Superheroes at Bradbury Gallery

Marvel Comics' debut fine art collection, curated by legendary comics writer Stan Lee and featuring six iconic covers, runs in Belfast until March 12

'Stan Lee, the name among names!' exclaims Brodie Bruce in Kevin Smith’s counter-culture caper movie Mallrats, in which the legendary comic book writer makes one of his many silver screen cameos.

20-something slacker Bruce’s enthusiasm about the former president of Marvel Comics arriving his one horse town is certainly warranted – Lee is, after all, the creative genius behind the likes of Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk and the X-Men, to name but a few all-conquering comic book giants.

While Stan ‘The Man’ Lee will sadly not being appearing in Northern Ireland any time soon, fans will be excited to learn that Belfast’s Bradbury Gallery off Queen's Street is currently holding an exhibition of the man's work. Superheroes is billed as Marvel's debut fine art collection, and features six large-scale prints of classic Marvel comic covers, chosen by Stan Lee himself.

At the opening of the exhibition on Saturday, February 23, Richard Brown of Bradbury Gallery said: 'The collection has been a storming success in pre-orders, with celebrities snapping them up throughout the UK including Jonathan Ross, One Direction and a host of Premier League footballers. We are the exclusive launch in Ireland and do not expect the work to be available for long.'

Each of these colourful, iconic giclées comes framed and signed by Lee, and is available to purchase for £695 a pop, or £995 for a boxed canvas. Some might say that's quite a price for what essentially amounts to a high quality print reproduction of a comic book cover signed by a man who didn’t draw it. But wait!

One has to consider Smilin’ Stan’s monumental influence on the comics industry when considering purchasing artworks like these. Lee played the role of ideas man at Marvel – becoming editor at just 19 in 1941, and subsequently pulling the ailing publishing house out of the doldrums and into the big time – while visionary peers such as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko used their artistic talents to bring his creations to life.

Although comic books have always reflected the times in which they were created (the cover of Captain America #1 featured ol’ Cap punching Hitler square in the nose, for example), Lee was initially more concerned with pushing comics into the mainstream as pure entertainment. He took the comic books landscape and shook it up, inventing new characters that continue to appeal to generation after generation.

Spiderman

 

In a time when chiselled-jaw comic book heroes were idealistically perfect with no personal problems, Lee gave his characters an unusual naturalism. They were complex, emotional and, most importantly, flawed. For the first time, comic book heroes were fallible, with Spider-Man worrying about paying bills and The Fantastic Four often bickering amongst themselves.

While his titles never achieved the dark levels of realism that made Alan Moore's Watchmen a post-modern classic, for American audiences during the mid-20th century, reading about Lee's superheroes trying to impress girlfriends or just getting bored was far more shocking than Adolf’s socked jaw could ever be.

Furthermore, Lee’s works were often allegorical. Take X-Men, for example, which was famously inspired by the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Golden Age Superman writers would never have dared!

With all this in mind – and considering that Lee’s huckster persona has been firmly ingratiated into popular culture since Hollywood realised how much it could make from adaptating his titles – it's no surprise that Bradbury Gallery (an offshoot of art supplies store Bradbury Graphics, next door) draws a decent-sized, curious crowd on the first morning of the exhibition.

The framed covers are, of course, iconic. Fans salivate over Silver Surfer #4, Giant Size X-Men #1, Invincible Iron Man #47, Avengers #146 and Amazing Spider-Man #50. Best of all is Jim Steranko’s striking Incredible Hulk Special #1, one of the most eye-catching cover illustrations in comic book history.

I resist the temptation to explain to some of the younger gallery goers that Steranko’s original vision for this piece was touched up by Marie Severin (upon Lee’s request), arguably to the work’s detriment. Far better to enjoy the incredibly vibrant colours and the drama of Steranko's vision.

While it is fun to spend a Saturday morning admiring a few examples of Silver Age comic art, it's impossible to ignore the fact that these pieces are merely reproductions. Yes they're signed by Lee, but does that justify the price?

There is a distinct nerd Ikea vibe to Bradbury Gallery, with most below the age of 30 and, one would assume, lacking the kind of savings that would permit such a purchase. Understandably conversations begin to turn to comics themselves. 'Wouldn't that money be better spent on purchasing actual vintage comics, which are not only a real slice of history but can be read and enjoyed even more?'

Better still, comic book fans could check out the wealth of creative talent who are currently working to put Northern Irish comics on the map. Not just world-famous luminaries such as Holywood’s Garth Ennis, but emerging writers and artists like Malachy Coney and Stephen Downey, who have just released a new title, Noe The Savage Boy.

Or, to see comic book art being designed, sketched, coloured and framed before your very eyes, the tireless PJ Holden, whose work can regularly be seen in the pages of 2000AD, would welcome you to his stall at St George's Market, as would the organisers of the annual 2D Comics Festival in Derry~Londonderry. I’m pretty sure that is what Stan The Man would do. Face front, true believers!

Superheroes runs in Bradbury Gallery until March 12.

Hulk