As well as regularly saving the world, Superman, Spider-Man, and Batman share another link: they are all orphans. Batman’s parents were killed, Peter Parker was raised by his aunt and uncle, and Superman’s parents died in multiple iterations of the comic. Once you notice this shared heritage, the trope pops up everywhere within superhero stories and the wider comic book tradition.
It’s partly down to characterisation, according to Foundling Museum assistant curator Laura Chase. “It forces that character to assert themselves in the world at a much earlier age,” she says. “And for superheroes, it introduces them invariably to an issue of justice in a really visceral way.” This spring, the London museum is putting on Super Heroes, Orphans & Origins: 125 years in comics. The exhibition surveys the comic landscape and its representation of foundlings, orphans, adoptees, and foster children (anyone who falls under the umbrella of “care experienced”).
The through-line is particularly rich for the medium of comic books for a few reasons, explains Chase. Because of the form’s serialised nature, these beginnings can be referred to continually – serving as a visual reminder about the trauma imposed at a young age. That’s where the origins of the exhibition’s name comes into play.
This can be seen in the early comics from the 1930s right through to the present day. Not only is this a helpful framework for writers and illustrators, it impacts the reader too. “The reader has the agency to go back, look at the picture and weave it back into the story,” Chase says. “There’s a freedom you have with turning the page and letting your reader engage in a narrative in a much more active way.”
The prototype speech bubble
Of course, even people who have not been care experienced can relate to notions of being an outsider. The exhibition was inspired in part by a temporary commission from poet Lemn Sissay, entitled Superman was a Foundling. This project resonated with a range of visitors, Chase explains, and the exhibition expands on these themes – not only via an international outlook, but tracking them through the decades to the current day.
One of the earliest characters in the exhibition is Little Orphan Annie, first published in 1924 in the American newspaper The New York Daily News. Annie is a familiar face, who has since starred in musicals and film adaptations. But a lesser known precursor is the Yellow Kid, an American comic strip character who appeared at the end of the 19th century. Conceived and drawn by Richard F. Outcault, Yellow Kid was an impoverished boy – who wore a yellow nightshirt – and wandered around some of New York’s poorest areas. Outcault would write text on Yellow Kid’s shirt, which Chase describes as the “prototype for a speech bubble”. These comics treated everyday miseries with a sense of humour – an important way for readers to digest some of the horrors affecting contemporary society.
The most famous faces in the exhibition are Batman and Superman, created in the late 1930s. One of the exhibition’s cover images features the pair, along with Batman’s assistant Robin, appearing at the World’s Fair held in New York between 1939 to 1940. The familiar stylings of this period are all present: a brightly-coloured, clean-cut world which would later be aped by pop artists like Roy Lichtenstein in the 1960s. “There’s this sense of physical activity and confidence that comes through on the covers,” Chase says.
Later, a sense of seriousness would come in – perhaps representing a more nuanced take on some of their challenging origin stories. A later cover of Batman (from 1969’s Detective Comics) shows the superhero caught in a hall of mirrors, where he’s “terrified of himself”. Batman is both motivated and haunted by his parents’ murder. Placing earlier “plucky” covers in contrast with these later ones draws out some of the complexities with these heroes’ origins, Chase believes. By the 60s, these characters had been around for a few decades, and our relationship with them had only become more complex.
“She had to learn how to redraw herself”
One of the exhibition’s ambitions is to celebrate diversity in comic books and graphic novels. One moving work is by Swedish writer and illustrator Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom from her 2016 graphic novel Palimpsest. Sjöblom is Korean and grew up in an adopted family in Sweden, and Palimpsest traces Sjöblom’s journey to find her birth mother. In an accompanying interview for the piece, Sjöblom explains that the nuance of the story was better-suited to a graphic novel rather than a traditional novel.
“You really feel what she’s feeling,” Chase says, “but it makes it very palatable at the same time to understand it, piece by piece.” The colour scheme is inspired by Northern Sweden – muted and sombre tones of brown and beige. One challenge for Sjöblom was to draw a self-portrait – a heroine that actually looked like her. As Chase explains, the artist had grown up in predominantly white surroundings. “She had to relearn how to draw herself for this graphic novel,” Chase says.
The exhibition a;sp strives to show how the comic form has examined contemporary issues throughout history. A particularly visceral example of this is 2016’s Zenobia, written by Morten Durr and illustrated by Lars Horneman. It tells the story of Amina, a Syrian refugee making a journey across the sea. On the refugee boat, she recalls a story told to her by her mother about Queen Zenobia, a third-century Syrian monarch. The visual format emphasises Amina’s own struggles against this mythic feature. While contemporary scenes are depicted in dark blue tones, the myth is recalled in bright coral hues. “Comics can take such a complex and resonant theme, and transform it into something we can discuss, feel and experience,” Chase adds.
The Foundling Museum has commissioned new pieces by three British comic artists; Asia Alfasi, Bex Glendining, and Woodrow Phoenix. These works explore the links between care experience and comic books, often drawing on the artists’ personal backgrounds. Glendining, a biracial and queer illustrator, has reinterpreted Superman’s origin story with a contemporary take on gender fluidity, for example. “She’s created a character in which anyone can see themselves,” Chase says. For her, this synthesises how the form is becoming increasingly “accessible and varied”: “It really shows where comics are going.”
Superheroes, Orphans & Origins: 125 years in comics runs from 1 April – 28 August 2022 at the Foundling Museum, London. For more information on tickets and opening times, visit the Foundling Museum website.