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Wham! Bam! Heroes rule

To the curator of exhibitions at the Dunedin Fine Art Center, "The Comic Book Hero" is much more than a bunch of cartoon scribblings. They're art. They're deep. They're spiritual.

The exhibit features comic book art, superhero images and creative activities for children. It feeds a psychological need in current culture.

"I loved comic books growing up and also believe in the need for these comic book heroes," curator David Shankweiler said. "A lot of people see them as silly, but they have taken a place in our culture and have become so familiar, they are sort of almost acting as mystical gods. We know they are not real, but we need them. We need to have people that are like us but have powers that we can't have."

The exhibit dissects the history of comics-movie favorites Batman, Superman, Spiderman and the X-Men through essays, prints and original panels.

"The Comic Book Hero" also taps into nostalgia. Adults who traded comic books as children and spent Saturday afternoons at matinees can see movie artifacts and the original Bat Cycle from the 1960s movie.

On one gallery wall hangs a 1983 Superman III painting, the same art used to promote the hit movie to European audiences. A Hellboy movie poster from April 2004 hangs in the museum lobby.

But don't go expecting a blast of dramatic color. Most of what's seen in the gallery are pencil and ink pages that become multicolor comic books in publishing.

Visitors get an up-close look at the hand of the artist, including the different styles of artists over the years.

They also get a history lesson. According to the exhibit program, the comic book was born in the newsstands and publishing houses of Depression-era New York.

Writers and illustrators Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster wrote for Detective Comics and presented a "Man of Steel" story and character to their editor that had been rejected by many publishers. In 1938, the editor decided to take a chance on Superman, and a legend was born.

The exhibit also features a 1983 pencil and ink Uncanny X-Men comic book cover from Marvel Comics, illustrated by Walter Simonson, who has drawn comic characters the Metal Men, Hercules, Batman and the Hulk. In 1983, Simonson wrote and drew the adventures of "the Mighty Thor" for Marvel Comics.

Randy Martin, a former designer at CrossGen Comics in Oldsmar, co-curated the exhibit and loaned the Dunedin Fine Art Center his personal collection, including the Simonson X-Men illustration.

Martin says the exhibit breaks down age barriers, as it offers older comics and current editions.

"We deliberately tried to get a well-rounded exhibit that would appeal to all ages and included some really early examples of Superman and Batman," he said. "There may be some pieces seniors would remember from childhood, as they go all the way back to the 1930s, and then we have Spiderman and X-Men that didn't come out until the 1960s."

In concert with the gallery exhibition, the David L. Mason Children's Art Museum offers educational hands-on activities in a Bat Cave setting. Computers offer young visitors 15 superhero programs. Art tables give kids a chance to illustrate their own comic books. The costume closet holds superhero capes. Preschoolers can use blocks to build superhero hideouts.

The exhibit showcases the use of fine arts and graphics in creating a comic book, said Todd Still, the center's director of youth programs and an exhibit assembler.

"Whether it's movies, marketing or merchandising, the exhibits help to gain a better appreciation of what really goes on out there," he said. "It's more than just drawing pictures." Female superheroes account for about a third of "The Comic Book Hero."

An updated, stylized Wonder Woman model stands regally in the children's museum. There's Rogue, who appeared as a character in two X-Men movies. Two Wonder Woman art pieces hang in the main gallery. Madame Xanadu is displayed in the lobby, and there's Mina Harker from the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen book and movie.

Solo women are scarce because the exhibit focuses on characters familiar to feature film audiences.

"Generally this industry has been so much of a boys' club that the women haven't had the title logo presence as much, although there was a Witchblade TV series, and Lara Croft could be called a comic character, although her genesis is in video games," co-curator Barbara Kesel said.

Gallery size and star power also influenced the gender balance.

"The practical reason we didn't end up with a whole Wonder Woman wall was, we had four walls and we decided to focus on the biggest movies," said Kesel. "She hasn't been featured in a movie. TV movies don't count."

If you go

WHAT: The Comic Book Hero, through Jan. 7. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday. Free.

WHERE: Dunedin Fine Art Center, 1143 Michigan Blvd. 298-3322, www.dfac.org.

CHILDREN'S EVENT: "The Comic Book Hero Goes to the Movies Sleepover," for children ages 8-12. 8 p.m. Oct. 1 to 8 a.m. Oct. 2. Computers, drawing, clay, theater, pizza and videos. Children will create a comic book to take home. Breakfast is included. Space limited to 15 campers. Member fee, $25, nonmember fee, $35. Registration is required. Call (727) 298-3322.

SCHOOL TOURS: Book them with Todd Still, 298-3322.

SPECIAL EVENTS FOR ADULTS: "Comic Book Heroes Go to the Movies," 7 p.m. Oct. 7. Showing Crumb, a cinematic portrait of the controversial comic book writer and artist Robert Crumb. Not suitable for children. Popcorn and beverages available.

"The Comic Book Hero Open House," 2 to 7 p.m. Oct. 16. Meet contemporary comic book artists.

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