“It occurred to me that since these colorful superheroes- whose destiny seemed to be in my hands- had to live somewhere, why not let them all live in the same city? That city would be New York, because that's where I lived and it was the one place I felt I could write about with a fair degree of accuracy.”
-Excelsior! The Amazing Life of Stan Lee
That quote from Stan Lee's 2002 book is one of the first things that will greet visitors as they step in the comic book world of Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes. That cosmos is not in New York City but at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. It sets you on your journey into the Marvel-verse complete with a Hollywood-style red carpet that will bring you face-to-display case with the first Marvel comic book ever from 1939.
The Franklin Institute is the exclusive East Coast home of Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes featuring more than 300 artifacts, many never before seen. Some of Marvel's most iconic and sought-after comic book pages, costumes and props are on display designed to thrill and delight fans of all ages as well as avid collectors.
The immersive 15,000 square-foot exhibit traces the story of Marvel from its humble beginnings and its influence on visual culture. It also uncovers the narratives of individual characters such as Captain America, Spider-Man, Black Panther, Captain Marvel and Doctor Strange just to name a few.
The two-level display starts with how Marvin Goodman founded the company first known as Timely Publications in 1939 and the hiring of his nephew Stanley Lieber, who took on the pen name Stan Lee.
While Lee ultimately gets all the credit for his comic book empire, the genius behind this Marvel-ous display is British-born academic Ben Saunders, an expert in comic and cartoon studies, pop culture and professor of English literature at the University of Oregon. Saunders will be the first one to admit that serving as curator of the show has been “a dream job” for him where he is able to mix his scholastic work with his passion for the comics.
“I moved to this country in part because of my childhood obsession with things like Marvel comics,” Saunders confesses.
The show coincides with the 10th anniversary of Marvel Studios but celebrates 80 years of Marvel history. “Marvel dates back to the very first Marvel comic that came out in 1939,” Saunders notes. “We actually have the only surviving piece of original art from that comic in the show. That is really a holy grail piece.”
Marvel Comic #1 is given the celebrity treatment complete with a red carpet walk-up to the display case. “A lot of people have never seen original comic book art,” Saunders observes that there is a reason for that. “When you look at the comic in your hands of course what you are looking at is the reproduction of something that someone once drew by hand with pencil and ink on Bristol board. And that work is in private hands.” Professor Saunders adds that “Marvel has returned all the original art to the artists to let them sell it on the secondary market for many, many years now.”
The curator says “the stuff” from the 1930s and '40s was not preserved and much of it was discarded or stored away in basements and attics. “Once the comic was published,” Saunders notes “the art was not seen as really having any value and it was frequently destroyed.”
So you can imagine the excitement when one page of the very first Marvel comic as well as the last page from the Sub-Mariner story drawn by an 18-year-old Bill Everett were discovered. Saunders praises the kindness of a private collector to lend the rarities for display in the museum show.
Saunders is quick to note that it is the generosity of those private collectors that makes this show different from the rest.
Besides cultivating the prized possessions of private collectors, Saunders says Marvel Studios cooperated with his request for artifacts for the exhibition. Marvel has loaned iconic props and production items from many of its box-office blockbusters as well as attire worn by Chadwick Boseman in 2018's Black Panther, Chris Evans in 2015's Captain America, Chris Hemsworth in 2013's Thor: The Dark World as well as the green costume from the recent Captain Marvel film.
Despite what Saunders calls the “big-bang spectacle” of Hollywood, one of the things that he finds himself always returning to are those wonderful pieces of original art. Saunders states, “because they are otherwise impossible to see and they are not in some archive in Los Angeles or New York, somewhere they are scattered around the country in these private hands.”
What else can you expect to see as you step into this arena of super heroes? Look for the classic Spider-Man animated cartoon series from the 1960s, complete with that catchy ear-worm theme song featured on display monitors with headphones alongside animation cells from the program. That is adjacent to original art from Steve Ditko, the first artist to work on the character. The Spidey-verse section of the exhibit is complete with the Tom Holland Spidey-suit from the most recent Spider-Man live-action flick.
“One of the most exciting things for me about this show,” states Saunders “is you can look at a piece of Bristol board with the original pencil and ink drawing of a character like Loki for example, we have the very first time Loki ever appeared in a Marvel comic, the original page by Jack Kirby and then in the case next to it is the helmet that Tom Hiddleston wears in The Avengers movie.” Saunders observes “you can actually see the movement from something in two-dimension on a comic book page turned into an object than an actor can actually wear and they're right next to each other. I don't think that has ever happened before,” Saunders adds.
Needless to say it was quite the task tracking down the 300 items for display in the show. Saunders says he was very excited to find Lou Ferrigno's green wig from The Incredible Hulk television show which aired from 1978-1982. It was the valuable treasure of a private collector in Los Angeles, who also had the prosthetic green nose and forehead piece. “They are very, very fragile,” Saunders remarked, adding that “in the end the collector felt that just moving them from his home to museums around the world” would compromise their delicate condition.
The exhibit also allows you the chance to take a selfie with The Thing from The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, The Hulk, Ms. Marvel and the Black Panther just to name a few of the characters that have stepped out of the comics and onto the exhibit floor.
Whether you want to take a leisurely stroll through the show or make a few return trips, you will not be disappointed in what you will see but also what you will learn. While he did not get to see the museum show in Seattle before his death, Stan Lee did write the introduction to the extensive catalog for the display. Saunders believes it is the last thing Lee wrote for Marvel before his passing.
The Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes exhibit premiered in 2018 at the Museum of Popular Culture (MoPOP) in Seattle and runs through September 2nd at Philadelphia's Franklin Institute when as rumor has it the show will pack up and head to Dubai in the Middle East.