Spider-Man unmasked at new exhibition

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While movie fans can enjoy the most recent Spider-Man adventure on the big screen, audiences now have a chance to learn more about the character’s origins, history and cast of villains he’s battled over the years at a new comic-theme exhibit in Manhattan.

The Society of Illustrators is holding its first ever exhibition of Spider-Man artwork. It features the drawings of artists like John Romita, Todd McFarlane and Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko.

“Spider-Man is the greatest soap opera ever in comics,” said Mike Burkey, who collects comic art work and whose collection is the basis for the exhibition. With co-creator Stan Lee as Spider-Man’s primary writer in the early days, Peter Parker’s complicated love life and mix of everyday problems endeared the character to readers.

“Marvel humanized Spider-Man, and millions of fans — me included — could relate to (the) sometimes misunderstood young man not having thing always going his way,” said Rob Pistella, who curated “The Art of Spider-Man” for the illustration society.

“Peter Parker became a photographer, but sometimes his camera didn’t work and he got in trouble with his boss,” Pistella said. “Sometimes his girlfriend got mad at him, and even though he saved the city, he went home broke and alone.”

Burkey and Pistella hope the exhibition gives visitors the chance to appreciate the talent, artistry and attention to detail that went behind the illustrations. The show also is an opportunity to honor the work created by artists such as Romita, who still lives in the New York City area, and who attended the opening reception last month.

Romita looked at fashion magazines so characters like Mary Jane and Gwen would have the latest clothing, Burkey said. He made items such as doors and cars in proportion, so the hero isn’t bigger than those objects, something that keeps the reader’s focus on the characters.

The illustration that stands out the most to Burkey is found in Issue 248, “The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man,” where the web-slinger takes off his mask to reveal his identity to 9-year-old Spider-Man fan Tim Harrison, who wanted to be his friend.

“It’s the greatest story Marvel has ever come up with,” Burkey said. “I was 19 when it came out, and honestly had a tear in my eye. I could not believe they made such an amazing story.”

Readers find out Tim is fatally ill with cancer, and Peter gave him the gift of friendship and trust by revealing his secret identity.

The issue also paralleled Burkey’s life. Before collecting and selling comic artwork full-time, Burkey was a radiation therapist and worked with children who had cancer.

To Burkey, the heart of Spider-Man was Peter’s relationship with his boss, J. Jonah Jameson, and his time at the fictional newspaper, the Daily Bugle. However, since the most recent film, “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” is set before Peter worked as a photographer, Burkey hopes to see future films explore that storyline.

The movie, starring Tom Holland as Spider-Man, had one scene Burkey said stayed true to the original drawings.

“Spider-Man is trapped, and he’s pushing machinery and metalry off his back,” Burkey said. “That exact scene is in the new movie. So, when you watch it, you are going to see that scene in the museum.”

It came from Spider-Man Issue 33.

Founded in 1901, the Society of Illustrators’ mission is to promote artists and their work. Past members of the nonprofit include Norman Rockwell, N.C. Wyeth and Rube Goldberg.

The organization established its Museum of Illustration in 1981, and the society created the MoCCA Gallery to focuses on comic and cartoon art in 2012.

“In may ways America is (the) last culture to truly appreciate what readers and fans in other countries like France, Japan and Italy have known for years — that comics are a unique and valid art form for artistic expression,” Pistella said.

“Comics are used to entertain people, to express political views quickly and easily, and also to express profound and challenging ideas,” he said. “It’s a visceral and visual art form. I’m thrilled to be able to bring it to the public.”

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