One of my favorite post-9/11 images came from the brush of comic book artist Alex Ross. Ross’ painting of Superman looking up at crowd of first responders and saying “Wow” encapsulated perfectly for me who the real heroes were. The giants who died while trying to save others as well as those who came to pick up the pieces afterwards dwarf the “Man of Steel.” In Supermen–An Exhibition of Heroes, British artist Ben Turnbull shrinks comic book heroes even more in order to form collage portraits of firemen and policemen (such as Hero III above) to honor the memory of 9/11 by celebrating the everyday heroism of these men and women. By mingling kitsch and tragedy, Turnbull turns ones attention to the mythology that we’ve wrapped around the idea of 9/11.

“The life-changing events of 9/11 led us all to believe in the need for real life superheroes,” Turnbull explains. “Superman didn’t fly down to save the falling buildings, there was no Caped Crusader ready to do battle with the arch-enemy and Spidey didn’t spin his web. Without the need of a phone-booth or a revolving door these true patriots donned their iconic costumes and sacrificed life and limb for what they believed in. With every cut-comic hero and dialogue I hope to bring out the true merits of the Brave and the Bold in their fight for Truth, Justice and the American Way.” Turnbull builds a palette of red, white, and blues by cutting up a thousand pre-1990s comic books featuring characters such as Spider-Man, Batman, Daredevil, Captain America, and The Fantastic Four as drawn by Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Sal Buscema, and others. The tiny faces of familiar characters almost disappear into the collage until you look closely enough to see, for example, a section of blue to be composed of tiny Batmen and Captain Americas.

Supermen–An Exhibition of Heroes fits in well with Turnbull’s earlier work, which draws heavily on American pop culture and what some would call kitsch. The exhibit’s earnest celebratory tone, however, seems a departure from his normal approach to media and culture. “Ben Turnbull is fascinated by the global dominance of American culture,” the artist’s profile page reads, “and his works unsettling effects result from re-presenting the toys of our innocent youth in symbolic forms that reveal the shocking truths about war and violence in the world’s most powerful country.” Turnbull’s pre-Supermen work “takes a satirical look at the lengths that the country’s political elites go to in order to control and manipulate the way we think, from our first days of play to the last time we cast our vote.” I don’t read satire in Supermen, but I think an interesting discussion could come from the possibility that the mythology built up around first responders could be used as a way to distract the populace from less heroic realities such as the origins of the wars that followed 9/11. Firemen and policemen are, of course, heroes, and Turnbull’s art celebrates them beautifully. But it also could be seen as asking if those heroes are being used by elites in a play for greater power.

I enjoy attempts to connect comic book heroes with mythology. I can get archetypal and quote Joseph Campbell with the best of them. Ben Turnbull’s Supermen–An Exhibition of Heroes caught my eye immediately. Looking closer—just as looking closer at the works themselves reveals a new dimension—I see an undertone of challenge to commonly held ideas—not to dismiss or diminish them but to clarify them and reveal underlying power relationships. For all the great exhibitions marking the tenth anniversary of 9/11, this exhibition from across the Atlantic might ask the greatest and toughest questions of all.

[Image: Ben Turnbull. Hero III, 2011. Comic collage on wood. 87 x 129 cm. Courtesy of Eleven, London and the artist.]

[Many thanks to Eleven and the artist Ben Turnbull for providing me with the image above and other press materials from Supermen–An Exhibition of Heroes, which runs through October 22, 2011.]