The Museum of Science and Industry is back with a BANG! And a POW!
After closing in November when the coronavirus pandemic worsened, the MSI reopens to the public on March 7 with the superhero-themed special exhibit, “Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes.” (Members of the museum will get a sneak peek beginning March 4.)
Ben Saunders, chief curator of “Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes,” is a professor at the University of Oregon where he founded the first U.S. undergraduate minor in comic book studies. Saunders says the challenge was to create an exhibit that would satisfy both hardcore comic fans and those who only know the Marvel Universe through its blockbuster films.
“We have intentionally created multiple tracks for multiple audiences,” he says. “The exhibit is built for those who want an immersive 45 minutes, four hours or even the ‘I need to come back another day’ person.”
The exhibit features 300 artifacts spanning Marvel’s 80-year history, from the “Golden Age” of comics in the 1930s and 1940s when Marvel was known as Timely Comics. The company became Atlas Comics in 1951 before rebranding a final time to Marvel Comics in 1961.
Timely Comics’ first book was titled Marvel Comics No. 1 (cover dated October 1939), featuring the first appearance of the android superhero The Human Torch (not to be confused with Marvel’s own character Johnny Storm from the “Fantastic Four” who also carries this moniker), as well as the first appearance of the oceanic anti-hero Namor the Submariner. It was a huge success, selling more than 900,000 copies. The company would best itself in March 1941 when the first issue of Captain America Comics sold over one million copies. The exhibit will feature a copy of Marvel Comics No. 1 as well as original artwork from that issue.
“The exhibit features the only known surviving page of original art from the Submariner origins story from that book,” Saunders says. “It’s considered the comic book industry’s Dead Sea Scrolls. Only a few thousand copies of the original comic book exist and this is the only surviving artwork from that issue.”
The scarcity of original artwork is due to an act of charity. In the 1980s, Marvel emptied out its archives, returning artwork to the various original artists. Most of the artists then sold that artwork to private collectors, and Saunders says it was a Herculean effort to track down the original art that is featured in the show.
“The costumes and props from the Marvel Studio films were easy to get,” Saunders says. “A lot of detective work went into tracking down the art pieces in private collections.”
The result is an exhibit that has been billed as the largest and most comprehensive comic book art and memorabilia exhibit in the world.
When the touring exhibit opens in Chicago, it will also feature 20 to 30 pieces new to the exhibit.
“The exhibit isn’t static because the Marvel Universe isn’t static,” Saunders says.
The additions include a section on the character Riri Williams, a 15-year-old African American from Chicago who builds her own version of Tony Stark’s Iron Man armor and begins to fight crime as the superhero Ironheart. Chicagoan Eve Ewing was a writer for the series, and the exhibit will feature original cover art from her run of the comic.
“Ironheart is a bit of a banner character in the Marvel Universe at the moment,” says Patrick Reed, associate curator and marketing consultant for the exhibit. “She is a popular character, and Marvel just announced an ‘Ironheart’ television series will be coming soon to Disney Plus.”
Though Marvel characters are more closely associated with New York, the exhibit does feature other characters that call the Chicago area home. Tough as nails S.H.I.E.L.D. operative Maria Hill (played by Cobie Smulders in the “Avengers” films) is Chicago born and raised. X-Men members Kitty Pryde and Beast also hail, respectively, from Deerfield and the fictional city of Dundee, Illinois. The city of Waukegan’s official website even lists Marvel’s Johnny Blaze (also known as the spirit of vengeance called Ghost Rider) as one of its famous Waukeganites.
“That tells you everything you need to know about the cultural impact comic books have had,” Saunders says. “The fact that Ghost Rider is a source of civic pride is wonderful. It is evidence of the value we have started to place on these characters.”
The exhibit also features photo opportunities courtesy of some life-size characters from the Marvel Universe. Saunders says he is most proud of The Thing from “Fantastic Four.”
“He has fallen asleep on the couch reading a book and I was able to write a mini-Marvel movie of sorts,” Saunders says. “In the window behind him, we animated various characters popping up over three or four minutes.”
At the exhibit, it won’t just be superheroes wearing masks, says Jeff Buonomo, the Musuem of Science and Industry’s senior manager of special exhibitions and business partnerships.
“Masks will be required [of all guests and employees],” he says. “We are also offering plenty of hand sanitizer and disposable styluses for use on the touch screens in the exhibit.”
And since the museum is operating under 25% capacity per state pandemic guidelines, Buonomo says tickets are going fast.
“The demand unfortunately is greater than the supply.”
Misha Davenport is a Chicago-based freelance writer.