The comic book is one of the most ubiquitous and influential pop cultural artefacts of the twentieth century. Coming of age in an era of unprecedented global upheaval, the comic book Super Hero flourished in the wake of two world wars and was again pressed into action during the Cold War. Teams of champions assembled, expanded and evolved over decades and into the twenty-first century. At the very moment visual effects technology caught up with the world-changing powers deployed by these hand-drawn protagonists, their stories began to be adapted for live-action film.
The characters we see in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have their roots in the Silver Age of Comics, spanning the late 1950s and the 1960s, when a fruitful partnership between artist Jack Kirby and writer Stan Lee at Marvel Comics gave rise to the memorable characters Thor, Hulk, Iron Man, Ant-Man and Black Panther. They also enlisted Captain America, who Kirby had created with Joe Simon in 1941, to join their supergroup, the Avengers. The final issue of the short-lived title Amazing Fantasy introduced the Steve Ditko-drawn Spider-Man. Around the same time, Ditko debuted Doctor Strange in the pages of Strange Tales, while Lee, Don Rico and Don Heck welcomed Black Widow in Tales of Suspense.
These characters have endured in the pages of countless titles since, and over the past decade have transformed into icons of contemporary visual culture as part of the unstoppable box office phenomenon, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Visually astounding, keenly self-aware and intricately interlinked, the series of Marvel Studios films, beginning with 2008’s Iron Man, has confounded the conventional Super Hero mould — achieved, in part, by combining genres, from spy thriller to space opera, and delivering fresh, crowd-pleasing entertainment on the grandest scale.
But why examine popular culture in an art museum, and, in particular, this art museum? QAGOMA has long been interested in all aspects of contemporary visual culture, and our Australian Cinémathèque, which looks at film as an art medium, has provided us with the means to explore rich and diverse cinematic worlds unlike any other Australian art museum. By examining the sources of these contemporary stories — and the processes by which they reach the cinema screen — we expand our visual literacy and examine a global phenomenon within a wider critical dialogue.
‘Marvel: Creating the Cinematic Universe’ follows a selection of flawed heroes and their villainous foes from comic books to high-definition screens. We present the original visions of Kirby, Lee and Ditko and their contemporaries, and look at the creative teams who transform these stories using concept art, storyboarding, production design and computer-generated imagery. We also showcase the painstakingly crafted props and sumptuous costumes that give these unreal worlds a tangible presence.
This project has its precedents in our cinema surveys but its scope — the entire ground floor of GOMA, including our Cinémathèque — and the diverse materiality of its objects and images is unprecedented.
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Marvel‘s enthusiasm and cooperation in presenting their characters in an art museum context has been outstanding. Developing this exhibition has been a heroic journey of a different kind for the Gallery, as we’ve grappled with presenting diverse material on characters loved by millions around the world — and the result is spectacular. ‘Marvel: Creating the Cinematic Universe’ is a thrilling exhibition of larger-than-life subjects and their epic journeys.
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‘Marvel: Creating the Cinematic Universe’ has been organised by the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) in collaboration with Marvel Entertainment. The exhibition has received vital support from the Queensland Government though Tourism and Events Queensland (TEQ) and Arts Queensland. The Gallery acknowledges the support of UNIQLO – Principal Partner and exclusive sponsor of ‘Marvel: Creating the Cinematic Universe’ Up Late.
Chris Saines, CNZM is Director of the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA)