Comics just aren’t what they used to be. Superheroes are no longer the defining figures of the genre; paper isn’t even the defining medium of the genre.
“My thought was ‘let’s walk back, but more forward,’ ” says Harriet Lesser, curator of “A Shared Universe: The Art of Comic Books.” “I wanted to move on to what happened when DC and Marvel didn’t own the universe anymore.”
The Mansion at Strathmore show, which spans 1939 to the present, treats comics as artworks deserving the same respect afforded paintings or sculptures.
Photography was once regarded as an inferior medium, too, Lesser notes. “Now nobody would bring that up. It’s accepted, it’s in the arts vocabulary. I think comic books are now in that stage.”
Here’s a preview of the comics — and of non-comic works inspired by the genre — you’ll find in “A Shared Universe.”
“Self-Portrait as Ironmen” (2014)
Artist Andrew Wodzianski celebrates iconic superheroes and the people who love them with his “Fanboy” series of oil paintings, above, in which he projects superhero personae onto ordinary people.
This “Superman” comic isn’t the Man of Steel’s debut (that was in 1938’s Action Comics No. 1), but it’s the first book from creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster that featured only him.
“Hark! A Vagrant” (2011)
Web comics have pushed the genre into new, joyously time-sucking directions. Prints from Kate Beaton’s “Hark! A Vagrant” online series show how some comics have gone from extended stories featuring repeated characters to quick, ever-changing narratives.
“Evolution of the Cartoonist” (2013)
The exhibit peers into the future of comics via works from young artists in Sequential Art degree programs. “Evolution of the Cartoonist,” on view as both a rough draft and a finished piece, is by Rachel Jukes, a student at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vt.
“End Man” (2010)
The first floor of “A Shared Universe” explores how comic books inspire visual artists outside the comics medium. Mark Newport creates uniforms for superheroes he makes up, complete with names and backstories.
This weekend features several educational supplements to the exhibit. On Saturday at 10:15 a.m. (reservations required) there’s a free children’s talk and tour that includes a hands-on activity led by comic illustrator Mark Mariano. At 1 p.m., there’s a free talk/tour for grown-ups. Sunday brings a panel discussion at 2 p.m. ($5) and a screening of “Stripped,” a documentary about some of the world’s best cartoonists, at 4 p.m. ($10).
The Mansion at Strathmore, 10701 Rockville Pike, North Bethesda; through June 8, free; 301-581-5100. (Grosvenor-Strathmore)