Some 75 years after Batman and Superman helped usher in the golden age of comic books, the literary genre still holds powerful sway over American consciousness and culture.
The latest proof of this is "Sunshine and Superheroes: San Diego Comic-Con," a new exhibit about comic book culture and the massive annual convention it spawned, which opens at the Oakland Museum of California on May 23.
The exhibition is the third in a series of "What's Happening California?" installations, which are co-curated by OMCA and students and professors of the Cal State University system. The topics and themes of the series, however, are largely student-driven, and they're meant to explore facets of contemporary California through cultural, social and environmental prisms.
On "Sunshine and Superheroes," Suzanne Fischer, OMCA associate curator of contemporary history and trends, teamed with San Diego State history professor Sarah Elkind and 12 graduate and two undergraduate students to gather and shape the collection.
The San Diego connection was a no-brainer, since the centerpiece of the exhibit is the city's annual summer Comic-Con, the nation's largest and longest-running comics convention and one of the more significant pop culture events of the year.
The event started in 1970 as the "Golden State Comic-Minicon," and was basically a handful of guys hosting a comic-book-theme fundraiser for abut 100 attendees in downtown San Diego. Clearly, a nerve was tapped.
Today, the annual summer event (renamed and far from "mini"), is a four-day fanboy mecca, drawing more than 130,000 visitors who rub elbows with authors, filmmakers, TV and movie stars and purveyors of a growing universe of comic book, fantasy, horror and animation products -- video games, books and graphic novels, anime collections, action figures and more.
It has also spawned numerous sidecars -- the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, an Alternative Press Expo, and WonderCon, a smaller convention that originated in Oakland, moved to San Francisco and shifted to Anaheim in 2012, when its home, the Moscone Convention Center, began a construction project. It may yet return to its Bay Area roots, organizers say.
Naturally, such an event leaves a lot of territory to explore.
Elkind said her role in the exhibit was as a sounding board.
"I asked each student to select an object that embodied Comic-Con," she said, adding that she encouraged the students to look deeply into the topics and draw out themes and issues. For example, "Action figures became a way to exhibit changing ideas."
One participant, Mary Stout-Clipper, a master's student with a 9-year-old son, didn't have to look far for a set of artifacts. Several superhero action figures -- depicting evolving hyper-masculinity that Elkind said led to interesting discussions about gender -- were donated by Stout-Clipper's son from his toy box. Stout-Clipper also said she focused her exhibit research project on a Batwoman costume she discovered that was later donated to the exhibit.
As students assembled their contributions for the exhibit, a wide range of themes -- gender, tourism, patriotism, consumerism and politics -- emerged. Fischer also had to teach the students how to maximize their collections' impact to adapt to the exhibit's 300-square-foot space allowance.
"The size limit doesn't mean anything until you tape out the space and take into account the quirky corners," she said. And since Comic-Con had a plethora of objects to explore, Fischer guided the students to choose only the materials that best reflected the event's rich history and charismatic culture.
Artifacts in the exhibit include comic books, toys, costumes, convention paraphernalia, even political mailers using Comic-Con imagery and fonts. Visitors will be able to try on superhero costumes and pose for photos or view videos created by the students.
Fischer said that beyond the reward of developing touch points with students from across the state while working on the exhibit, she saw an exciting future for museum practice and curating.
"Students are passionate and excited about designing an exhibit in a large museum," she said. "They bring fun to the equation: You can engage with the content by flipping through books, trying on masks."
Elkind said she's always loved "old swashbuckling movies that inspired Star Wars and fantasy or sci-fi films." Students under her guidance run the gamut from dedicated comic book fans and Star Trek aficionados to fantasy role-playing gamers and students simply focused on museum development, and the exhibit, she said, is more about American culture than about comic books.
When: Friday through May 31, 2015
Where: Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St., Oakland
Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday;
11 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday