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Superheroes, Orphans & Origins: 125 years in comics, Foundling Museum

How many orphans can you think of in literature? Oliver Twist, Heidi, Peter Pan, Rapunzel, Snow White, Mowgli, Jane Eyre ... it seems it's not difficult, in fact they are commonplace.

In 2014, the Foundling Museum commissioned a poem by Lemn Sissay, the admired poet, artist and performer who grew up in care. (If you haven't read his book 'My Name is Why', then do!) Sissay's poem, 'Superman was a Foundling', is printed on the walls of the Foundling Museum. (As well as, the publicly visible mural in the hallway, sneak a peak through the glass of the door to the Study Room on the left by the entrance to see more.) Sissay described his poem as addressing the disparity between our admiration for the fictional characters who are fostered, adopted or orphaned, and a widespread disregard for their real-life counterparts. The seemingly endless list of names in his poem is moving. The Superheroes show downstairs in the basement of the Foundling Museum stems from a response to this startling poem.

Lemn Sissay 'Superman was A Foundling'

Superman was discovered on the side of the road by Jonathan and Martha Kent; Spiderman's parents died in a plane crash; Batman's were killed in a street robbery – many of the most inspiring characters in comics began their epic journeys as orphaned or abandoned children. 'Superheroes, Orphan and Origins' is the first major exhibition to explore the representation of these children in comics. Not all the characters shown have superpowers, but they are all heroic in their own ways. The show includes characters from Manga, original artwork (for example from Sunny, below) and historic comics (including Little Orphan Annie from the1920 to 1940s), alongside contemporary art commissions exploring life growing up without parents.

original artwork from Sunny

The exhibition is not aimed at children per se (unless you have a comic fanatic) and there's a lot of close reading to do to get the most out of it, but alongside this exhibition, the Foundling Museum have a series of fabulous, fun-sounding family workshops (free but must be pre-booked on their website). Plus, entry to the show is part of a general admission ticket and I would urge any family with children to head upstairs to the first floor to the 'Don't Ask the Dragon' display which is a brilliant illustration-lead exhibit of the collaborative process of creating the delightful picture book by Lemn Sissay and illustrated by Greg Stobbs. On the way up the stairs, take a look at the photographic portraits which are part of the landmark 'Foundling Portraits Campaign' commemorating real-life former pupils of the Foundling Hospital. Hopefully, projects like these which put real names to real faces go some way to righting the disregard Sissay felt real foundlings have been shown in the past.

A visit to the Foundling Museum and a wander around nearby Coram Fields is always a good idea – the Superheroes show is a good reason to make that trip this Spring.

Superheroes, Orphans and Origins: 125 years in comics

1 April to 28 August 2022

Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, London WC1N 1AZ

Free for 21 and under

Anya Waddington 31 March 2022


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