Those at the heart of unique exhibition are lifelong fans.
The two men curating a world-first exhibition in Wellington couldn’t have better credentials: they both started reading Marvel comics as children and describe themselves as “deep nerds”.
Welsh expatriate Ben Saunders and American Patrick A. Reed are enthusiastic fans of the Marvel Universe – just as well when you have to pull together more than 80 years of Marvel history to put on Marvel: Earth’s Mightiest Exhibition, opening in Wellington on December 14.
Saunders is a Professor of Comic Studies at Oregon, Reed an independent curator and historian, and there can be few people in the world with more knowledge of the topic. Both began absorbing Marvel comics as children – Saunders’s grandmother bought them for him while Reed adopted his older brothers’ comics obsession, enthralled from the moment he could read.
It became an enduring passion and now the exhibition they have curated will feature a comprehensive collection of original Marvel art, artefacts and interactive photo opportunities ever displayed in the Southern Hemisphere. Ahead of general admission, Marvel fans, collectors, cosplayers and more can also attend a special preview event experience on December 12 from 7:30 PM.
“We just don’t tell the story of Marvel, we make visitors watch and listen,” says Reed. “The audience is brought into the story, viewing artefacts and learning with immersive galleries that evoke key locations from the Marvel Universe.”
With over 80 years of Marvel history to sift through, careful curation is essential. Putting the exhibition together starts with a script where the basic narratives for the show are worked out and a wish list created of the items that will tell the story.
“Then we set about seeing which of those items are actually available – what exists, what has been lost, what can be borrowed and what can be reconstructed,” says Saunders.
The fun really begins, says Reed, when they begin to collaborate with the design team at Berlin’s Studio TK, batting around ideas of how best to bring each narrative to life. “We are continually astonished at how something starts out as one thing and turns into something else entirely, that is far better than anything we would ever have come up with on our own.”
Choosing what to leave out is one of the more difficult parts of the project. “There’s been so much amazing work, so many wonderful stories and characters, so many brilliant creators that we could fill entire museums and still not cover it all,” says Saunders.
Decisions are made based on the narratives created for each gallery. Sometimes the focus is on the fictional history of a classic character such as Spider-Man, sometimes it’s about the real-world history of the company and creators and sometimes they opt to give people insight into the creative production process.
Saunders is keen to know if the rumours that a piece of Captain America’s costume from the 1940s Universal Serial exist in a private collection – if true, that would make it the oldest known costume from the first live action Marvel movie.
“We’ve never spoken directly to anyone who claims to have access to that costume, so I really have no idea. But I’d love to know.”
It’s impossible for either of them to pick a favourite Marvel character although Saunders is clear that his favourite Marvel creator is Jack Kirby: “His graphite fingerprints are all over my brain. He has helped to shape my imagination, and I sincerely regard him as one of the greatest American artists of the 20th Century.” As for Reed, his favourite character changes day by day. “One of the glories of Marvel is not just the incredible diversity of their characters but how those characters are so well-formed and relatable and how they connect with different pieces of our own experiences.
“I was once an awkward teenager trying to figure out what my powers were and how to exist in the world, so Spider-Man and Kamala Khan both speak to that part of me. The idealism and nobility of Captain America are endlessly inspirational and I completely relate to the family dynamics of The Fantastic Four.”
Both men insist that there is no need to know anything about Marvel before going to the exhibition.
“The joy of creating an exhibition like this is sharing what we love with others and making sure we’re creating something accessible and enjoyable to everybody,” says Reed.
Marvel’s enduring success is multi-faceted. Saunders says it’s because Marvel attracts some of the best artists in the field. “Also in the 60s and 70s, Marvel was often a courageous publisher taking a strong stance against racism, raising questions about the Vietnam War and other issues. When I look back, I’m struck at how often they are on the right side of history – it’s a legacy to be proud of.”
Reed says it’s also the innate strength of the characters that allows them to endure and succeed in all forms of media.
“On some level there’s just an inexplicable magic that happens. I can talk for hours about superheroism as a metaphor for one thing or another, but a little kid who sees someone in a red and blue suit climbing walls and shooting webs is drawn to it on a visceral level. It just works and it’s undeniable.”
Marvel: Earth’s Mightiest Exhibition opens at Tākina Wellington Convention and Exhibition Centre on December 14. Limited tickets are also available for a very special preview and gala experience on December 12. To secure your ticket to preview see: website link: wellingtonnz.com/MarvelExhibit