Sunday, February 21, 2016

220. The New York Historical Society: A Batmobile and Wide-Screen Wonders

     Buzzes, roars, and drones of little locomotives hauling cars through tunnels or in frenzied circles, while cloud-skirting toy aircraft zoom through stretches of sky.  My eye is captivated by a toy warship bristling with guns, a toy ocean liner flying a French flag beside a dock, toy horse-drawn ambulances, toy engines, biplanes, zeppelins, and even a miniature railway station awaiting the arrival of miniature trains.

      Such is Holiday Express, a ground-floor exhibit at the New York Historical Society that greets you as you enter and immerses you in movement and sound from large multimedia screens, as well as striking effects from theatrical lighting, and dozens of toy trains and other objects on display from the renowned Jerni Collection, now owned by the Society.  Special lighting effects, an audio soundscape, an “immersive experience” – this isn’t the museum that I last visited some years back, a quiet little old-fashioned place with passive exhibits that just sat there and let you take them in, an island of calm and culture in the midst of the urban hurly-burly, quaint perhaps, but charming.  Gone is that quaintness, that quiet, that charm, replaced by cutting-edge, state-of-the-art multimedia effects, dazzling theatricality, absorbing wonderlands such as only the latest technology can produce.  Don’t go for charm and quiet; go for magic, go for wonder.


     While I was immersed in this wonderland, I noticed off in the distance, in a prime location right in front of large windows, a long, dark vehicle that I assumed was part of the show, maybe a vintage Packard or Cadillac, or better still, a Pierce Arrow, that vanished luxury limousine of the Roaring Twenties that died in the Depression, along with the fortunes of those who once would have bought it and promenaded regally in its grandiose 1920s elegance.

     A foolish notion, of course, for this was not a toy.  Or was it?  Approaching, I discovered that the vehicle on proud display was Batmobile no. 3, dating from 1966 and destined for the TV series of Batman, that batlike superhero of yore – “yore” being the late 1930s and early 1940s, when I was feasting on the comic books of the day.  The Batmobile was long, dark, and sleek, with tail fins, and on its flank in red, a small batlike silhouette, the logo of Batman, that nemesis of miscreants and criminals.  Outsized though it was, it seated only two: Batman, I assumed, and his young novice and sidekick, Robin the Boy Wonder.  And why was it here, in this place of prominence?  To proclaim to visitors the existence of another exhibit on the second floor: Superheroes in Gotham, artifacts and illustrations of that pantheon of comic-book heroes of another age: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider Man, Captain America, and others.  Which was one of the reasons why I had decided to grace the museum with my presence on this particular day.

     A friend on the museum staff had urged me to come see the Superheroes, and so I came.  They were installed on the second floor, where I encountered, properly enshrined in a glass case, the Royal portable typewriter of Jerry Siegel, one of the creators of Superman, on which he had typed out text that would in time, with the collaboration of an illustrator, become the comic book hero of enduring fame.  Just looking at it flashed me back to the year 1940, when I entered junior high school and was given a typewriter so I could learn to type – in those days, an essential skill.  And what did my family give me?  A Royal portable matching in every detail the typewriter of Jerry Siegel!  But on mine, no superhero was forthcoming, just reports for school and, in time, a rather inept history of the war in Europe gathered from newspaper sources, an attempt that would ultimately teach me how little of the real story is available at the time of the events.  But the typewriter went with me to college, then to Europe, and finally to New York; it served me loyally for forty years.

     The exhibit informed me that Superman first appeared in Detective Comics in June 1938, Batman in the same publication in May 1939, and Wonder Woman in December 1941.  The first two came just in time to immerse me in their doings, which I reveled in without paying a cent, since I inherited all the comic books of my older brother, who bought them by the dozen.  This infatuation didn’t last long, for I would soon graduate to more serious fare appropriate for a bookworm in junior high school, but while it lasted I was plunged into the superhuman feats of Superman and Batman.  And surveying the exhibit’s displays and printed info, I was plunged into them again, especially when invited to sample a stack of comic book collections, each featuring one of the superheroes, with the sole stipulation that, when done, I should replace it on the stand, so others could also partake of the latter-day feast.

Superman, as depicted by artist Alex Ross.

