Touted as the largest collection of original Spider-Man art, as well as the first ever proper exhibition, the Society of Illustrators’ "The Art of Spider-Man" exhibition does not disappoint. Packed into the second and third floors of 128 East 63rd Street, a former carriage house purchased in 1939 by the Society, original comic art coats the walls of the charming, unassuming space. For the uninitiated, the bulk of what is on view – original comic book art – comprises oversized illustration boards with original pencil drawings, followed by inking and lettering, which are then printed and made into comic books. Ages ago, these sorts of pages were casually discarded by the publishers, thought to have no purpose once they had been used to create the finished product. With a larger market coming to prominence in the 1980s, a new and intense focus on high-end comic collecting brought a rabid desire for original comic art, resulting in premium prices being paid for objects previously considered to be useless. A less positive side-effect of this new collector category were the many vicious lawsuits between publisher and artist for the ownership rights of the now-valuable comic art, but that’s quite another tale entirely.
Coinciding with a new blockbuster Spider-Man film, not to mention the ever-growing successes of mega-conventions like New York Comicon and San Diego Comicon, it’s hard to fathom that this is the first ever institutional exhibition of Spider-Man art. Debuting in 1962, Spider-Man was essentially a throwaway character appearing in the last issue of the sci-fi/horror comic Amazing Fantasy. As Marvel’s famed writer/editor/publisher Stan Lee has told the story (and his version of many Marvel events is often hotly debated), artist Steve Ditko was given artistic control of the character after Lee was unable to get Marvel’s greatest artist, Jack Kirby, to draw a regular teenager and not his standard bigger-than-life musclebound hero. Though Amazing Fantasy folded, Spider-Man received a fan reaction so fervent that a few months later his own solo comic, The Amazing Spider-Man, debuted.
Like much of Marvel’s output, the lasting appeal rested greatly with the characters themselves – like the Fantastic Four and the Hulk before him, Spider-Man was part of a rare and unique new universe where the characters were relatable, even though they possessed impossible super-human powers. Interwoven story lines tied Marvel’s titles together; characters developed and grew over well-defined story arcs, dealing with inner struggles and day-to-day challenges, all elements utterly foreign to comic books prior. Spider-Man has been an endearing character now for 55 years, and his inherent character flaws are a large part of that success. A skinny, smart-alecky teen, Spider-Man impressed as a wisecracking anti-hero, outsmarting his super-villains before returning to his regular life as just another kid trying to navigate school, work and relationships.
On view at the Society of Illustrators is a collection that covers much of the 55 years of Spider-Man’s existence, and even includes several newspaper comic strips, in addition to pages and covers from the comics. Steve Ditko’s work is included, though the focus of the collection is the work of John Romita Sr. Taking the reins from Ditko with issue 39 from 1966, Romita built Spider-Man into an international phenomenon while helping to design many more fantastically successful Marvel characters like The Punisher, Luke Cage and Wolverine. Growing into the role of Art Director for Marvel, John Romita came to define much of the look of the modern comic book. His sense of style and economy of design was essential to the rapid-fire storytelling, keeping young readers engaged and excited.
The influence of Spider-Man and Marvel Comics on a whole is very much a part of the history of Pop Art. Maus creator Art Spiegelman stated “Roy Lichtenstein did no more or less for comics than Warhol did for soup,” a sentiment many comic book artists shared. Lichtenstein’s iconic 1963 painting “WHAAM,” a full-volume pop masterpiece of fighter jets in action was largely a redux of a scene from Fantastic Four and Hulk creator Jack Kirby’s February 1962 issue of “All American Men of War,” created while Kirby was with rival DC Comics. Ed Ruscha similarly employed onomatopoeia in several of his paintings, including “OOF” from 1963 and “HONK” from 1962. Conversely, seeing a huge uptick in college age readers, and ever wanting to remain in the current cultural zeitgeist, Marvel Comics in 1965 changed their name to “Marvel Pop Art Productions.” Roughly a year later Stan Lee changed the name back to simply Marvel Comics, but the point had been made – isolate just about any given panel from any given Marvel comic, blow it up to wall size, and you have a Pop Art masterpiece. The bold primary colors, the simplicity of design, the iconic word bubbles, even on a small printed page pack an enormous punch. Romita, Kirby, Ditko and many others on Marvel’s team deliberately constructed each panel to tell a story through action, with enough movement and color to make the accompanying text seem almost superfluous.
Culled from a private collection owned by Mike Burkey, this is a landmark showing of artwork that transcends its medium. Spider-Man, one of the best known and beloved characters of the 20th Century, is a part of America’s great tradition of myth, like Paul Bunyan, The Lone Ranger and Mickey Mouse before him. The story would not prevail if not for the art, and many comic artist greats like the aforementioned Romita and Ditko are joined in the exhibition by Gil Kane, Todd McFarlane, John Romita Jr., John Busemca and others. With the prevalence of Marvel Comics now on our televisions and in our movie theaters, it’s easy to underestimate just how crucial this artwork truly is. For me, the art and story of Spider-Man is as necessary, as influential and as period-defining as any of the fine art of its day.
The Art of Spider-Man
On view through August 26, 2017
The Society of Illustrators
128 East 63rd Street
New York City