Ben Saunders has an impressive nerd resumé: He co-founded and directs University of Oregon’s minor in Comic and Cartoon Studies (the first undergraduate minor of its kind in the country), and he is a book editor, author and curator of numerous museum exhibits.
But “Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes” —OMSI’s latest exhibit and curated by Saunders — is the cherry on top.
“Working on this show has been one of the great privileges of my professional life,” Saunders said as he walked around the exhibit.
“I mean, I’m a lifelong fan. I, as you can probably tell from my accent, I’m not from around here,” he joked. Saunders grew up in Wales and learned about Marvel through its British imprint as a child. “I discovered the existence of the United States of America through Marvel comics. … I learned to read from comics.
“So, the opportunity to do something like this — I still can’t quite believe it’s happening.”
While this exhibit is sort of a love letter to Marvel Comics and Entertainment from their conception, it is laid out in an approachable and understated way. Saunders thinks some people might walk past some of his favorite pieces.
He wouldn’t want you to miss the reprint of the first appearance of Sub-Mariner, also known as Namor, who is set to make their debut in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the upcoming “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.” The exhibit also includes the first appearance of the Human Torch, who at that time was not a charming stud, but instead an android? Comics are weird.
But beside that Sub-Mariner cover, protected behind glass, is an original from that 1939 comic. These original artworks often belong to the families of the people who created them. They have been loaned to this exhibit.
“And if you come in really close, you can see it’s got that fine dot texture,” Saunders said, donning the cap of Marvel historian.
That dot texture was due to a shading technique used by a young Bill Everett that was later deemed a mistake.
“Easy to overlook because it’s not as big and striking as some of the things here,” he said, “but as from the point of view of a piece of Marvel history, well, it’s absolutely unique.”
The exhibit pays tribute to two of the so-called founding fathers of Marvel: Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. Displays explore the advent of characters they created, from Captain America to the Incredible Hulk to Iron Man, super heroes that also inspired beloved TV shows and movies.
And to help patrons understand all the things they’re seeing, media tables are interspersed around the exhibit. Saunders said he worked with an amazing team to write the thousands of words around the exhibit.
“But most of the text that you see on the walls, almost all of that was written by me.”
It wasn’t that Saunders got to arrange things chosen for him by Marvel to create the immersive space. He wrote pages and pages of wants and ideas of what the space might look like, submitted them to Marvel, and hoped for the best.
“I kind of made my fantasy version of the show starting with the origin of the superhero before there was ever a Marvel,” said Saunders.
His deep understanding of comics shows across the exhibit in ways both extreme and casual fans can appreciate.
“Part of the charm, and part of the essential Marvel formula, is the idea that you have a mixture of the cosmic in the everyday,” he said. Which is why one of the photo opportunities is with The Thing from “Fantastic Four” lounging, asleep, with a book on a couch. The window behind him plays a scene of New York with favorite superheroes speeding by. Saunders wrote a script for that window scene as well.
“It means that you’re being photo bombed the whole time by the various characters,” he said.
When he initially worked with Marvel to bring the exhibit together, “Black Panther” (2018) had not been released. Saunders said he knew the movie was going to be important and pushed to include a portion in the exhibit. Indeed, around the first corner, there are costumes from the movie you can see up close, giving visitors the chance to appreciate detail they could never hope to see from a movie seat. There is also a photo op with T’Challa.
Inclusivity and diversity were important to Saunders as he created an exhibit with a medium that was, and still is in many ways, dominated by white men.
“There is no way that the pace of change in a historically misogynistic and racist culture could ever be fast enough,” he said. “I wanted there to be a woman and a person of color in every room and the material is there, you can do that.”
Saunders said the superhero fantasy itself is built to appeal to all.
“I think that it’s inherent that the superhero fantasy is more inclusive than perhaps some traditional adventure stories,” he said. Saunders pointed to war stories and westerns that historically leave little room for people of color and other minorities.
But that fantasy, the us we see in superheroes and the hope that it can offer us, is what Saunders thinks is at the heart of why comics are important literature. It goes beyond the fantasy of glamor and power we see in stories older than the Greek gods and is not wholly unique to the modern superhero.
“I see it as aspirational. What superhero comics often, and what Marvel comics in particular, has offered to me as a reader growing up, reading them in a different country, was America’s best version of itself, an idealized version of itself,” he said.
And while America often falls short of the ideal, Saunders said, having a fictional best self is something to reach for.
“If we didn’t have the aspiration, you know, I see it as offering something to aim at, which is one of the reasons also why the movement towards diversity and inclusivity within the genre is so important.”
The cultural influence of comics over the last decade is undeniable, but Saunders’ exhibit shows the ways comics shaped media long before Iron Man hit the screen.
And if you’re wondering what a professor who teaches about comics considers comics gold: “The first a hundred issues of the “Fantastic Four” would, would be right up there in my personal list of the greatest comic book runs of all time.”
You can see the “Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes” exhibit at OMSI through April 9, 2023.
Destiny Johnson | @hello_destiny | email@example.com