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Subway comics on display in NY Transit Museum’s ‘Underground Heroes’ exhibit

The work of more than 120 artists is featured at the NY Transit Museum.

The New York Transit Museum's "Underground Heroes" exhibit highlights the representation of the city's transit system in comic strips from the 19th through the 21st centuries. The exhibit will be on display through Jan. 6.  (Credit: Meghan Giannotta and Noelle Lilley)

Overcrowding trains, extended delays during rush hour and curious passengers are among the many subway woes every New York City commuter knows well … even Gotham’s superheroes.

The New York Transit Museum’s “Underground Heroes,” a new exhibit running through Jan. 6, combines the work of more than 120 artists to show the evolution of transit representation in comic strips.

“Transit affects everybody who lives here. Even if you have superpowers or can change into some kind of creature, you still take the subway to get to where you want to go,” says Jodi Shapiro, the museum’s associate curator.

Spanning the 19th through the 21st centuries, the new exhibit includes work from artists like Frederick Burr Opper (“Happy Hooligan”), and Winsor McCay (Gertie the Dinosaur”), and strips by Marvel Comics and DC Universe designers.

Because even Spider-Man and the Thing can’t escape the MTA.

“The Thing of the Fantastic Four is a pile of rocks, but he takes the subway a lot and often times he’s not the freakiest looking thing on there!” Shapiro jokes.

“I want people to look at this material and think about who they see on their trips every day to see that transit is a part of them as much as they are a part of transit,” she adds.

Walking the multiroom exhibit within the Brooklyn-based museum, one will see a variety of relatable subway qualms depicted in comics decades old. Art Young’s 1909 drawing “In the Soul Crush” shows the instantaneous mad dash to enter the train cars — a New York-ism that’s been well known since the New York City subway system’s inaugural ride.

“As soon as the first subway opened in 1904, it was incredibly crowded because people were very anxious to start using it,” Shapiro explains. “One of the reasons it got built was because there was a population that had places to go, but no efficient way to get there. So, crowding and transit etiquette is a common theme.”

Shapiro hand-sifted through hundreds of comics to curate the collection, reaching out to local artists and comic enthusiasts for tips.

“Researching this was a lot of fun, but it was also a little difficult because going through the sheer amount of comic books was kind of daunting,” she says. “I asked people I know who are artists, ‘can you think of a good comic story that takes place on the subway?’ It was a lot of work … but all of it was fun.”

Johnny Craig’s 1950 comic “The Vault of Horror” sketches a crowded subway car with a gruesome bloody arm hanging onto the straps; a 1920s design by Frank Moser shows commuters being pushed through a tunnel; and Bob Fingerman’s 2014 “Minimum Wage” shows two men falling asleep en route.

Select comics featured in the exhibit made their debut as advertisements within subway cars of the ‘40s, including Amelia Opdyke Jones’ “Keep Your Feet Off The Seat” series, which speaks for itself.

“It’s natural that transit, being such a vibrant part of New York’s social fabric, shows up predominantly in these stories,” Shapiro says.

Throughout the exhibit’s run, the museum will hold panel discussions, chats and sketch nights with artists who’ve designed strips about the city’s transit system. For more information, visit nytransitmuseum.org. Museum admission is $10.

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