Just last week, Superman revealed his secret identity to the world. He has realized that secrets are toxic, and in DC Comics’ “Superman #18” issue (released Dec. 11), he holds a press conference announcing that Clark Kent and Superman are one and the same.
He needs to be honest about who he really is. He has come out of the closet. Or perhaps the phone booth.
DC writer Brian Michael Bendis and artists Ivan Reis and Joe Prado choose this plot twist at a moment when secrets and lies appear to be the common currency of people in power, and well into a digital age when personae have increasingly more sway. Our sense of who we really are is getting slippery. But not Superman’s. He has always been an ethical north star.
Wonder Woman, also a champion of rectitude, joins Superman as the subject of “Men of Steel, Women of Wonder,” a crackling good exhibition at the Addison Gallery of American Art. The show, originally organized at Arkansas’s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art by assistant curator of contemporary art Alejo Benedetti, looks back at the social conditions from which these heroes sprang and, through art of the last 50 or 60 years, lays out how we Americans think of ourselves.
There’s plenty of meat here. Superman and Wonder Woman are immigrants. Superman is an alien. They hide their true selves from those closest to them. They fight for truth, justice, and the American way, yet they work outside the law. They must rely on their own moral compass. We trust them to know right from wrong.
At the same time, they’re both white. Superman turns up here as a fitting symbol of white paternalism. Fahamu Pecou and Renée Cox claim their own powers, wearing superhero garb in their artwork. Pecou tears open his shirt to reveal a costume, and Cox has crafted her own uniform with the colors of the Pan-African flag.
There’s also plenty of sizzle, and I’m not just talking about Superman’s pecs (or, in the case of Margaret Harrison’s “The Healthier Choice” watercolor, Supes’s shapely legs in heels and peekaboo costume). These ultra-American superheroes are shiny as new pennies, the perfect kindling to set Pop Art afire.
The show begins with 1962 portraits of the two by Pop painter Mel Ramos, comically exhibited side by side for the first time. Wonder Woman is dynamic, on the run, if a tad dainty; Superman stands with his fists loosely clenched, looking glumly her way. The grouping, which the artist may never have intended (he painted these for his kids), sets up a psychodrama about men, women, and power.
Superman, created in 1938 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, heroicized the Great Depression’s working man when unemployment was 19 percent. Artists then were celebrating muscular masculine bodies in WPA murals and paintings such as Aiden Lassell Ripley’s “Industries of Holyoke.” Wonder Woman, the brainchild of William Moulton Marston, made her first appearance in December 1941 as the United States entered World War II — part pin-up girl, part Rosie the Riveter.
Benedetti gets to the heart of the exhibition with a section devoted to our heroes’ vulnerabilities. Not kryptonite, but their hopes, their deepest loves, and their failures. One of the most grounding works in this high-flying show is Jason Bard Yarmosky’s painting “Wintered Fields,” a grisaille portrait of his elderly grandmother, who battled Alzheimer’s. She stands in a snowy field wearing Wonder Woman’s spangled suit. The landscape and palette mirrors her graying cognition, but her garb celebrates her as a brave champion of love.
Most of the exhibition contends with the knotty society these heroes have sworn to protect. Aphrodite Désirée Navab first saw Superman in 1978 as a 7-year-old in Iran. His cape reminded her of her grandmother’s chador, or hijab. Her family fled Iran soon after, and she never saw her grandmother again. She puts on a blue chador in her photo series “Super East/West Woman,” and it gives her super powers.
In the West, we might see the chador as a symbol of oppression. Navab turns it into a strength. That double meaning is implicit in many works here, as it is in the comics themselves.
Transgender artist Sarah Hill donned Wonder Woman’s suit for “They Wonder,” a performance piece in which she twirled as Lynda Carter did to transform from Diana Prince to Wonder Woman in the 1970s TV show.
Dara Birnbaum cut several of Carter’s twirly sequences together in her landmark 1978 video “Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman,” also on view, and Hill’s work is a direct homage. But Hill is human and can’t stay on her feet. She falls, rises, and twirls again. Her persistence is at once funny and sad. She’ll never make the glorious transformation. Instead, she keeps spinning and stumbling. As we all do.
Superman and Wonder Woman do, too. “Men of Steel, Women of Wonder” presents the superhero as a prism on our imperfect society — our aspirations, our blind spots, and our tragic flaws. Sure, it’s encouraging that Superman is now putting his crippling secret behind him. But rest assured he will run up against another shortcoming, just as there will always be another villain. And he, like the rest of us, will keep on trying to do the right thing.
MEN OF STEEL, WOMEN OF WONDER
At Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, 180 Main St., Andover, through Jan. 5. 978-749-4000. addison.andover.edu
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.