In Review: Superheroes, Orphans & Origins: 125 years in Comics Exhibition at the Foundling Museum, London

Richard Sheaf explores the the world’s first major exhibition to explore the representation of foundlings, orphans, adoptees, and foster children in comics…

New York World’s Fair Comics 1940, published by DC Comics. Batman, Robin, and Superman appear together for the first time on this cover by Jack Burnley, his first cover art in comics

The Foundling Museum in central London recently opened Superheroes, Orphans & Origins: 125 years in Comics, which runs until 28th August 2022. So, plenty of time to make it to the exhibition which it describes as the world’s first major exhibition to explore the representation of foundlings, orphans, adoptees, and foster children in comics, graphic novels and sequential art from around the globe.

Even as someone who’s read comics for a long time, the prevalence of foundlings and orphans was something I’d never really considered commenting on before, I just took it for granted. Of course, as soon as you start to think about it you immediately recall that Superman was orphaned, that Batman’s parents were killed in an alley and that, originally, Spider-Man’s nearest relatives were his aunt and uncle. The superheroes’ early life experiences impact on their roles and the stance they take over good and evil in their comic lives.

Foundling Museum - Superheroes, Orphans & Origins: 125 years in comics (2022) | Photo: Richard Sheaf
Photo: Richard Sheaf

If you’ve never been to the Foundling Museum before, it’s only fair to point out that the exhibition space at the museum is not large – it’s smaller than the Cartoon Museum, for instance. The exhibition poster features classic comic superheroes, but these characters are not the sole focus of the exhibition.

In fact, the exhibition makes it clear that there are plenty of other comic examples of foundling / orphan characters – characters from early newspaper comic strips, manga and contemporary graphic novel protagonists. So, if you’re hoping, based on the poster, to just go and look at (golden age) Batman comics, you’re going to be disappointed.

There is also some original comic art on display, as well as historical newspaper strips and newly commissioned work by comic artists Asia Alfasi, Bex Glendining and Woodrow Phoenix. For me, the piece “Up In flames”, by Woodrow Phoenix, is the most evocative – the foreground shows a repeating pattern of orphans but with different backgrounds to differentiate who they all are. Can you work out who they all are?*

Foundling Museum - Superheroes, Orphans & Origins: 125 years in comics (2022) | Photo: Richard Sheaf - "Up in Flames" art by Woodrow Phoenix
Foundling Museum - Superheroes, Orphans & Origins: 125 years in comics (2022) | Photo: Richard Sheaf - "Up in Flames" art by Woodrow Phoenix
“Up in Flames” art by Woodrow Phoenix
Foundling Museum - Superheroes, Orphans & Origins: 125 years in comics (2022) | Photo: Richard Sheaf - "Up in Flames" art by Woodrow Phoenix - Information

The Superheroes, Orphans & Origins: 125 years in Comics exhibition has been organised into a number of different sections, highlighting different foundling orphans throughout comics history. Little Orphan Annie is a well known newspaper comic strip to choose. But the character Skeezix, from the American newspaper strip, Gasoline Allley, is a character that, I’m prepared to bet, many of us on this side of the Atlantic have not come across before.

Little Orphan Annie
Little Orphan Annie
Little Orphan Annie
Little Orphan Annie
Gasoline Alley
Gasoline Alley
The Yellow Kid
The Yellow Kid

Equally new to most of us will be “The Wanderings of Sanmao”, a wordless 1930s cartoon strip by the famous Chinese cartoonist, Zhang Leping. Examples are also shown of European creators sharing their care experiences – again, these are limited in number and/or with reproductions of original comic artwork – like Carlos Giménez, the creator of Paracuellos. He spent most of his childhood in Spain, moving between a series of ‘Social Aid’ homes, created during the Franco regime.

I particularly liked the piece “Datsun”, by Taiyou Matsumoto, of a bunch of kids who’ve adopted an aging Datsun car as their own.

Japanese manga characters from the 1990s and early 2000s, Kuro and Shiro (from Tekkoninkreet), sit alongside American comic Jesse ‘Street Angel’ Sanchez and contemporary graphic novel protagonists – including Amina from Zenobia (2016), a Syrian refugee. It was great to see these examples of international comics that are rarely exhibited in the UK.

Superheroes, Orphans & Origins has its own origins in a previous work commissioned by the Museum in 2014, when care-experienced poet and performer Lemn Sissay, OBE created the site-specific piece Superman was a Foundling, a poem printed on the walls of the Museum’s Study Studio.

A full colour book (144 pages, £20) entitled Superheroes, orphans and origins – 125 years in comics accompanies the exhibition and has more space to explore the themes and images in the exhibition. This is where you get, not only all the art in the exhibition, but interviews with creators and also your pages of golden age Batman comics.

The book not only acts as a guide to the exhibition but goes beyond what the exhibition has room for and thus stands apart as a permanent record of it. Recommended.

Overall then, hopefully this exhibition will act entice people in who’ve never visited the museum before. If a visit isn’t possible then I’d really recommend buying the accompanying book instead.

Richard Sheaf

Superheroes, Orphans & Origins runs until 28th August 2022 at The Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, London WC1N 1AZ | Web: foundlingmuseum.org.uk | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | YouTube

* The characters are as follows: Superman, Tarzan, Little orphan Annie, Magnus Robot fighter, Barefoot Gen, Bruce Wayne, Astro Boy, Black Panther

In Review: Superheroes, Orphans & Origins: 125 years in Comics Exhibition at the Foundling Museum, London

Superheroes, Orphans and Origins: 125 Years in Comics – available here from AmazonUK (Affiliate Link)

Many of the most inspiring characters in comics and graphic novels began their epic journeys as orphaned or abandoned children. In these stories, the loss of a parent inflicts challenges that even superpowers cannot easily resolve. For over a century and millions of readers, the comic strip is a space in which this narrative has been continuously reimagined.

Superheroes, Orphans & Origins: 125 Years in Comics offers a richly illustrated and thought-provoking exploration of the representation of orphans, foundlings, adoptees and foster children in sequential art. Surveying 125 years of creative practice and an international cast of characters, this book examines how care-experience is depicted in early comic strips like Little Orphan Annie, celebrated superhero narratives including Superman and Batman, and popular Japanese manga, among other examples. The complex issues and identities that feature in these stories are considered from a variety of perspectives, ranging from art historical to activist.

Contributing authors include Lemn Sissay, MBE and award-winning artists Carlos Giménez and Lisa Wool- Rim Sjöblom, all drawing inspiration from their own experiences in care. Bringing together critical essays, candid conversations and outstanding artwork, this book encourages a new way to experience comics.

The founder of downthetubes, John works as a comics editor, writer, as Creative Consultant on the Dan Dare audio adventures for B7 Media, and on promotional work for the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. Working in British comics publishing for over 30 years, his credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine, Star Trek Magazine and Babylon 5 Magazine. He also edited the comics anthology STRIP Magazine and edited several audio comics for ROK Comics. He has also edited several comic collections, including volumes of “Charley’s War and “Dan Dare”. He’s the writer of “Crucible”, a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz, published on Tapastic; and “Death Duty” and “Skow Dogs” with Dave Hailwood for digital comic 100% Biodegradable.



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