IT WAS a cold snowy morning as we made the trek to Bentonville for a sneak preview of a new exhibit at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the northwest Arkansas gift that just keeps on giving. We didn’t know what we were in for; something to do with Superman and Wonder Woman was about the extent of our knowledge. What would we see? Framed comic books of days gone by? Video clips from summer blockbusters of the last decade? No, what we witnessed was so much more.
Superheroes are everywhere these days. Some have aptly called them American gods, our very own modern-day mythology, and this new exhibit at Crystal Bridges captures that. It’s called Men of Steel, Women of Wonder.
We all gathered for the preview: television and radio reporters, photographers and more. We were led downstairs, then up to a set of glass doors that had to be opened with a keycard. Once they were opened, we were in an exhibit more than two years in the making by Crystal Bridges’ assistant curator Alejo Benedetti.
The exhibit will open to the public today and continue through April 22. After that, it will go on to San Antonio and then Massachusetts.
When we walked into the exhibit, we were greeted with two of the most iconic characters of all time, Wonder Woman and Superman. And right away we were introduced to the concept of “American gods.” Superman and Wonder Woman have been around since 1938 and 1941. But they’re ageless. They’re always powerful. They defy time.
These characters were developed by humans who were influenced by historical elements around them at the time. Wonder Woman was inspired by women who had to be strong but were still expected to be feminine. Rosie the Riveter types come to mind. The Man of Steel? Inspired by actual men of steel, powerful blue-collar workers who built skyscrapers in cities like New York. His costume, with the underwear on the outside? Inspired by the outfits of strongman circus performers, Mr. Benedetti said. And art in the exhibit details this, building these characters from the humanistic ground up.
“This is where the show starts,” Mr. Benedetti said.
At one point, we were led over to a digital display and told there were seven throughout. Each detailed a different super-power and held custom comic pages (developed by Fayetteville artist Gustav Carlson) for show. In total, Mr. Carlson made 35 pages for the exhibit. And that’s another strength here: the many different mediums of art, from traditional paintings, to projections, to the actual first issues where Superman and Wonder Woman appear.
“Those are the real deal. Some people will come just to see these,” Mr. Benedetti said.
FOR ALL the abilities Superman and Wonder Woman have been given over the years, it’s through their vulnerabilities that we relate to them, on the page or silver screen. Superman can lift a car, but toss some kryptonite in his way and he doubles over in pain. That’s why vulnerabilities make up such a prominent part of the exhibit.
One vulnerability the artwork touched on was loneliness. It’s lonely to be a city’s protector. Who can possibly relate to your struggles stopping evil super-villains from blowing up Metropolis?
While we relate to superheroes through their vulnerabilities, we admire them for their strength to do the impossible. That’s on display, too. The exhibit demonstrates how these two characters were birthed out of crisis at the start of World War II. And you glimpse humanity at the time through the lens of people who just wanted to feel safe. So these heroes were given ultimate power—to keep the rest of us secure.
A powerful piece showing an older woman in a Wonder Woman outfit seems the opposite of this youthful Amazon we watch block bullets and battle monsters. But there’s a compelling parallel behind the piece. It takes courage for Wonder Woman to fight Nazis, yes. It also takes courage for the woman in the picture to get up and battle Alzheimer’s every day with dignity. The struggles are different, but the fortitude required for both is the same.
And what art exhibit would be complete without a commentary on the current times? Immigration was a big theme in the exhibit, with Wonder Woman being an immigrant from an island nation in the Mediterranean Sea (Themyscira), and Superman being a refugee from an exploded planet. The exhibit seemingly asks viewers to question their stand on immigration, with some pieces showing everyday immigrants being heroes, delivering food and providing for their families.
EVERY piece in the exhibit is impressive, but our favorite is a wall of posters, each with a different superhero and the word “Illegal” in bold underneath them. It shows everyone from Wolverine to Supergirl. At the bottom was a phone number we are encouraged to call, so we did. We were greeted with the following automated message.
“Hello, you have reached the national hotline for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement Department of Illegal Superheroes, commonly referred to as ‘Ice Dish.’ Please listen carefully to the following options before making a selection.”
The message goes on to give you options to report suspected illegal superhero activity. Art sure is a funny thing. It isn’t just about paintings and sculptures. Here, somebody went and set up an actual hotline to report superhero activity. The kids will enjoy that.
And other art in the exhibit touches on themes like gender and sexuality. It’s all family-friendly, but the social themes are certainly heavy and current.
The exhibit ends at a station where visitors can make their own superheroes. There’s paper and colored pencils available for people to draw their own heroes and boxes with props (like gloves, tiaras and capes) to dress as a superhero. After completing a costume, visitors can pose for pictures in front of a huge metropolitan backdrop.
If all that isn’t cool enough, the final part of the exhibit incorporates a large display for artwork from fans. Those who fancy themselves as artists can paint, draw, sculpt or produce any kind of superhero artwork, then post it to Instagram or Twitter. The display refreshes every 10 minutes and gives people the chance to have their own art appear in a museum, even if only for a moment.
Mr. Benedetti told us comic book art is sometimes considered a lesser medium in some artist circles. That fact was very much on his mind as he worked for more than two years on this exhibit, he said.
“I’ve been invested in these characters,” he said. “I read them. I love them.”
And we’d have to say he succeeded showing comic art is just as deserving of being placed in a museum as any other. Mr. Benedetti said it could be a challenge keeping the exhibit a secret for the years he worked on it, but now that it’ll be open to the public, he’s excited.
“This is the best part about all of this. To relinquish it,” he said.
We love superheroes, and this exhibit was a joy to witness. When we got back to the newsroom, all we could say was, “Wow. You’ve got to get over to Crystal Bridges.”
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