‘Spider-Man: Beyond Amazing’ fulfills its promise

Spider-Man swung into Union Station and greeted guests for the opening of the exhibition. (photo by Amber Dawkins Photography)

The exhibit at Union Station includes more than 30 unique pieces of Spider-Man original comic book art, offering a rare look at the superhero’s creative genesis

Artist Steve Ditko injects his signature style into this original page 1 splash from Amazing Spider-Man 20 in 1964. (photo by Brian McTavish)

You’ve come a long way, Spidey.

No other superhero character today surpasses the sheer popularity of Spider-Man, whether swinging through movie blockbusters, video games, animated cartoons or seemingly endless iterations of merchandise aimed at worldwide fans of the wisecracking wall-crawler.

As cool as that fame must be for your friendly neighborhood web head, he had to work up to it.

None of the bigtime glitz would exist without Spider-Man’s adventures in the relatively humble comic book medium, beginning with his origin story in Amazing Fantasy 15, published in 1962 by then-fledgling Marvel Comics: Picked-on high school bookworm Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider to become an unlikely superhero who soon learns that “with great power comes great responsibility.”

Artist John Romita Sr. depicts a brooding Peter Parker dealing with his worries in this original opening splash page to Amazing Spider-Man 82 in 1969. (photo by Brian McTavish)

That adage also applies to the mission of “Spider-Man: Beyond Amazing,” the powerfully fun and responsibly informative traveling exhibition that’s making its world premiere all summer long at Union Station. The exhibit chronicles the six-decade history of Spider-Man, his strong cast of supporting characters, his rogue’s gallery of supervillains and, most essentially, his greatest comic book creators through the years.

Indeed, the exhibit’s co-curators — University of Oregon English professor Ben Saunders, founder of the first undergraduate minor in comic studies and series editor of the Penguin Classics Marvel Collection; and New York-based pop-culture historian and writer Patrick A. Reed — have so passionately embraced the web-spinner’s seminal and ongoing comic book roots that they form the supporting foundation of the entire show.

A dynamic variety of high-resolution comic book images (all scanned from Saunders’ and Reed’s own comic collections) are colorfully reproduced in large-scale formats throughout the exhibit and complemented by animated screens and explanatory text that’s insightful as well as entertaining.

But the exhibit’s big reveal is its museum-quality presentation of more than 30 unique pieces of Spider-Man original comic book art on loan from private collections.

They include original art pages from the 1960s and early ’70s drawn by classic Spider-Man artists Steve Ditko and John Romita Sr. Ditko was Spidey’s first artist and co-creator with writer/editor Stan Lee. Romita Sr. took over drawing duties from Ditko with Amazing Spider-Man 39 in 1966. Fortunately enough, that highly desirable issue’s vibrant first-page splash, featuring Spider-Man’s arch nemesis, the Green Goblin, is part of the exhibit.

Spider-Man soars over New York City shooting out wild ropes of webbing in Todd McFarlane’s original art for the cover of Amazing Spider-Man 300 in 1988. (photo by Brian McTavish)

Other “Spider-Man: Beyond Amazing” original art highlights:

  • Strange Tales 97, page 2, Steve Ditko pencils and inks, 1962 — showing a “tryout” version of Aunt May and Uncle Ben months before they appeared as Peter Parker’s kin in Amazing Fantasy 15
  • Amazing Spider-Man 20, page 1, Steve Ditko pencils and inks, 1964 — A spectacularly acrobatic Spidey battles the Scorpion.
  • Amazing Spider-Man 82, Page 1, John Romita (pencils) and Jim Mooney (inks), 1969 — A pensive Peter Parker plays out his inner turmoil via a bevy of worry-filled thought balloons. The page is accompanied by this same issue’s page 1 dialogue script, typed by Stan Lee with his handwritten instructions to the story’s letterer.
  • Amazing Spider-Man 300, cover, Todd McFarlane (pencils and inks), 1988 — A black-costumed Spider-Man whizzes along the New York City skyline while shooting out wild ropes of web fluid in this iconic McFarlane image building on the loose-limbed style of Ditko.
  • Ultimate Fallout 4, cover, Mark Bagley (pencils) and Andy Lanning (inks), 2011 — the first hand-drawn appearance of Miles Morales, an alternate version of Spider-Man, who is depicted solely by digital art inside this issue
Young fans encounter a lifelike sculpture of Miles Morales, a Spider-Man from an alternate universe. (photo by Brian McTavish)

