Comic strip exhibition celebrates icons and heroes time forgot

Global Business

Original artwork of famous comic characters has gone on display at the U.S. Library of Congress. The exhibition charts 120 years of cartoons.

And while there are scores of familiar faces, the exhibition also aims to honor those time forgot, CGTN’s Owen Fairclough reports.

If, like me, you grew up with comics, the U.S. Library of Congress has just opened up a treasure trove for you: an exhibition of original artwork of some of the most beloved figures in American culture.

“Certain comic book characters speak to us, they become our heroes,” says Exhibition Director Betsy Nahum-Miller. And they’re all here: Batman (and Robin), Spider-man, the Hulk.

But perhaps the jewel in the crown is the first original drawing of the Yellow Kid. First published in 1895, the Yellow Kid is considered the genesis of U.S. Comics.

He was such a popular draw, rival newspapers fought over the rights to publish him – not dissimilar to the kind of back and forth between Marvel and Sony over who puts Spider-man on the big screen.

“What’s really important about this moment in time is that you have a literate audience,” one of the exhibition’s curators, Sara Duke explained. “Newspapers are a penny, on a weekday or less, they may be three cents on the weekend. So, it’s not just the middle class it’s working class families who can afford to read comic strips.”  

Characters like Charlie Brown became global icons. But others were victims of their time.

All-Negro Comics was the first to be completely created by and feature African Americans as dashing heroes – a far cry from the vulgar stereotypes of black people perpetuated by even critically acclaimed comic artists like Herge, creator of Tintin. 

But All-Negro publisher Orrin Evans released just one issue.

“He could not get newspaper stands to carry his comic,” curator Megan Halsband said. “So he was never able to publish a second, which was really unfortunate because from 1947 up through the appearance of Black Panther in the ‘60s there are very few positive representations of African-Americans in comic books.” 

And if it was a world dominated by white males, artists like Marie Severin proved women could render the incredible Hulk as powerfully as any man – and fitting that all of the experts who show us around this exhibition are women.

Original panels like these are rare – and the Library of Congress has even more treasures tucked away.

Megan puts the ultimate cherry on our visit by allowing us to look at the kinds of first edition comics she catalogs and can sell for millions of dollars: the first appearances of Superman, Wonder Woman, X-Men, the Fantastic Four – and of course, Spidey.

These characters have been in some of the most lucrative movies ever made. So, is the source material in danger of becoming redundant?

Not a chance, Megan said. “Every time I’m asked about Amazing Fantasy 15 – the first appearance of Spider-man – or Batman No. 1, there are people who get so excited about just being able to see that original thing.”

“Those movies tell the story that was originally written down and hand drawn by people who are passionate about the art form. And if anything, it’s made people care more about the original art in my experience,” Sara added.

And that original art is on display at the U.S. Library of Congress until September 2020.