What DC superheroes have in common with Renaissance giants

The 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes sees a myriad of events and exhibitions celebrating the legacy of the two Renaissance giants. One such exhibition sits inside Daniel Crouch Rare Books in St. James’s. Crouch, a cartography specialist, has joined forces with Libreria Bardon in Madrid and Stephane Clavreuil Rare Books, formerly of Paris but now of Lincoln’s Inn, to present a number of works by both men complemented by a selection of maps and atlases.

‘People are driven to Cervantes and Shakespeare because they were the pre-eminent authors of their tome and both are great fun,’ says Crouch. ‘The appeal of that is different, but related to, the appeal of cartography and images. What’s nice is to be able to relate the views of the period to the literature – we’re able to give a visualisation of the world of Cervantes and Shakespeare.’

The topography of the small exhibition he’s hosting features a fifth quarto edition of Hamlet and first complete editions of Don Quixote from Belgium, Italy and England as well as an array of stunning maps and atlases that depict the world as these men would have seen it. Perhaps the pick is Czech engraver Wenceslaus Hollar’s panorama of early 17th century London, as Shakespeare would have known it. Interestingly Hollar confuses the The Globe with a bear-baiting venue, thereby placing it much closer to today’s replica. Another item of considerable interest is a first edition of Gerard Mercator’s ‘Atlas’, whose genesis, in 1595, places it square in the view of Shakespeare. It is the first volume ever to be given the name ‘Atlas’, not after the Greek titan destined to hold up the heavens, but the equally mythical King Atlas – a mathematician and philosopher credited with creating the first celestial globe.

The rendering of the world consumed Mercator’s career, the curation mentions his Atlas being ‘the culmination of a lifetime of expertise’. Arguably that passion is mirrored by those who collect such bound microcosms. Stephane Clavreuil mentions a collector who after 60 years had found just five individual Shakespeare plays. ‘You need to have the feeling of being a collector, whatever it is, it can be maps, it can be books, it can be paintings but you need this feeling.’

That feeling was certainly in abundance at the St Pancras hotel where the Impossible Collection, owned by Ayman Hariri, popped up last month. The exhibition, launching ahead of an as yet undisclosed world tour, featured not maps and scripts but a selection of the world’s most sought after comic books. Speaking to the exhibition’s architect Vincent Zurzolo, COO of New York’s Metropolis Collectibles, it’s clear he and his peers share the passion of his Renaissance focused brethren – ‘I have a friend who walks down the streets of Manhattan with a cape on, I swear, it’s unbelievable.’

His enthusiasm is infectious as he takes an enthralled crowd through the history of the pieces on display and how he came to acquire many of them for clients: paying $3.2 million for an Action no.1 issue in which Superman makes his first appearance, and helping Nicholas Cage to track down his own stolen issue of the same.

But it is the characters, good and bad, he really cares about: ‘If you look at the DC universe probably the best villains are Batman villains. You’ve got the Joker, Riddler, Penguin, Cat Woman, Killer Croc, Black Mask, Poison Ivy – you’ve so many unbelievably cool villains!’ Zurzolo also mentions the Flash’s nemesis, Gorilla Grodd: ‘A genius gorilla with telepathic powers- it’s insane!’

Perhaps there are some obvious parallels in Shakespeare’s stable of baddies? The Joker’s irreverent anarchy mirrors Iago’s unknown motive, while there are parallels between the Penguin and the manipulative hunchback Richard III and Cat Woman would undoubtedly make a fitting Lady Macbeth. However for others it’s less obvious…. Killer Croc and Gorilla Grod – perhaps the infamous pursuing bear in A Winter’s Tale?

‘I definitely think a lot of these characters have Shakespearean elements to them,’ says Zurzolo. ‘You could definitely tie in different aspects of superheroes to literature, to the Bible, to Greek myths. You could tie Superman into the American Dream, he’s the ultimate immigrant come to a new world trying to make good.’

The exhibition is a vivid and, frankly, funny window on Cold War culture and a consumerist society placing their fears and hopes in technicolour cartoons. The art work itself is arresting, although perhaps not as much as the hilarious story lines, as camp as they are ridiculous. We see Superman have to banish Superwoman to outer space for failing him, his son turns into a gorilla, he becomes a construction worker, he writes his confessions, all his friends become robots.

Batman’s travails are equally unsubtle as he and Robin become medieval bandits, team up with the Three Musketeers and complain that ‘the green aura from the rainbow creature has turned us into two dimensional people.’ In one installation the two superheroes really do become brothers in lycra clad arms as Bruce Wayne is adopted by Clark Kent’s family.

Yet for all the inherent hyperbole and pro-American propaganda, masked only by, well, ink masks, Superman and Batman themselves remain meaningful characters. Superman’s contemplations and regrets, underpinned by the power to do both great good and great evil, echo Hamlet’s own considerations. It is the internal narrative, not the heroic feats, that makes him relevant. Batman’s own psychological mauling sense of vendetta from the death of his family would be recognised by Titus Andronicus while his mortal heroics might be appreciated by Henry V. There is a resonance. Although, admittedly, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune do vary in form from murdered parents to nuclear missiles.
Shakespeare and Cervantes’ remain as relevant as ever, their contemporary ripples as varied as their new audiences. One wonders if Superman and Batman will claim the same legacy in four centuries. As Crouch notes, ‘very good writers survive time.’

‘Rounded with a sleep’: an exhibition commemorating 400 years since the passing of Shakespeare and Cervantes, is on at Daniel Crouch Rare Books until 29th April

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