Mark Newport: New Works
Chicago Cultural Center
Superheroes, comics, and boys go together like sugar, spice, and girls--that is, they don't, particularly, but people keep repeating it anyway.
For the most part comics have cast off their younger audience. According to Diamond, the largest comics distributor in the country, the average reader these days isn't a boy but an adult male in his 30s. Superheroes, meanwhile, have expanded into television and film, where they've been hugely successful with both men and women. It's true that the majority of high-profile American comics still feature superheroes, but even that may change with the recent explosion of manga and titles like Gravitation. Yet in popular perception, "comic book" still equals "superhero," "superhero" still equals "comic book," and both conjure up images of little Jimmy going to the corner drugstore to pick up the latest issue of The Mighty Thor or Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew.
This tired pop-culture trope is at the heart of an exhibit by Mark Newport currently on display at the Chicago Cultural Center. Newport, an Arizona textiles professor who has knitted nine superhero costumes and added his own embroidery to seven comic-book covers, explained his motivations in an interview with the Sun-Times: "Knitting, beading and embroidery are traditionally thought of as somehow being female. Superheroes are [predominantly] male. In combining the two, I'm playing with gender expectations."
This is straightforward enough, and firmly in the tradition of male artists like Tom Friedman, who use supposedly feminine aesthetics--fine motor control, an interest in handicrafts and domestic objects--to make their careers as art-star studs. But if you know much about comics, you know that superhero stories often play with gender expectations already. Certainly some are about manly men doing manly things with rippling muscles, high-tech weaponry, and preposterously proportioned females. But the genre has been around for 70 years now, and it has produced lots of other kinds of stories as well. Many of the classic DC superhero tales from the 50s, 60s, and 70s are fantasies of disempowerment and imperfect physiques. A well-known issue of The Flash features our speedster, the victim of a sinister ray, rapidly putting on pounds until he's too fat to run. One of the greatest Mike Sekowsky Justice League covers shows Green Arrow turned into a hideous dwarf and Green Lantern stretched out like Gumby. Better known than these, perhaps, are Marvel's early Spider-Man stories. Borrowing from his experience in romance titles, Stan Lee made Peter Parker an icon of hopeless yearning--frustrated in love, despised at school, misunderstood, alienated, and miserable in both his identities. Steve Ditko's art was moody, his figures hunched and skinny. Spider-Man was about as emblematic of virile masculinity as Jimmy Corrigan.
Some of the covers Newport has chosen to embroider were clearly chosen for their off-kilter takes on gender. A 1983 Captain America cover, for example, shows an unconscious Cap being rescued by "Bernie America"--his girlfriend in a supersuit. But Newport doesn't take advantage of the ambiguity. He treats all the covers the same, simply embroidering over one or two central elements and adding a few touches of color to the designs. He might have instead attempted a dialogue with the pictures, altering them or interpolating new images of his own; even redoing an entire cover as a pillow sham would have made more of a statement.
As they are, Newport's embellishments can't even compete with the original cover art for interest. Catwoman vol. 3, #27, for example, shows Batman touching his lips to Catwoman's forehead. Newport has embroidered Batman's suit, the comfortable fuzziness of which is clearly meant to contrast with Catwoman's sleek, sexy outfit. But what I noticed before any of that was the utter shittiness of the illustrator's draftsmanship. Mainstream comics drawing has fallen off disastrously since the industry imploded in the 80s, and this cover, from March 2004, is a prime example. Catwoman's anatomy and position make her appear oddly bloated, the texture of her costume is nothing like leather, and her expression is simply bizarre; she looks like an overinflated blow-up doll.
Newport's embroidery is even less effective when the art is good to begin with. The cover of Batman #329 shows the hero kneeling dramatically in chains, his face twisted in pain. His musculature is well rendered, and the despairing, strained pose looks like something out of Greek statuary. Jim Aparo, the penciler and probably the inker as well, was one of the unsung stalwarts at DC Comics in the 70s and 80s, and he put a good deal more imagination into this piece than Newport did.
Newport's knitted superhero suits are much more successful than his covers. They're almost detailed and accurate enough to be intended for real superheroes, and yet they're cute enough to be purchased for real children. Many of them end in footies, and most are fastened with large, comfy-looking buttons. Batman's mask is practically a winter hat with decorative fluffy ears; the Rawhide Kid's gloves are attached to his sleeves with string, so he won't lose them. Mr. Fantastic's costume is ten feet tall, to accommodate his ability to stretch, but the arms are normal size and against the enormous torso they look like they belong on a toddler's sweater. At least Newport has made some effort to accommodate Reed Richards's abilities--Aquaman is not so lucky. His outfit is definitely not going to be of any use in the water. Iron Man's woolen armor is even more impractical, though the control knobs on his chest are faithfully represented by two puffs of yarn.
Even here, though, Newport hits a couple false notes. The Patriot, a character he invented himself, is a bit obvious--the costume is red, white, and blue, and the mask has a mouth hole but no eyes--and any critique it offers on gender roles is indirect at most. His costume for the Escapist, a character created by the heroes of Michael Chabon's novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, also feels like an afterthought.
The truth is, as a cultural commentator, Newport is a fine designer of superhero merchandise. The guard at the cultural center said that kids were calling the show a Halloween exhibit, and that's exactly what it looks like. In the Sun-Times interview Newport notes that whenever his work appears in galleries he gets requests to create personalized costumes. He always declines these commissions, since it takes him two months to make each suit. But the ease with which his work is mistaken for readily reproducible consumer schlock suggests that he's less successful at undermining cultural expectations than at fulfilling them.
In the marketing realm, superheroes are kind of like dinosaurs--icons of power, largely devoid of any other significance, that are especially popular with children. And when worn by a child, a hypermasculine (or hyperfeminine) costume is almost automatically viewed as cute. But exploring these issues would have required a greater interest in superheroes, and perhaps in gender, than Newport seems able to muster. It's telling that except for Mr. Fantastic's, all of the suits are modeled on Newport's own body, for no reason that I can see except that it was closest at hand. And there are no women's costumes, though you'd think a show about gender--even one about masculinity--could have used a token female.
For me, Newport's exhibit was a frustrating series of missed opportunities. That's not to say that it's worthless--his supersuits are charming in much the same way that it's charming to have a child dressed as the Incredible Hulk ask you for candy. They're the coolest Underoos ever made. Whether they have anything insightful to say about our society's conception of masculinity, though, is another question entirely.
When: Through 2/20
Where: Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington