Seattle, Superheroes, and Social Justice: Vishavjit Singh’s WHAM! BAM! POW! at the Wing Luke Museum

WHAM! BAM! POW! Cartoons, Turbans and Confronting Hate - Exhibit poster

WHAM! BAM! POW! Cartoons, Turbans and Confronting Hate opened May 4, May 2018 and runs through February 24, 2019 at the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle, Washington. It is the story of Vishavjit Singh, a Sikh American cartoonist who dresses as Captain America to dispel misconceptions in the United States about the traditional Sikh turban.

While small, the exhibit packs a punch. The first wall consists of reproductions of Singh’s work and some historical context to explain why he began cartooning. This section uses both his and other Sikh artists’ work to explain the Sikh faith and other historic events important to Singh’s transformation into Captain America. Across from this wall is a table where you can make your own Captain America shield, with shields made by previous attendees on display. The last wall explores the timeline of Vishavjit Singh’s tenure as Captain America. Like any good superhero, timing is very important, and Singh answered the call after the murder of Sikh Americans at a Gurudwara in Wisconsin. Since that time, his Captain America has made an impact. From comic cons to the Republican National Convention, his cosplay has turned heads and influenced those who have seen him.

While not all of the content in WHAM! BAM! POW! is suitable for young audiences, as it discusses the Sikh Genocide, children can visit the exhibit. The make your own shield area, the click through “game” that is the first interactive, and a table set with plates and pills that have words like “hate” and “bigotry” on them allow visitors of all ages to participate in the exhibit. These hands-on features help visitors to understand how social justice and media are intertwined.

The importance of the exhibit and Vishavjit Singh’s message is exemplified by a combined photo and caption. One of the photos has Singh as Captain America across from a child on a rock. It looks like any of the other photos of Singh with fans of his work, but the accompanying caption turns the interaction from a photo into a story about how children parrot narrow-minded and discriminatory language. The boy in the photo is adamant that Captain America cannot wear a turban, ever. Cap could maybe be black, brown, or Hispanic, but he could never wear a turban. It is interactions like those, captured in the photo, that Singh uses to demonstrate how superheroes play a vital role in constructing meaningful narratives about who can or cannot do things and what social values are worth fighting for.

WHAM! BAM! POW! is in Seattle at an excellent time, serving as a fantastic counterpoint to the Marvel MoPOP exhibit. WHAM! BAM! POW! is small and tells the story of a single hero, in contrast to MoPOP’s Marvel exhibit, which is about almost every hero Marvel has created. The key difference between them is how they deal with the social issues that underlie the people and characters contributing to the exhibit. In contrast to MoPOP’s Marvel exhibit, WHAM! BAM! POW! is the union of super-heroism and social justice that a city like Seattle, which is struggling with such issues, needs. It’s a reminder that the fight against discrimination and hatred is a constant one that everyone participates in. This exhibit demonstrates how superheroes are embedded such fights because many people learn what defines a “bad guy” from comics and how leaving those narratives out of superhero stories can perpetuate discrimination.

While the exhibit could have been larger, and there are should be content warnings due to the historical context of Singh’s life, the exhibit is refreshing and well-executed, balancing visual, interactive, and literary media to tell Singh’s story. It deftly presents how Singh’s work is an embodiment of what Captain America stands for and that those values will outlast any period of oppression and discrimination.

Paulina Przystupa

Paulina Przystupa

Paulina (aka @punuckish) is a Filipine-Polish archaeologist and anthropology graduate student who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and loves comics and pop culture. Her academic work focuses on how buildings and landscapes aid or impede the learning of culture by children. In general, she is an over-educated fan of things; primarily comics, comics-related properties, cartoons, science-fiction, and fantasy. This means she takes what she knows and uses it to critique what she loves. Recently, she has brought such discussions to the public by organizing and moderating panels at comic cons centered on anthropology/culture related topics.