London’s Foundling Museum announces “Superheroes, Orphans & Origins: 125 Years in Comics” exhibition

London’s Foundling Museum has announced their major exhibition this summer as Superheroes, Orphans & Origins: 125 Years in Comics. It will include three new artistic commissions by comic artists Asia Alfasi, Bex Glendining and Woodrow Phoenix.

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
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 | © DC Comics

The Foundling Museum tells the history of the Foundling Hospital, the UK’s first children’s charity and first public art gallery. It aims to inspire everyone to make a positive contribution to society, by celebrating the power of individuals and the arts to change lives.

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.

Enter into the world of superheroes in this 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.

DC’s Superman, who was found by his adoptive parents, is one of many comic heroes who are orphans: Spider-Man’s parents die in a plane crash; Batman’s parents are killed in a street robbery; and Black Panther – whose mother dies soon after childbirth and whose father is killed – is known as ‘the Orphan King’. Marvel’s X-Men experience both discrimination and social ostracisation. The superheroes’ early life experiences impact on their roles and the stance they take over good and evil in their comic lives.

Looking beyond the traditional ‘superhero’ genre the exhibition also includes characters from early newspaper comic strips, Japanese Manga and contemporary graphic novel protagonists. Historical newspapers, original artwork and contemporary digital work will be on display, as well as examples of international comics rarely exhibited in the UK.

Loaned works will sit alongside objects from the collection, to encourage an exploration of the parallels between real foundlings and their illustrated counterparts.

It will include three new artistic commissions that examine care identity and experience have been specially created for the exhibition by comic artists Asia Alfasi, Bex Glendining and Woodrow Phoenix.

“It’s a part of our society that we don’t think or talk about much, yet it’s hiding in plain sight all over popular culture,” explains Caro Howell, director of the museum, first founded in 1739 as a shelter for abandoned children.

“From Little [Orphan] Annie onwards, the world is familiar with the way these characters survived without parents,” she told The Observer, “but it is a lived reality for hundreds of thousands of children growing up away from their family or in care. Like these fictional orphans, they need immense resilience to get over the trauma and build an identity. How do they build a sense of self-worth?”

The exhibition will be accompanied by the release of a new book, Superheroes, Orphans and Origins: 125 Years in Comics, due for release 15th March, whose authors include Lemn Sissay, OBE 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. 

Superheroes, Orphans & Origins opens 1st April 2022 and runs until 28th August 2022 | The Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, London WC1N 1AZ | Web: | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | YouTube

Superheroes, Orphans and Origins: 125 Years in Comics is published on 15th March 2022 (Amazon UK Affiliate Link) | ISBN 978-1914414244


The Observer – ‘Me against the world’: why superheroes are so often orphans | Sunday 16th January

With thanks to Richard Sheaf for the heads up

The founder of downthetubes, which he established in 1998. John works as a comics and magazine editor, writer, and on promotional work for the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. Working in British comics publishing since the 1980s, his credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine, Star Trek Explorer (previously known as Star Trek Magazine) and more. 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 "Pilgrim: Secrets and Lies" for B7 Comics; “Crucible”, a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz; and “Death Duty” and “Skow Dogs” with Dave Hailwood.

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