It isn’t a bird, it isn’t a plane and it certainly isn’t Ben Affleck, but the caped crusaders at the Young at Art Museum are a time machine to the birth of superheroes in America.
At the entrance to the museum’s exhibit, "Zap! Pow! Bam! The Superhero: The Golden Age of Comic Books, 1938-1950," a stoic-faced Superman punches through a brick wall and a telephone jingles from a familiar comic-book relic that may prompt head-scratching among the millennial set: a wooden phone booth.
"I swear, a little kid tried to swipe his finger across this like an iPhone," says Yumina Myers, the museum’s public programs manager, dragging her finger across the phone’s metal rotary dial. "A phone booth has great historical significance in the comic-book world."
The exhibit, on loan from Atlanta’s Breman Jewish Heritage Museum and on display through Jan. 5, 2014, is as much an ode to costumed icons from the Golden Age of comics as it is a sprawling who’s who of cartoonists. A Jewish contingent of illustrators invented the larger-than-life superhero amid the malaise of the Great Depression, heroes primed to correct “the problems of the world,” says Marcos Rivera, a museum exhibit coordinator.
"I think that art is reflective toward its time," Rivera says. "When the Green Lantern was created, his origin story was that his powers came from magic. During the Space Race in the 1960s, his powers were science-based and came from technological innovations. We created superheroes like the gods of old because we wanted them to stand as people that represented the best of ourselves."
Roughly 70 artifacts, including authentic comic books from the 1930s and 1940s, as well as large-format splash covers, sit behind display cases in the museum’s main gallery. Nearby is a display case with glowing, green Kryptonite (probably not real); an antique Batmobile kiddy ride; an interactive drawing studio for children to craft their own costumed crusaders; a 1940s-era newsstand adorned with comic books; a documentary featuring interviews with Spider-Man creator Stan Lee and others; and a room screening old movie serials, including "Atom Man vs. Superman."
"I like to mention to the visitors that George Lucas got inspiration for ‘Star Wars’ by watching all of these comic-book serials," Rivera says.
A looming World War II pushed several illustrators to advocate for American intervention, he says, including Superman co-creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and Captain America co-creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Comic book covers depict Captain Marvel fighting Nazi U-boats, while Superman heaves a Panzer tank above his head in an Action Comics edition from 1941. Comic storylines focusing on atomic energy followed the war.
The popularity of several superheroes, including the Black Condor and the Spirit, co-created by late Tamarac resident Will Eisner, did not survive past the Golden Age era. Neither did several female superheroes, including Black Cat and Moon Girl.
"The superheroes that came after the war capitalized on the popularity of Wonder Woman and the craze of post-war pulp detective comics," he says. "For whatever reason, they just didn’t take off. But they still exist here."
Zap! Pow! Bam! The Superhero: The Golden Age of Comic Books, 1938-1950
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday through Jan. 5, 2014
Where: Young at Art Museum, 751 SW 121 Ave., Davie
Contact: 954-424-0085 or go to YoungAtArtMuseum.org