Strange and mysterious things are born in the tunnels that wind beneath the streets of New York City, some of them wonderful and some of them weird. On the buses and trains that carry the weary residents of a teeming metropolis, heroes and villains also ride, as do angels and monsters—perhaps even mutants with superpowers that defy imagination. Ordinary citizens rub shoulders with spies and thieves; masked strangers step in to save innocent straphangers from deadly peril. The city’s transit system is a stage for the human comedy at its most absurd, and the human tragedy at its darkest.
That’s the wild and delightful vision on display—in vivid color—in the exhibit “Underground Heroes: New York Transit in Comics,” up through March 17 at the New York Transit Museum, which is located in a decommissioned subway station in downtown Brooklyn. Showcasing work by artists as diverse as Bill Griffith (creator of Zippy the Pinhead), superhero master Will Eisner, and New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast, the show dives deep into the symbiotic relationship between comics and the city’s public transportation system, a visceral connection that goes back to the earliest days of both, at the beginning of the 20th century.
Associate Curator Jodi Shapiro says that comics and the New York transit system were a natural fit from the start. She got the idea for the exhibit because she always keeps an eye out for any artistic depiction of New York’s transportation system, and she realized that comics—from superhero serials to graphic novels—frequently feature scenes set on subways and buses. “As soon as I uncovered one thing, I would find another,” says Shapiro. “It was like this big rubber-band ball of unstoppable force.”
Included in the exhibit are early cartoons from turn-of-the-20th-century magazines such as Puck and Judge, proving that the headaches of the current system (crowded cars, late trains, manspreading, littering) were present from the beginning. The show travels through time right up to the present, and what’s remarkable is the persistence of certain themes: watch, for instance, for the way comic book artists across the decades use panels for cinematic effects such as glimpsing riders in passing trains. Also present throughout is a delight in the chance encounter or the random overheard conversation, like the ones memorialized by Stan Mack in his long-running Village Voice series, “Stan Mack’s Real Life Funnies.”
Several of the artists represented here, such as Eisner, were children of immigrants who rode the trains and buses regularly as they traveled around the city. Creator of superhero The Spirit, Eisner wasn’t able to pursue a fine-arts career in part because of rampant mid-century anti-Semitism. Instead, he become a pioneer in a whole new art form set in the same kind of urban milieu he knew firsthand, an environment that very much included public transit. “He decided he was going to ply his trade in the ‘lowbrow’ comics form,” says Shapiro. “It was considered not a serious art form at all, but he used the boundaries of the form and pushed against them to do some very serious work.”
Another visual pioneer on display is A.C. Hollingsworth, one of the first African-American comics artists and a member of Spiral, the seminal collective that included Romare Bearden. Hollingsworth is represented by a strip called “Princess of the Subway,” in which a stylish femme fatale gets into a shoving match with a fellow passenger and ends up being revealed as a mysterious half-woman, half-fish.
Also included in the show are several satirical strips from Mad magazine, recalling a far grittier era in the subway; the New York health department’s memorable 1990s public-service campaign “The Decision,” which told a serial story of New Yorkers grappling with HIV infection, in both English and Spanish; and the groundbreaking Holocaust remembrance story “Master Race,” in which a survivor and a perpetrator encounter one another on a subway train (the original art for this 1955 classic recently sold for $600,000).
On December 11, there will be an event at the museum called “Drawing Inspiration: New York City History in Comics,” featuring Shapiro, Karen Green of Columbia University Libraries, and comic artists Stan Mack and Peter Kuper. (The event is $10 and free for Museum members—learn more about becoming one here).
Shapiro says to expect a free-ranging discussion that will hit on all of the show’s major themes, including the ways in which comics have been excluded from the traditional art world. Some of the artists in the show have never been represented in such an elevated setting before.
“Stan Mack said, ‘Are you sure you want my art in a museum?’” says Shapiro. “That blew my mind. The way I see it, there is no high art or low art. There’s good art and bad art. And this is all good art.”
“Underground Heroes: New York Transit in Comics” runs through March 17, 2019 at the New York Transit Museum, 99 Schermerhorn Street Brooklyn, New York.
This post is brought to you in partnership with the New York Transit Museum. Learn more about this exhibit.