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Exhibition explores the representation of foundlings, orphans, adoptees, and foster children in comics
Sunny © Taiyo Matsumoto _ Shogakukan (Vol 1)

LONDON.- 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.

Examining over a century of mainstream comics, graphic novels and sequential art from around the world, Superheroes, Orphans & Origins: 125 years in comics explores the challenging origins and complex identities of some of the most popular figures in comics.

The exhibition looks beyond the traditional ‘superhero’ genre to explore characters from early newspaper comic strips, including Skeezix from Gasoline Alley, who was left on a doorstep in 1921, and Little Orphan Annie. Historical newspapers, original artwork and contemporary digital work will be on display, as well as examples of international comics rarely exhibited in the UK. Caro Howell, Director of the Foundling Museum ‘When viewed as a group, these characters encourage discussions about identity, trauma, autonomy and social belonging. Their stories collectively form a unique lens through which we can better understand the feelings of isolation, unrest and resilience that care-experienced children encounter every day. Superheroes, Orphans & Origins weighs our fascination with foundlings and children in care in popular culture against our diminished awareness of their presence in the real world. Framing discussions about superheroes around their experiences in care - kinship, foster, adoption and residential - encourages deeper consideration of the connections between these identity labels. Not all of the characters included in the exhibition have superpowers; nevertheless, they are all revealed to be heroic in their efforts to overcome extraordinary challenges.’ Superheroes, Orphans & Origins has its own origins in a previous work commissioned by the Foundling 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. Sissay described the project as addressing the disparity between our admiration for fictional characters who are fostered, adopted or orphaned, and a widespread disregard for their real-life counterparts. Many of the works on display have been created by artists who were inspired by their own experiences in care. Carlos Giménez, creator of Paracuellos (1976), spent most of his childhood in Spain moving between a series of ‘Social Aid’ homes, created during the Franco regime. Palimpsest (2019) reflects on Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom’s experience as an international adoptee. Born in Korea, she lived in an orphanage until the age of 2, before she was adopted and relocated to Sweden. TaiyŌ Matsumoto spent several years in a children’s group home in Japan and his manga series, Sunny, is based on his own experience in group care. Keiji Nakazawa survived the Hiroshima atomic bombing, but his father, brother and sister died. His mother later died of related health issues when he was a young adult, prompting him to create his manga series, Barefoot Gen. Comics from across the world in the new exhibition illustrate the universal themes of orphans, abandonment and identity. Japanese Manga characters from the 1990s and early 2000s, Kuro and Shiro from Tekkonkinkreet, sit alongside American comic Jesse ‘Street Angel’ Sanchez and contemporary graphic novel protagonists including Amina from Zenobia (2016), a Syrian refugee. Original artwork will be shown for the first time by artist Robyn Smith from DC Comics’ 2021 re-creation of Nubia, the black sister of Wonder Woman, who despite her superpowers is told ‘you’re no Wonder Woman’.
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.

The historical and international presence of care-experienced characters is showcased in a prestigious selection of comics and graphic novels, on loan from UK national institutions, international lenders and individual artists. Early editions of DC’s Superman and Batman from the 1940s and 1950s sit alongside early copies of Marvel’s Black Panther and special editions of X-Men, with artwork by Stan Lee, from the 1970s and 1980s. Original artwork from Sunny and historic comics including Gasoline Alley (1920s), Hogan’s Alley (1890s) and Little Orphan Annie (1920-40s) are on display, as well as Sanmao (translation ‘three hairs’), which was created in 1935 by famous Chinese cartoonist Zhang Leping and is shown for the first time in the UK. In the context of the Museum there are striking parallels to explore between real foundlings and their illustrated counterparts.

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