A museum that owes its origins to supporting orphans is taking a look at how orphans are represented in comic strips.

Ranging from the more obvious to us, such as Superman and Batman, there’s also ordinary people, such as shown in Gasoline Alley, a long-running serial about life in America, and children surviving in post WW2 Japan.

It’s a collection of stories that start with the trauma, of being abandoned, but turns that into tales of how they overcome difficulties and become heroes of their own sort.

DC’s Superman, who was found by his adoptive parents, is one of many comic heroes who are orphans: Spider-Man’s parents die in a plane crash; Batman’s parents are killed in a street robbery; and Black Panther – whose mother dies soon after childbirth and whose father is killed – is known as ‘the Orphan King’. Marvel’s X-Men experience both discrimination and social ostracisation. The superheroes’ early life experiences impact on their roles and the stance they take over good and evil in their comic lives.

The exhibition looks beyond the traditional ‘superhero’ genre to explore characters from early newspaper comic strips, including Skeezix from Gasoline Alley, who was left on a doorstep in 1921, and Little Orphan Annie.

As a collection, it’s mainly extracts from the comics on the walls, sometimes showing how a design has evolved over the years, and other times focusing on the front covers of the, mainly USA based comics.

One of the more interesting displays are what look superficially like standard DC Comics, but look closer — they’re all reprints made in South Africa during apartheid, and all the characters are white. There were no black superheroes in apartheid South Africa.

Where the exhibition can be a bit difficult is that it’s undeniably a good selection of comics with a unifying theme, unless you’re really into comics, it might not break out into a wider audience.

The exhibition, Superheroes, Orphans & Origins: 125 years in comics is at the Foundling Museum and runs until 28th August 2022.

Admission:

  • Adults £10.50 with donation
  • Concessions £8.25 with donation.
  • Free for 21 & under, Foundling Friends & National Art Pass holders

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