     Superman, that red-caped muscular marvel in red Jockey shorts over blue tights with a big serpentine S on his chest, thought nothing of leaping tall buildings or hoisting a car aloft so he could crush villains under the weight of it, and performing other exploits no mere mortal could accomplish, not being a native, as he was, of the planet Krypton and endowed with miraculous powers.  Of course when off duty he was the mild-mannered journalist Clark Kent, enamored of luscious Lois Lane, who didn’t know his true identity and therefore was unaware of what a hunk of manhood had come her way.  But when need arose, wimpy Clark darted into a nearby phone booth – one was always available – to shed his humdrum daily clothes and suit up in his Superman outfit.  Thus attired, he would zoom off – “It’s a bird!  It’s a plane!  It’s Superman!” -- to undo yet another band of miscreants preying upon the fair city of Metropolis.  (Have you ever tried to change clothes in a phone booth?  Only an alien from Krypton could have pulled it off.)

      Superman was sexy, but he paled beside Batman.  By day a wealthy industrialist named Bruce Wayne, by night he donned the requisite Jockey shorts – dark blue in this case – over blue tights, and a mask with what looked like pointed ears, and a long blue scallop-hemmed cape that, when expanded, gave him the look of a supersized bat.  Unlike Superman, he was an earthling without miraculous powers, but he must have worked out plenty in a gym, for he bulged with muscles and in pursuit of malefactors raced nimbly over the rooftops of Gotham City, swung with a rope between ledges of skyscrapers, and with the help of suction pads on his hands, knees, and feet, climbed up their vertical façades.  No question, this guy was sexy; in my budding pre-teen psyche, sexier by far than Superman. 

File:Comic Art - Batman by Jim Lee (2002).png
Batman as depicted by artist Jim Lee.

     And maybe he was even sexier when, after solo appearances in a few issues, he teamed up with his junior sidekick, Robin the Boy Wonder, who, similarly attired (though without the batlike silhouette), joined him in his nightly forays to bring to vigorous justice the malefactors of Gotham.  Because if Superman, in the persona of Clark Kent, was discreetly enamored of Lois Lane, Batman, to my recollection, was less emotionally encumbered, prompting naughty thoughts about his relationship with the Boy Wonder.  Honni soit qui mal y pense, but one does wonder about him and the Wonder.  But such ruminations are surely beside the point, since the superheroes were too busy fighting evil to have time for dalliances of whatever persuasion.  When the fate of the city, the nation, and the world depend on one’s vigilant prowess, who has time for sex?

     Wonder Woman never impinged on my pre-teen psyche, for when she appeared in All Star Comics in December 1941 – an event as earth-shaking in some minds as the almost simultaneous Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor -- I had left the world of comic books behind and would soon be chronicling on my Royal portable the very real worldwide conflict at hand.  But if Superman and Batman were sexy in their skin-tight togs, they were also fully clothed, whereas Wonder Woman – as the exhibit makes clear – was egregiously semi-naked, flaunting bare arms and legs in what must have been a shock to the mores of the time.  The Rockettes of Radio City Music Hall and the starlets of Hollywood were no match for this dark-haired Amazon.  What her impact on my burgeoning sexuality might have been, unformed as it was at the time, I cannot imagine, had our paths ever crossed.

Wonder Woman as drawn by artist Alex Ross.

     The other superheroes of the exhibit left no mark on me, coming as they did after I matured into other fantasies and longings, but the exhibit informed me of reams of data hitherto unknown to me.  Most of the young creators of these superheroes were Jewish, and often, to sidestep the racism they might have encountered, shed their Jewish names for monikers resolutely Wasp – a sad situation indeed, but characteristic of the time. 

     If by now you’re wondering what the link is between the superheroes and New York, the answer is clear and simple: the fictional Metropolis of Superman and the Gotham City of Batman are barely disguised replicas of the Big Apple, whose monumental skyscrapers and bridges, and the concrete canyons of its streets, seemed the perfect setting for their feats of derring-do.  And where but in New York, where prosecutor Thomas Dewey had just taken on organized crime, could you find such a clutch of evildoers, thwarting whom could keep any superhero busy full time?  Besides, many of the artists creating the superheroes were New Yorkers born and bred, and soon they were situating their characters, the successors to Superman and Batman, in a very real New York. 

     The time when I was frequenting the world of superheroes was, in some sense, a preliminary or archaic one, for in time many of the heroes leaped off the pages of comic books into radio, film, and television, becoming integral to American culture, and the property of adults here and abroad, and not just the fantasy heroes of preadolescents like myself on the tremulous verge of acknowledged sexuality.  And their mindset became more nuanced, more tolerant of ambiguities, whereas the superheroes of my acquaintance had a simplistic view of the world: there were good guys and bad guys, and never the twain did mix; it was their job to eliminate the bad.

