Since its inception in 1934, DC Comics have spent 80+ years building and developing an expansive universe populated with men, women, monsters, gods and beings from other worlds, dimensions and timelines. In their archives, DC boasts some of the greatest stories ever told, and there’s no finer way to experience this pop culture lore than in the halls of Greenwich’s O2 Arena, at an impressive exhibition that captures the lives and many interpretations of their most popular and iconic characters.
To accompany your experience, you receive an audio guide which, when synced with the signposted numbers, provides an additional level of immersion with detailed commentary as you walk around the exhibit. It’s a brilliant tool to introduce those who may not be familiar with the world of superhero comics, while also including additional perspective for seasoned fans to enjoy at their own pace.
Right away you’re introduced to the origins of the superhero world, with the creation of Superman in 1938, and a timeline that spans the far wall, depicting all major first character appearances. What became immediately clear in this first room was how astonishing it was to gaze upon art from the early ’40s. Yes, Orbital’s Eisner award-winning gallery has housed some incredible works over the years, but looking at original Superman cover art by Fred Ray (pictured right) blew my mind — and this was just the first room!
Now I feel it important to highlight that, while the the emphasis of the advertising for this exhibit is focused understandably on the incredible movie costumes and props, there is a real wealth of original art on display. Die-hard comic art fans and even scholars will revel in the works on the walls of this exhibition. In fact, I’d go as far as saying the artwork alone would warrant its own show.
Before you’ve had a chance to pick your jaw up off the floor, out of the corner of the eye you spy what waits for you in the next room — Christopher Reeve’s iconic Superman and Clark Kent costumes, looking as impressive as they first did in 1978.
Surrounding these pieces are Brandon Routh’s Superman Returns suit, storyboards and behind-the-scenes concept art, and a slew of original comic pages and covers from Superman titles past and present.
Another key feature in each room is the inclusion of filmed video interviews with creatives titans from both the comics and film industries: Neal Adams, Patty Jenkins, Christopher Nolan and more. They offer further context to the creation of each character, and how they’ve evolved over the decades. I’m unsure if these are original interviews or just a compilation of clips from DVD bonus features, but they nevertheless glean invaluable information and contribute to the overall experience of the exhibition.
Following this, you discover more film art, miniature models and Henry Cavill’s supersuits from Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but the real shocker in this room was more stunning original artwork – this time a gorgeous piece of cover art by the legendary Jack “The King” Kirby for the cover of Forever People #1 (pictured right), inked by Frank Giacoia, this beautiful art is a rare relic of Kirby’s brief, but characteristically innovative time at DC.
After taking a moment to compose myself, I proceeded to the next room, and the lights seemed to dim as I turned a corner dwarfed by a 10-foot tall bronze statue from The Dark Knight Rises. I was surrounded by all manner of villainy from Gotham City! Joker, Penguin and Catwoman look on enviously at Michael Keaton’s Batman, accompanied by a mass of concept art and comic pages.
There’s something mesmerising about the costumes of Burton’s Batman films. They’re simple and elegant, they tell you everything you need to know about the character, and yet were made with relatively rudimentary materials and techniques. As the movies have progressed, so too have the costume-making methods, but the timelessness of these classic costumes is beautifully evident.
But even with all these original costumes in the room, I think most of my time in this room was spent staring lovingly at storyboards and artwork from Batman: The Animated Series. As a child of the ’80s, nothing screams nostalgia to me like that opening sequence with the caped crusader tackling armed criminals on rooftops, silhouetted scenes against crimson skies.
This room stands as clear testament to Batman’s return to the shadows in pop culture. Every figure shrouded in darkness, every drawing complete with Batman’s now-infamous scowl. After the vibrant camp of previous decades, the Dark Knight was dark once more!
As our darker Batman evolves, from Keaton to Conroy, Kilmer and Clooney, we’re treated to pages from Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke. We even get a couple of rooms dedicated to Christopher Nolan’s infamous trilogy; with a massive miniature “Tumbler”, original costumes for Christian Bale’s militaristic Batman, Tom Hardy’s fur-coated Bane and the late Heath Ledger’s iconic Joker.
Then all of a sudden, as if from the shadows, both of Ben Affleck’s incredibly impressive costumes emerge from Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Drawing definite inspiration from Miller’s more mature, bulky and brooding Batman, Affleck’s portrayal is the closest interpretation to the grittier comics mentioned above that we’ve seen so far on the big screen.
We’re also introduced to the animated origins of the infamous and supremely popular Harley Quinn, with a selection of production art, a slew of original comic art including comic book covers by Amanda Conner, and in the midst of it all Margot Robbie’s divisive Harley Quinn attire from Suicide Squad.
Thankfully DC’s most godly and positive heroine is waiting to save us from all this Gotham City austerity — Wonder Woman! You’re first greeted by a vast collection of pages of art, by comic art legends ranging from classics like Harry G Peter to modern marvels like Terry Dodson. Then, turning a corner, Linda Carter’s classic Wonder Woman costumes stand proud in the middle of the room, and behind them the armoured reimagining from Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice worn by Gal Gadot.
Finally, you walk through a final hall of artwork, encompassing the breadth of the complete DC archive, including sheets of beautiful painted art by Alex Ross (pictured left) and animation cels from the campy but lovable Super Friends series, before being treated to a grand cinematic farewell.
Like the Star Wars exhibition that preceded it, this had me floored – amazed at the range of items on display and the clear historical significance of so many of the stunning artefacts and unparalleled artwork. The DC Exhibition: Dawn of Super Heroes has something to offer everyone: from longtime fans and comic book aficionados, to art lovers and newcomers alike.
All-in-all, well worth the trivial £10 ticket price (just £5 for children under 16). I’d be happy to return and browse again at my leisure, but think next time I visit I may bring some (*super*) friends with me. There’s an incredible volume of material to see and experience here, and that can only be better the more people you can share it with!
Tickets are available on the door, but to guarantee yourself a place it’s best to book your ticket online.