As Marvel continues to tighten its triumphant, Disney-funded grip on the mainstream entertainment industry since introducing the MCU a decade ago, DC Comics has not been able to match its competitor’s cinematic success in recent years.
Aside from the remarkable and well-deserved success of last year’s Wonder Woman, DC is currently struggling to achieve that essential combination of sincerely compelling storytelling and sufficiently marketable content that ensures mainstream success.
However, while the DCEU may have been falling behind in terms of the current cinematic landscape, one does not have to look too far back in time to be reminded that DC Comics used to dominate the superhero blockbuster genre when it was still considered a somewhat niche subgenre of mainstream movie entertainment.
Of course, it was not only the movie industry where DC long managed to sustain its appeal thanks to the efforts of cinematic greats such as Donner, Burton and Nolan. Laying a modest but solid foundation in 1935, what we now know as DC Comics is perceived as the originator of the comic book medium, and its first major superhero remains one of the greatest pop culture icons of all time.
That superhero is of course Superman, and the first section of the exhibition is therefore fittingly dedicated to the Man of Steel.
From the beginning of the exhibition, where a timeline chronicles the milestones of DC Comics, various elements of the exhibition are accompanied by carefully researched audio guide points. This audio guide was something that curator Jean-Jacques Launier was particularly involved in, as he wanted to ensure that the visitors see the exhibition as not merely an impressive collection of a wide array of DC Comics memorabilia from the past eight decades, but also as a thoughtful presentation of what heroes such as Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman symbolize on a deeper level.
“As you may know, my wife and I run the Art Ludique museum, and we do this because we want to show large audiences that behind what they love in blockbusters, video games or animation, there are amazing artists. Everything starts with a drawing and it creates a connection to the history of art. If the greats of art history were alive today, I’m sure they would be involved in the movie industry or animation, and so the purpose of both the museum as well as this exhibition is to show that all art is connected.”
Launier’s passion and expertise has previously resulted in exhibitions of the art of Marvel, Pixar, Walt Disney and Ardman, and his commitment is also evident from the Dawn of Superheroes exhibition. Considering the scope and variety of the things currently on display at the large exhibition at The O2 in Greenwich in Southeast London, it comes as no surprise that Launier spent three years bringing together so many different types of art and memorabilia from many different collections, just as ensuring to properly contextualize the pieces and their sociological importance was also essential to curating the exhibition.
“I think DC Comics is very important because they created the genre and the superhero world. I of course know the story and the characters quite well and what they bring to fashion, to design, to pop art, to street art, to television and, of course, to movies. We wanted to explain that and we wanted to connect audiences with the art to show that not only is it art, but there is also a sociological aspect, which is very important. For example, in the audio guide, we explain that Superman was created by two teenagers who were sons of immigrants, and Superman himself is an immigrant who comes from a destroyed world. So, we are explaining the sociology – we’re even quoting Nietzsche and his definition of ‘super’ to further contextualize this aspect – but we don’t want to be boring, we just want to show to the audience that it’s much more than guys fighting and colourful costumes; it’s a reflection of our society.“
As one moves through the impressive collection of precious Superman paraphernalia showcasing his many incarnations in various media – yes, even the conceptual art for that infamous Nicolas Cage-led Superman Lives, which for better or worse never came to fruition, is featured at the exhibition – this is but a taster of the cornucopia of content the exhibition has to offer.
The Batman portion of the exhibition is easily the largest section in terms of the number of impressive artefacts from just about every incarnation of Batman you can think of from the comics to the 1960’s TV series, Batman: The Animated Series and of course the many films, and the 90 minutes people are expected to spend at the exhibition on average seems like a modest estimation as there are so many details to explore and relish. Considering the extent of the Batman section, Launier has of course also carefully considered what makes Batman an essential part of the Trinity.
“Whereas Superman was introduced as a kind of god, Batman is merely a man, so he’s important because he is a man that becomes a superhero by his own hand, which makes a lot of sense in a sociological context as well. Then there’s Wonder Woman who is special in that she is not copying the other superheroes, she is not copying the men. She is a goddess, and that is important from a feminist perspective because she is not trying to copy the male superhero; she is her own entity. I think that’s really what makes the trinity so dynamic; Superman is a kind of god coming from a destroyed planet, Batman is only a man, and Wonder Woman is goddess with her own unique set of abilities.”
