Evocative tribute to the orphaned caped crusader: Superheroes, Orphans & Origins at the Foundling Museum reviewed

30 April 2022

9:00 AM

30 April 2022

9:00 AM

Superheroes, Orphans & Origins: 125 years in comics

Foundling Museum, until 28 August

Instead of wasting money, like other museums, on extravagant architectural statements, the Foundling Museum in Brunswick Square has sensibly chosen to welcome visitors with a written statement. In 2014 it commissioned the poet Lemn Sissay, who spent his teenage years in a children’s home, to create a memorial in its entrance hall to the many parentless heroes and heroines in fiction. ‘Heathcliff was a foundling… Harry Potter was fostered… Dorothy Gale was adopted… James Bond was fostered…’ The list goes on, running to more than 100 names. Sissay’s mural will trigger a lightbulb moment for any dimwit like me who has failed to notice this narrative trope – and there are further revelations in the show downstairs.

Superheroes, Orphans & Origins is a fascinating flick through 125 years of comic strips whose heroes and heroines – role models to generations of children – are all orphaned, abandoned, adopted or fostered. There’s a reason for this, points out graphic novelist Woodrow Phoenix: ‘If there are parents, then there is someone to say no.’ Step one in developing a superhero plot? Kill the parents.

The show traces the lineage of the parentless cartoon hero back to 1895, when the Yellow Kid – a toddler of no fixed abode in a yellow nightshirt – made his debut in New York World in Richard Felton Outcault’s comic strip Hogan’s Alley, set among the slum tenements of a rotting Big Apple (see p31). He was followed in 1921 by the infant Skeezix – cowboy slang for an orphaned calf – in Frank O. King’s comic series Gasoline Alley, after the Chicago Tribune’s editor asked the artist to throw in a baby to make his story more appealing to women readers. As the strip’s car-mechanic hero Walt Wallet was a confirmed bachelor, the only way to smuggle the baby into the storyline was in the proverbial basket on the doorstep. Skeezix has turned out to be a born survivor. A century on, he still appears as a grandfather in America’s longest-running comic strip, sharing the comic universe with such contemporary creations as Nubia, Wonder Woman’s long-lost black sister, and the anonymous gender-fluid hero of Bex Glendining’s queer love story Begin Again.

As if it’s not enough to be alone in the world, orphaned superheroes have horrific origin stories. In Up in Flames, a strip commissioned for the exhibition, Phoenix flashes back to the childhood traumas that set Superman, Tarzan, Little Orphan Annie, Magnus Robot Fighter, Barefoot Gen, Batman, Astro Boy and Black Panther on the lonely path to herohood. ‘To test our heroes and make them prove their mettle,’ he explains, ‘they have to endure the worst possible challenges.’ None can be worse than those endured by six-year-old Barefoot Gen, a survivor of Hiroshima like his creator Keiji Nakazawa; compared with the aftermath of Little Boy, the emotional fallout for Batman of seeing his parents shot by muggers in an alley seems relatively manageable. ‘…DEAD! THEY’RE D… DEAD,’ sobs the boy Bruce Wayne in episode one. A few frames later the grown-up Wayne announces: ‘Dad’s estate left me wealthy’, giving him the means to pursue his crime-busting mission.

As the adopted son of respectable Smallville couple Jonathan and Martha Kent, Superman is also comfortably off but suffers, like other cartoon characters torn from their roots, from a conflicted sense of self. ‘Who am I? Where am I? Why am I wearing this strange costume?’ he asks himself in one strip from the 1960s; in another, Clark Kent threatens to walk out on him: ‘Go find yourself another alter-ego, Superman! I’m tired of being your fall guy! I’m leaving you… Forever!’ Identity crises are part of the superhero package. I was more disturbed by the discovery that Superman’s outfit was hand-knitted for him by Martha from the blankets lining his original space capsule. Knitted! I can never think of him in the same way again.

Superman’s rural upbringing is unusual; urban alleys are the natural haunts of parentless heroes. Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca’s 12-year-old Street Angel Jesse Sanchez is as resourceful and resilient as an alley cat: ‘In Wilkesborough, Angel City’s worst ghetto, she fights ninjas, drugs, nepotism, and pre-algebra…’ The orphaned brothers of Taiyo Matsumoto’s manga series Tekkonkinkreet also survive in the concrete jungle, battling the Yakuza for the soul of Treasure Town: Shiro (White) and Kuro (Black) function as a good cop/bad cop act. As well as a dynamic draughtsman, Matsumoto is an accomplished painter. The watercolour illustrations to his manga series Sunny, about a group of friends from a children’s home who make their base in an abandoned Nissan Datsun Sunny, are marvellously evocative. The artist spent six years in a similar home.

Mastumoto’s is not the only autobiographical contribution to the genre. In her graphic novel Palimpsest, Swedish-Korean adoptee Lisa Wool-Rim Sjoblom tells the painful story of her personal search for her Korean birth parents. Not all parentless kids can be caped crusaders, but they need a certain kind of heroism.

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