     How those comic books have enriched our vocabulary!  From their panels came a bevy of vital expressions:  POW! and WHAM! and ZOOM!  Just citing them, I can see the heroes’ fists smiting malefactors and mincing them to mush, or discern their agile forms darting across the rooftops of the city, or leaping from ledge to ledge, or streaking through the sky.  Ah, those were the days!  May today’s youngsters bask in the warmth of memory – not their memory, but ours – and learn what marvelous champions this city once begot.

     The Superheroes are a tough act to follow, but upon leaving them behind I attended a showing of the 18-minute multimedia film New York Story, shown every half hour on the ground floor, and was overwhelmed.  Free with admission, the film is a historical once-over-lightly, providing a quick survey of the city’s rise from a remote New World trading outpost to a metropolis that boasts of being the center of the world.  Old maps and prints, often enlarged to show fascinating detail, are used to convey the city’s story through the 17th and 18th centuries, but with the 19th century photography is enlisted, and for the 20th and 21st, film that, shown on a wide screen, yields stunning results.  Montages juxtapose the top-hatted plutocrats of the Golden Age with the degraded lives of the poor captured in Jacob Riis’s memorable photographs.  A quick glance at the Jazz Age reveals scantily clad cuties dancing wildly, and black jazz musicians pounding out hot music, only to be supplanted by headlines announcing the Great Crash of 1929, and the dreary Depression years that followed. 

The Lady, a symbol of the city, appears frequently in the film.

     The end of World War II is chronicled, with the city’s postwar preeminence and subsequent decline (and the Daily News’s famous headline chronicling President Ford's refusal to help the city, FORD TO CITY / DROP DEAD), but the film ends on a triumphant note of reassurance and hope, with marvelous close-ups of congested traffic and surging pedestrians, and breathtaking aerial views of the city by day and night, including scary views from overhead straight down to the roofs of buildings, and breathtaking panoramas at night of the city all aglitter with lights.  Seeing the closing views of the city, it is hard not to quote Carl Sandburg, “Nothing like us ever was,” and to crystalized the film’s closing message in these electric words:  Come to us and be dazzled.  For New York City, in good times and bad alike, is dazzling.

     This I can’t top, so in closing I’ll simply mention the last exhibit I visited: the Children’s History Museum in the basement, an interactive display inviting kids to press buttons and hear messages; to witness George Washington’s first inauguration (right here in New York); to see the evolution of selected locales over time through a series of photographs; to vote; and to try to collect taxes from reluctant citizens.  The tiny tots and not-so-tiny older kids I saw there were wholly immersed in the activities, though some of the watchful mothers looked just slightly tired.

    My closing advice:  If you have even a faint interest in superheroes, if you have kids craving a novel fun experience that is also educational, if you’ve never seen a Batmobile up close, and if, for all its faults, you love this city, want to know more about it, and want to have your sense of wonder at its magnificence renewed, don’t walk, rush – via bus and subway – to the New York Historical Society at 77th Street and Central Park West.  If your senses are alive and your mind is alert and curious, you won’t be disappointed.  The rejuvenated NYHS is one of the best-kept secrets in this museum- and gallery-crammed city.

     The book:  It is still available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

There is still, of course, that other book, the naughty novel The Pleasuring of Men with a cover that has proven irresistible to a certain contingent of males and to some  susceptible females as well.  It is now visible on the Facebook page of the publisher, Gival Press.  If morbid curiosity prompts you, go there and you'll see what I mean; click on the truncated version of the photo to get the whole thing.  Who the sexy guy on the cover is and where he came from, I have no idea, though there could well be a story there; credit goes to my canny and resourceful publisher.

     Good-bye:  This is the last post for this blog, which I am suspending indefinitely. Doing the blog has been an adventure, and in the process I have learned a lot about this city, but the novelty has worn off and it has become a chore.  Many thanks to all those who have followed it; I hope it renewed and sustained your interest in this exhausting but fascinating city, which I still celebrate as the most exciting city in the world.  For a sampling of the blog, there is always the book mentioned above.  Good-bye all, and good luck in all your hopes and endeavors.

     ©  2016   Clifford Browder