riffic Watchmen or Terminator: Salvation teasers? How about the mysteriously out-of-nowhere trailer for a "vaguely inspired by" the work of H.P. Lovecraft film called Cthulhu? That one looks like more of a kitchen-sink drama about homosexual New England love than a tale of tentacled deities from outer space (but who says those are mutually exclusive?).

I blogged enough about Dark Knight before ever seeing it, so I don't have much juice left in me (especially since I saw the 12:30 show last night and am exhausted). So I'll just throw these words out: satisfying, flawed, long, good (maybe even very good).

I got nothing else today, gang. Sorry.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Show Me the Spandex

This past weekend, I finally went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy. Summarily, the exhibit serves to illustrate how superhero aesthetics have leaped from comic books into the work of fashion and sportswear designers. Um, ok, sure. I mean, anything to get comics more celebrated by the established art world, right? If it takes Jean-Paul Gaultier and the Met's $20 "suggested donation" (read: "required ticket price") to get the Soho elite to take the work of Jack Kirby and Alex Ross seriously, I guess I'm for it. I was excited to go, and the exhibit's introductory copy certainly boded well:

... superheroes have often been dismissed as frivolous and superficial, but their apparent triviality is the very thing that gives them the ability to address serious issues... Through the years, the superhero has been used to embody—through metaphor—our social and political realities. At the same time, it has been used to represent concepts reflective of sexuality and corporeality through idealized, objectified, and hyperbolic visualizations of the human body. Constantly redefined and reworked according to popular canons of beauty, superheroes embody the superlative.
One reads this alongside one of Warhol's Superman prints. And it struck me for the first time that Andy's and Roy Lichtenstein's work, as much as I've always loved it, may have done more disservice to the quest for "high art" acceptance of comics than it did good. Pop Art, if I have it right, is a celebration and validation of the beauty and design in everyday commodities. Warhol selling a can of tomato soup for hundreds of thousands of dollars is (or at least once was) a twist on the preconceived notions of art historians, dealers, and other self-proclaimed experts of all that is graphically hip. That device -- that afficionado appraisal of the trivial -- when applied to Campbell's Soup, Penzoil, and Life Savers, can (for those who dig Pop Art) elevate the mundane and the everyday to the level of "high art," thereby calling into question the value of art itself, and likewise the significance placed on commercial goods -- all in all giving people something to argue about at galleries, all the while making Andy, Roy, et al rich mutha'uckas. So thanks for indulging that pretentious and utterly unqualified ramble on art. If you're still with me, let's move on, keeping in mind work like Lichtenstein's:
The epiphany I had is this: applying that same Pop Art, can-of-soup device to Superman seems to me to say, "This is not art. It becomes art when I silkscreen it onto a canvas and put it in a gallery." In other words, it disses the original work, as it might diss tomato soup by way of seemingly aggrandizing it. Or is it indeed an unironic homage to the original product? Regardless, it seems to do just that: to label the original a "commodity." So the comic book geek and purist in me wants to be insulted by Warhol's (and by extension, the Met's) implication: that comics are just commercial goods, now subject to the interpretations and conversion into art by the alchemic properties of the higgest bidder. Then again, Warhol also messed around with the Mona Lisa, so this entire debate gets muddled. The point is that whether it's art or not, celebration or ironic inversion, Warhol's Superman isn't Siegel and Shuster's, Alex Ross's, or even Jim Lee's Superman. It's a derivative of Superman. And this was my over-arching beef with the exhibit (which, granted, I enjoyed in some small measure). After reading the opening blurb in the shadow of Warhol, one turns to find a pretty neat alternating-light-source display which exhibits the costumes worn by Christopher Reeve as Superman and Clark Kent.
Ok, cool. Then there are contemporary fashion designers' take on "the graphic body," and then we see the link between the Flash's costume and full-body Speedo sportswear. Ok, I get it. Then we see Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman costume (aged from red, white, and blue to pink, beige, and violet), then we get full-contact sports gear and Christian Bale's latest Batman costume. This goes on and on, all the while punctuated by the work of contemporary designers who borrow the superhero themes for their work. But I could not help but wonder (and here's where the beef finally returns): where the hell are the comic books?

Every one of these superhero examples is a costume from a movie. Granted, they're pretty swell. Few disappoint, and some really take one back. As silly as I found the flick, seeing Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman costume from Batman Returns reminded me of a formative element in my adolescent sexuality. And Jim Acheson's lead costumes for Spider-Man 3 are impressive pieces of work, considering what a simple and goofy design that is on the printed page. Just compare 70's TV Spidey to the movies':
But where are the Kirby and Romita pictures? Where's a good Bob Kane grey-and-black Batman when when you need him? Impressive though these movie costumes may be, doesn't the entire exhibit betray its mission statement by engaging only the derivative examples of the original superheros? If superficiality and "constant reworking" are the main trends in superhero design, as they say, then wouldn't they be best served by engaging the two-dimensional, 4-color masterpieces of the comic book page? The best we get are giant Alex Ross frames, blown-up into murals for the totally obscured backgrounds of the exhibit. And then, tucked away in the final leg of the installation, are plexiglass cases showcasing a very expensive collection of some very famous issues. Action Comics #1 and Amazing Fantasy #15 are in there, among others (by the way, that's the first appearances of Superman and Spider-Man for you non-geeks). But they're just sitting there, unassumingly. No commentary, no open pages, and I don't even remember artist credits (although I could be wrong about that).

The Met is happy just to give us the tangible movie memorabilia. I guess that sells more suggested donations. But even by comic movies' admission, these aren't true superhero costumes. Remember that line in the first X-Men, after Wolverine questions the black leather team uniforms: "What did you expect, yellow spandex?" It's a great line, which this blog has cited before, and it reminds the die-hard fans to relax and remember that a literal representation of their favorites would look ridiculous onscreen (remember 70's Spidey?). This brings up another issue, which is the fact that the comic pages have begun to imitate their film versions:
But I digress. The simple fact is that these costumes ain't the originals. What the fashion designs have to do with it all, I'll leave to another blogger to address. But I think that using movie costumes to discuss superhero influences in contemporary fashion is like using sci-fi film vehicles to say that space flight has influenced modern automobile design. It's one step removed, and it discredits the stated goal of the project... and it disappoints die-hard comic fans who blog.
Saving grace of the exhibit: the silver Iron Man suit, built by the great Stan Winston before he died, is a beautiful piece of work. It may also be the costume that is closest to its original comic page inspiration, and it looked like a functioning machine. Later at the musem, as I walked through the armory, I thought, "That suit belongs here." It's a work of art, and that I will fight Andy Warhol's ghost on.