Exhibits look at two moments in time
In the land of superheroes, Superman remains king. Created in 1932, he quickly rose through the ranks of Golden Age comic heroes to become the most popular superhero of the 20th century.
His story is legend, as is that of his creators — childhood chums Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster -- who, before selling Superman to Detective Comics (DC), invented other characters like Slam Bradley and Doctor Occult.
Ten years after they sold Superman, Siegel and Shuster created Funnyman, the court jester to king Superman, in the hopes that he would keep them afloat after a costly lawsuit with DC Comics.
Now, plucked from the dustbin of comics history, the American Jewish Museum features Funnyman in the exhibit "Super Silly! Superman Creators' Funnyman Fights Crime With Shtick" with a complete set of original Funnyman comics and artwork, which have never been on public display.
In 1947, after DC Comics created Superboy, Siegel and Shuster sued DC for having appropriated their most famous creation without any contract or clear agreement having been signed. Siegel, who was serving in the military during World War II while the Superboy comic was in the planning stages, claimed Action Comics co-owner Harry Donenfeld had earlier rejected a Superboy series that he and Shuster had proposed.
Because they were receiving ever-declining sums from their initial 10-year contract with DC Comics, they decided to sue the publishing company to regain rights for Superman and asked for a $5 million settlement. All they received was $100,000 for Superboy, and DC Comics did not renew their contract. With nothing to do for DC, they started trying to earn a living with newly created characters, and Funnyman was born.
Not your average muscle-bound superhero, Funnyman was a superhero with an attitude. Based on real-life funny man Danny Kaye, Larry Davis (Funnyman's alter-ego) was a red-headed television comedian who, when spotting criminals afoot, donned a clown costume and became Funnyman.
The larger-than-life original comic panels on display are from three of the six comic runs of Funnyman. They feature such shenanigans as Funnyman chasing after two wise-cracking joke stealers with a few tricks up his sleeve, like dropping an ice cube down one of their shirts and stealing the license plate from their car so the coppers would pull them over. In even-less-funny other stories, Funnyman puts a real cat in a bag, only to startle partygoers later, and introduces himself at the Policeman's Ball with a handshake and obvious hand-buzzer gag.
"It's easy to see why this was a flop," says American Jewish Museum curator Melissa Hiller, "but (Siegel and Shuster) believed wholeheartedly that Funnyman was going to be it for them. They were very serious about this endeavor, and thought it would work. They really did. It lasted six issues. Not even a year. And they never worked together again."
Unlike Siegel and Shuster, who created characters of fantasy, Flemish artist Eugeen Van Mieghem chronicled heroes of another sort: the immigrant Jews of Europe as they passed through Antwerp, Belgium, on their way to America on the Red Star Line.
On display concurrently at the American Jewish Museum is the exhibit "One Foot in America: The Jewish Emigrants of the Red Star Line and Eugeen Van Mieghem."
Between 1873 and 1934, more than 2 million people sailed from Antwerp for Boston, New York and, especially, Philadelphia, the United States headquarters of the Red Star Line, one of the principal shipping lines for immigrants at the turn of that century.
This period of immigration included a large number of Jewish passengers who were fleeing extreme conditions of poverty, especially in Eastern Europe. In fact, it is believed they represented approximately half of all the travelers.
Capturing the suffering of many of these passengers was the self-appointed duty of Van Mieghem, who was the son of tavern owners and lived in his parents' establishment just in front of the warehouse of the Red Star Line on Montevideo Street.
It was there that he captured the details of beleaguered travelers as they walked through the city, dragging themselves and their few possessions onto ships that took them to life in the New World.
In the gallery, nearly two-dozen charcoal drawings and roughly a half-dozen paintings depict dark and moody scenes of the impoverished. As an artist, his work is reminiscent of German printmaker Kathe Kollwitz and French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. But here, up close, we can see that Van Mieghem was a passionate realist attuned to the social classes in his home city and a fine draftsman and colorist.
Take, for example, the pastel drawing "On the Scheldt Terrace" (1900). Here, as in all of Van Mieghem's drawings we see the forlorn faces of his subjects, but with a few added touches of color: brown in a young girl's hat, bright yellow in her dress. Just enough brightness to indicate hope.
"He's not very well known in art historical terms," Hiller says. "However, what he captured was this really important record of life in its most utter form of transition, when people were traveling from all over Europe, arriving at this port, having to pass medical exams and wait in Antwerp, sometimes days or weeks, to come to the U.S."
It's important to note that the Red Star Line not only transported immigrants but also had luxury liners that carried wealthy passengers to and from Europe. That's why the exhibit includes menus from the ships that feature sumptuous meals with the likes of watercress salad and pate de foie gras.
"Those weren't the meals of the immigrants, mind you," Hiller says. "These are menus from the more luxury liners of the Red Star Line."
A traveling exhibit, "One Foot in America" was organized by Friends of the Red Star Lines and the Van Mieghem Museum in Antwerp. This is the final American venue for the exhibit before it returns to Belgium. So, be sure to catch it now before it closes at the end of this month.Additional Information:
American Jewish Museum exhibits
'Super Silly! Superman Creators' Funnyman Fights Crime with Shtick'
When: Through March 28
'One Foot in America: The Jewish Emigrants of the Red Star Line and Eugeen Van Mieghem'
When: Through Feb. 29
Hours: 7:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 7:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Fridays; 1-7 p.m. Saturdays; 7:45 a.m.-6 p.m. Sundays
Where: American Jewish Museum at the Jewish Community Center, 5738 Forbes Ave., Squirrel Hill
Details: 412-521-8011, ext. 105, or www.jccpgh.org/page/ajm
'Danny Kaye: The Reel Funnyman'
What: Classic films featuring Funnyman inspiration Danny Kaye. Free and open to the public at the following times and locations.
When and where: 'Inspector General,' 1 p.m. Jan. 29, JCC's Levinson Hall; 1 p.m. March 18, Carnegie Public Library, Oakland
'The Court Jester,' 7 p.m. Feb. 9, Carnegie Public Library, Oakland; 1:15 p.m. March 12, JCC's Levinson Hall
Details: 412-521-8011, ext. 105, or www.jccpgh.org
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