Marvel universe brings all its superheroes to the Franklin Institute

A visitor to the Franklin Institute's Marvel Comics exhibit poses for a photo with a life-size Spider-Man figure. The exhibit promises to be a crowd pleaser, with a quarter million visitors expected through the summer. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A visitor to the Franklin Institute's Marvel Comics exhibit poses for a photo with a life-size Spider-Man figure. The exhibit promises to be a crowd pleaser, with a quarter million visitors expected through the summer. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

From the pages of humble comic books to thousands of silver screens, the champions of the Marvel world have held the popular imagination in their powerful hands.

This weekend, the Franklin Institute opens “Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes,” an exhibit tracing the 80-year history of the comic book company and its blockbuster film franchises.

Marvel Comics was the home of legendary characters including the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the X-Men, and the Hulk. It was also home to legendary artists Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and writer Stan Lee who created fantasy universes where superpowers were married to human vulnerabilities.

Nowadays, most people likely know the Marvel characters from the hugely popular movies “Ironman,” “Black Panther,” “Avengers” and others.

At the Franklin Institute, the superhero costumes used to shoot the movies are paired with the original comic artwork that inspired them.

“The idea is that you can go from an individual with a pencil to a world-spanning fantasy franchise,” said curator Ben Saunders. “I think the miracle of that is not the world-spanning part. It’s coming back to an individual with a pencil who had a dream.”

Those original ink drawings are not so humble anymore. They are coveted by collectors, some going for six figures at auction. They are all held in private collections, borrowed for this show. Saunders could not give an exact amount, but he said the insurance coverage for this exhibition exceeds $25 million.

The exhibition also include digital interactive drawing boards where users can learn about the process of making comics, including drawing, inking, coloring, and layout.

“Even the most fantastic spectacle in a comic book is motionless. It’s always going to be about tableau, the beats through which you tell a story, the layout of the page,” said Saunders, who is also a professor of English literature at the University of Oregon, where he created America’s first academic comics studies program.

“To my mind, it’s more like visual poetry than the spectacle of a film or the novelistic experience,” he said.

“Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes” was made with the support of the Marvel company, originally for the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle where it was one of the most successful exhibitions that institution ever presented. That’s where the Franklin Institute’s Abby Bysshe saw it.

“The most fun part of my job is to get out there and seeing the product that’s in the marketplace. I went to Seattle to see this exhibition and knew instantly it would be a hit,” said Bysshe, the vice president of experiences and business development.

This year marks the 80th anniversary of Marvel, founded by Martin Goodman as Timely Comics. The franchise’s latest movie, “Avengers: Endgame,” will debut later this month. And Stan Lee died in November at 95.

With the timing of all of those elements, along with science-based educational programming to be developed by the Franklin Institute, Bysshe hopes to have a hit on her hands.

“We’re looking to top Jurassic [World]. Other than King Tut, Jurassic was one of the most popular exhibits we’ve hosted,” she said. The Jurassic World exhibit in 2016 averaged about 16,000 visitors a week.

“We’ll see how this compares,” said Bysshe. “The pre-sales look like we’re going to get close.”

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