[2 June 2008]
Assuming price isn’t a problem, splurge on the glossy, heavy, tin-cover version of Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy, a catalogue-cum-fashion journal of the gallery of the same name. It gives the book sheen – a glossy cover and a heavy weight in your hands.
If comic books weren’t floppies or trade paperbacks (the stuffed collection version of single issues), this is what they’d feel like in your hands. They’d feel like weight and power and the hard steel of a man in a metal costume. The tin version of Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy is the Iron Man of art museum catalogs.
Alas, price is an object, and luckily, the catalog’s insides are gorgeous, even if they can’t match seeing the exhibit in person. The exhibit, a display of various ways the fashion industry has been influenced by comic books, is a pop junkie fantasy. I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Superhero exhibit after reading about Anna Wintour dressing up like a mutant for the opening. If an exhibit can get the Vogue EIC to abandon her couture for tights, it had my attention.
Not to mention I’m both a superhero fan, and a fan of comic books entering a mass pop culture dialogue. Sometimes comic book fans can come off like an ethnic group – pointing out every time a member of the tribe makes it into popular discourse (Spiderman, Iron Man, X-Men), and cringing every time a coreligionist makes a fool of themselves (the first Hulk film, the Punisher). The good news for fans leafing through Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy, or wandering through the children-packed museum visit, is that the popular discourse here is respectful and not an embarrassment in the least.
The bad news is that while the exhibit may lend some respectability to comic books (and it’s debatable whether comic books need that respectability), it’s often limited and its faults are many. The catalogue book redeems one of those faults – the real exhibit is much too short and there are too few costumes, the catalogue is chock full of them – but has the others.
For one, both exhibit and catalogue are divided into types of bodies that sacrifices the ambiguities of comic books and superheroes for the sake of public understanding. The Graphic Body is about the iconic nature of Superman. The Patriotic Body touches on Wonder Woman and Captain America. The Virile Body is about the Cold War superheroes like the Hulk. The Paradoxical Body deals with Catwoman. The Armored Body features Iron Man and Batman. The Aerodynamic Body; The Flash. The Mutant Body; the X-Men, and the Post-Modern Body; anti-heroes like Ghost Rider and the Punisher.
Though it may seem like nitpicking, many of these distinctions are superficial. Allowing myself to indulge in geek-a-tude for a moment, it’s jarring to see Wonder Woman reduced to the American colors she wears on her leotard, or Batman to simply a man with toys. This is more a critique of the context than the designers – something essential about Batman’s pathos and noir are expressed in the outfits. They just aren’t acknowledged in the liner notes.
If anything, the catalogue is superior to the exhibit in that more nuance is available. Possibly it’s being able to stare at each page with time and deliberation, and possibly the models filling the costumes add an irreplaceable dimension (in the exhibit, the costumes are on mannequins).
That noted, there is an important acknowledgment being made by this exhibit that forgives the sometimes weak execution. It’s good to see the Met, and the fashion industry, admit unironically about the influence that comic book icons have had on their work. Though that argument is sometimes tenuous or specious (were designers really inspired by Captain America to use patriotism?) it is also gracious and generous.
Neither establishment art nor Milan need to cop fealty to Mystique and Nightcrawler and Wolverine. That they do speaks volumes about both the actual influence of these characters (why admit to influence that doesn’t exist?) and to the mainstream embrace of superheroes.
The most telling aspect of the Met exhibit can’t be reproduced in the catalog – it’s the masses of kids running through the exhibit, excitingly pointing out their favorite heroes. “Is Iron Man here?” “Where are the X-Men?” “I’m Superman!”
I’d be remiss not to note Michael Chabon’s essay on capes and tights – a reprint from his New Yorker article. If you missed it the first time around, it’s worth reading. It contains all the subtleties that the exhibit lacks: the intoxication of superheroes during childhood, the magic of capes and tights, and the transformative (super) powers of comic books.
If, after having seen the exhibit, you were left with the feeling that comic books are crude pop culture objects and that fashion had used all the vitality that there was to be used, Chabon may convince you otherwise. His argument is not that comic books are lucky to have a fashion exhibit, but that fashion is lucky to have the immensely rich worlds of Kirby and Lee and Shuster and Siegel to draw upon. As the heavy tin cover of the [more expensive] version of Super Heroes: Fashion and Fantasy will attest: These caped guys are pretty powerful. Very cool.