Comics

Superheroes by Harold Koda, Andrew Bolton, Michael Chabon

Mordechai Shinefield

What do Iceman and Armani have in common? A love of the tight, chic and fabulous.


Superheroes

Publisher: Metropolitan Museum of Art
Subtitle: Fashion and Fantasy
Author: Michael Chabon
Price: $50.00
Display Artist: Harold Koda, Andrew Bolton, Michael Chabon
Length: 160
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 0300136706
US publication date: 2008-06
Amazon

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.

7
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Television

'Everything's Gonna Be Okay' Is  Better Than Okay

The first season of Freeform's Everything's Gonna Be Okay is a funny, big-hearted love letter to family.

Music

Jordan Rakei Breathes New Life Into Soul Music

Jordan Rakei is a restless artistic spirit who brings R&B, jazz, hip-hop, and pop craft into his sumptuous, warm music. Rakei discusses his latest album and new music he's working on that will sound completely different from everything he's done so far.

Reviews

Country Music's John Anderson Counts the 'Years'

John Anderson, who continues to possess one of country music's all-time great voices, contemplates life, love, mortality, and resilience on Years.

Music

Rory Block's 'Prove It on Me' Pays Tribute to Women's Blues

The songs on Rory Block's Prove It on Me express the strength of female artists despite their circumstances as second class citizens in both the musical world and larger American society.

Music

The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 3, Echo & the Bunnymen to Lizzy Mercier Descloux

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part three with Echo & the Bunnymen, Cabaret Voltaire, Pere Ubu and more.

Books

Wendy Carlos: Musical Pioneer, Reluctant Icon

Amanda Sewell's vastly informative new biography on musical trailblazer Wendy Carlos is both reverent and honest.

Music

British Folk Duo Orpine Share Blissful New Song "Two Rivers" (premiere)

Orpine's "Two Rivers" is a gently undulating, understated folk song that provides a welcome reminder of the enduring majesty of nature.

Music

Blesson Roy Gets "In Tune With the Moon" (premiere)

Terry Borden was a member of slowcore pioneers Idaho and a member of Pete Yorn's band. Now he readies the debut of Blesson Roy and shares "In Tune With the Moon".

Books

In 'Wandering Dixie', Discovering the Jewish South Is Part of Discovering Self

Sue Eisenfeld's Wandering Dixie is not only a collection of dispatches from the lost Jewish South but also a journey of self-discovery.

Music

Bill Withers and the Curse of the Black Genius

"Lean on Me" singer-songwriter Bill Withers was the voice of morality in an industry without honor. It's amazing he lasted this long.

Film

Jeff Baena Explores the Intensity of Mental Illness in His Mystery, 'Horse Girl'

Co-writer and star Alison Brie's unreliable narrator in Jeff Baena's Horse Girl makes for a compelling story about spiraling into mental illness.

Music

Pokey LaFarge Hits 'Rock Bottom' on His Way Up

Americana's Pokey LaFarge performs music in front of an audience as a way of conquering his personal demons on Rock Bottom.

Music

Joni Mitchell's 'Shine' Is More Timely and Apt Than Ever

Joni Mitchell's 2007 eco-nightmare opus, Shine is more timely and apt than ever, and it's out on vinyl for the first time.

Music

'Live at Carnegie Hall' Captures Bill Withers at His Grittiest and Most Introspective

Bill Withers' Live at Carnegie Hall manages to feel both exceptionally funky and like a new level of grown-up pop music for its time.

Music

Dual Identities and the Iranian Diaspora: Sepehr Debuts 'Shaytoon'

Electronic producer Sepehr discusses his debut album releasing Friday, sparing no detail on life in the Iranian diaspora, the experiences of being raised by ABBA-loving Persian rug traders, and the illegal music stores that still litter modern Iran.

Television

From the Enterprise to the Discovery: The Decline and Fall of Utopian Technology and the Liberal Dream

The technology and liberalism of recent series such as Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Picard, and the latest Doctor Who series have more in common with Harry Potter's childish wand-waving than Gene Roddenberry's original techno-utopian dream.

Music

The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 2, The B-52's to Magazine

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part two with the Cure, Mission of Burma, the B-52's and more.

Music

Emily Keener's "Boats" Examines Our Most Treasured Relationships (premiere)

Folk artist Emily Keener's "Boats" offers a warm look back on the road traveled so far—a heartening reflection for our troubled times.

Music

Paul Weller - "Earth Beat" (Singles Going Steady)

Paul Weller's singular modes as a soul man, guitar hero, and techno devotee converge into a blissful jam about hope for the earth on "Earth Beat".

Games

On Point and Click Adventure Games with Creator Joel Staaf Hästö

Point and click adventure games, says Kathy Rain and Whispers of a Machine creator Joel Staaf Hästö, hit a "sweet spot" between puzzles that exercise logical thinking and stories that stimulate emotions.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.