Long before “Fantastic Four” hits theaters on Aug. 7, there were the comic books.
In fact, just about all the superheroes — and many super monsters — who have made it to the big screen started out as vivid splashes of ink on paper. LSU’s Hill Memorial Library is showing just how dynamic those original images and tales are in a new exhibit featuring superhero comics and the stories behind them.
And one story that keeps popping up is how at least one of Marvel Comic’s “Fantastic Four” stories came to life in 2014, when the crew filming the movie came to Hill Memorial.
“They used our lecture hall as their boardroom,” says Leah Jewett, exhibitions coordinator. “We know they’re going to use that scene in the film, because we’ve seen it in the movie trailer.”
The library in the heart of campus was filled with lights, cameras and lots of action from stars Kate Mara, as the Invisible Woman, and Miles Teller, as Mr. Fantastic.
Almost as much action as The Fantastic Four faced in its debut, a 1961 comic from Stan Lee, that’s in the exhibit.
It sold for 10 cents and proclaimed the heroes — The Thing, Mr. Fantastic, Human Torch and Invisible Girl (as Sue Storm was then known) — “together for the first time in one mighty magazine!”
“This is all a part of our special collections,” says curator Jennifer Mitchell, the library’s manuscript processing archivist. “I concentrated on the history of comics in this section, but I used ‘The Fantastic Four’ as a tie-in to the movie, as well as the history. After I introduced the history, I focused on what’s known as the Silver Age of Comics, where the superhero gods are introduced, including not only The Fantastic Four but Spiderman.”
Mitchell also explored race and gender in this part of the exhibit. The Fantastic Four introduced a female superhero with the Invisible Girl, who made history by marrying another superhero, Mr. Fantastic. The two later became parents.
“She had to balance marriage and motherhood with being a superhero, which is very prevalent with the times,” Mitchell says. “The first black superhero — the Black Panther — was also introduced in The Fantastic Four series. He went on to have his own comics.”
In the upper gallery, Jewett assembled that part of the exhibit that focuses on graphics used for storytelling, from earlier centuries to more modern times. It begins with DC Comics’ depictions of superheroes and their relationship with the South.
More specifically, Swamp Thing takes the spotlight here. He was a Louisiana antihero of sorts, a humanoid mass of sentiment and vines who possessed power over vegetation in the swamps outside of Houma.
He had his own brush with Hollywood when Ray Wise portrayed him in director Wes Craven’s 1982 film “Swamp Thing.”
In Hill Memorial, his story is told through the comics, where he starts out as a horror figure in 1971, eventually morphing into a behind-the-scenes good guy in the 1980s.
“There’s one issue of Superman in 1985, where he has been infected with a rare Kryptonian virus that he knows will drive him insane before it kills him,,” says Brannon Costello, who curated the DC Comics section. “He has to find a quiet place where he won’t cause any violence, so he goes to the Louisiana swamp.”
Costello, an associate professor of English, outlined why superheroes initially didn’t venture to the South, one reason being that superhero comics originated in 1930s New York.
“The creators of the earliest superheroes were most commonly the children of Jewish and Italian immigrants, and they were excluded from the loftier circles of publishing and illustration,” Costello says. “Their fantasies, as translated into the adventures of gaudily attired strongmen, were of unlimited agency and unfettered mobility in an overwhelming urban landscape. Alabama and Arkansas did not figure prominently, or at all, in those dreams.”
The South played a different role in comics, one of a strange, rural land harboring horror stories. And when a star like Superman did happen to venture South, he got some help without ever knowing it.
“Swamp Thing does help Superman, but Swamp Thing stays in the background,” Costello says. “Superman never knows he’s there.”
Costello points out attempts at southern superhero settings along the way, even one involving the Confederate flag, but Swamp Thing remains the region’s dominant character in the genre. Even today, the most popular graphic novel set in the region — “The Walking Dead” — deals with a horror element.
“We’re focusing on superheroes, so I didn’t include that comic,” Costello says.