Someone who has also had a distinct impact on the exhibition is Academy Award-winning costume designer Lindy Hemming. While Hemming has not been a part of curating the exhibition, she is still a noteworthy part of it thanks to the impressive amount of creations she has on display because of her extensive work for directors Christopher Nolan and Patty Jenkins. Much like Launier wants to ground the world of superheroes in the real world, Hemming also relies on a realistic approach when designing.
“I think your brief in costume designing for superheroes is to try to come up with something new for people to look at because the expectation of the world of superhero films has become to make things that are new to look at, and your job is to think of what’s going on in the modern world and how you can take stuff from that and apply it to stories and characters that were written so many years ago.”
One of the ways that Hemming applied this approach was when designing the costume for Heath Ledger’s Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight where one of her main concerns was to come up with a character wardrobe that would make the 2008 version of the most well-known of Batman’s many colorful foes stand out from his previous incarnations on screens big and small.
“When you look at Jack Nicholson’s Joker, that was what was acceptable then, so you have to think about what younger people would be willing to accept now. Since I don’t think they would accept the clown that is the derivation of Jack Nicholson, I started thinking who nowadays has replaced the role of the clown or the beau or the dandy or a person like that, and that’s how I approached it. I was looking at people like Keith Richards, Johnny Depp, Iggy Pop and especially people like Pete Doherty, who is a kind of dandy, and tried to incorporate that into the character as well.”
The superhero that Hemming is currently focusing on, which also happens to be the one that most interviewers are most interested to hear more about, is of course Wonder Woman.
“My favorite costumes are the world of the Amazons because they were the most mad fun to create, but I’m also really interested in reality, and so I did enjoy very much creating all the beautiful costumes as well as all the scruffy, old, tragic costumes of the people in the trenches; it was just really wonderful and I couldn’t get bored on that film, ever.”
Having already helped bring the world of the Amazons as well as the more traditional period pieces required to bring early 20th century London and Europe to life, Hemming is currently working on Wonder Woman 2. Due to be released in 2019, the costume designer notes that her profession is increasingly relying on additional tools to help increase the efficiency and speed of their work.
“I can draw, so I have all kinds of different drawings on display here, but what we have now is a concept artist and I also always have an illustrator. What happens is that I draw a drawing and then they take the body of the actor and interpret what you’re doing onto that, or else you give them a drawing and ask them to draw with the computer so that the drawings you’re producing can be shared with the director and you can get feedback, and that is very much wanted by directors now.”
However, the technological advances in costume design do not stop there, as additional modern technology is increasingly being used to dress our silver screen superheroes.
“For Wonder Woman 2, we will be doing 3D printing, so every day I’m working with the guys that take a drawing and turn it into a 3D model in the computer. We then print that out as an experiment in mannequin size so we can see whether what we’re drawing will work or not. They also use the 3D information to produce actual tactile things that we can place on the form of the actor so you can look at how it works on them.”
The use of these techniques and technology seems particularly beneficial when one takes into account that while the creative juices may run more freely when dealing with the fantastical world of superheroes, there are other restrictions to be considered due to the heroic action unfolding.
“You have to think practically because of all the things they may be called upon to do like jumping off buildings, jumping out of aeroplanes or falling in the sea. You have to apply your design abilities in order to create something that might actually work, but also you have to think of all the stunt people and all of the repeats of the costume, so you’re limited in certain ways but helped in others; things have to be made perhaps to go in fire, perhaps to go in water, and it also has to be produced in maybe 50 multiples, so there are other limitations to the superhero films which aren’t to the normal domestic film.”
With Jean-Jacques Launier having carefully explained his intentions for the exhibition, as one of the artists featured, it seems only natural to ask Lindy Hemming what she thinks visitors may take away from such an abundant and varied display of all things DC Comics.
“I think that if I was a young kid and I came to see this exhibit and I went around and I could look at the correlation between the costumes, the drawings, the stories in the beginning, the fact that often all this superhero art started by being drawn by young people, not by old people, I think it would be quite inspiring to a lot of young people. The other people who would be really interested in it are the people that are interested in pursuing computer drawing and concept art and may not know that that is an option, so I think they would love it. Lastly, I just think anyone who watches comic book films or reads comics and graphic novels would like it, and I’m glad I’m in it!”
DC Exhibition: Dawn of Super Heroes runs until September 9th 2018
at The O2 in London, United Kingdom.
For more information and tickets please visit www.DCExhibition.co.uk
For more images from the exhibition, please click to Page 2.