“It just starts with drawing”

“We are well aware that there are people who discover Spider-Man through all kinds of media,” Saunders says. “But, for us, the initial point of entry was comic books. What we wanted to do was to remind people, not just how this global franchise actually begins with the works of individuals on paper — but also to remind people of that larger production process.”

Take a close look at the original comic book art pages and in the outer margins you’ll frequently notice handwritten production notes, along with other potential marks and flaws, such as tape, stains, smudges, dried glue residue from long-missing paste-ups and other byproducts of past artistic effort and human handling. It’s the sort of thing that you might not expect, unless you’ve already seen original comic book art, and most people haven’t.

Installation view of the exhibition, “Spider-Man: Beyond Amazing.” (photo by Amber Dawkins Photography)

“You meet a lot of comic book fans who’ve never had the chance to see a piece of original art,” Saunders says, if only because original art can be hard to come by, especially with older and more desirable pieces. It wasn’t until the 1980s that comic book publishers began to consistently return original art to artists following publication. Before that, much if not most of it was lost, given away or simply trashed.

“This was a disposable medium,” Reed says. “This was production art created to print a product. There wasn’t any particular value given to these pieces of art. So they were either kept in storage or in some cases tossed out, used as placemats.”

In the 1960s and ’70s, original comic book art might also be misappropriated from a publisher’s poorly managed storage room and sold to a small but growing contingent of original art collectors who were happy to pay $10 or $20 or $30 to own an original page, even if the industry itself didn’t much care.

The one-of-a-kind original art pages on view at “Spider-Man: Beyond Amazing” are now worth thousands of dollars each, to put it mildly. In effect, they comprise a special attraction within the overall attraction of the exhibit, whose other elements encompass the display of an authentic Spider-Man movie costume and related cinematic props; a variety of interactive displays and special areas, including a children’s Spidey activity room; a visual history of Spider-Man in animation and undeniably super-sweet photo ops with several life-size Spidey sculptures.

“We want to make sure that we can draw the widest possible audience,” Reed says, “and also tap into all of the unique individual audiences for these characters, properties and material.”

Still, original comic book art remains the creative soul of the exhibit, not only to convey Spider-Man’s authentic historical narrative, but also to reflect the curators’ deeply held aesthetic motivations, which they hope will invigorate the imaginations of exhibitgoers.

“All of these characters, all of these stories that we know and hold so close, were at some point created by somebody sitting alone at a drawing table with a pencil and a pen or a brush,” Reed says. “And getting to come as close as possible to that moment of creation, to see that initial inspiration in these pieces of original art is part of why they hold such a strong resonance. There are also levels of craft and artistry.”

“When I first saw an original piece of Spider-Man artwork by Steve Ditko,” Saunders recalls, “the person who designed that costume, the man who plotted so many of those crucial early adventures and who was responsible for the design of the whole supporting cast, it was so obviously a made thing. You could see the marks of the brush. You could see the not completely erased pencils. You could see the Wite-Out being used for effects. And it was like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s right: This was a man sitting at a drawing board who got his fingerprints all over my brain with this stuff.’ But it just starts with drawing.

“And I think that was partly what I was so moved by — these fantasies that have meant so much to me at different times of my life and feel very real to a lot of people, it’s just this act of simple human creativity.”

“Spider-Man: Beyond Amazing” continues through Oct. 1 at Union Station, 30 W. Pershing Rd. Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more information, unionstation.org

Brian McTavish

Brian McTavish is a freelance writer specializing in the arts and pop culture. He was an arts and entertainment writer for more than 20 years at The Kansas City Star. He regularly shared his “Weekend To-Do List” at KCUR-FM (89.3)/kcur.org.

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