ST. LOUIS — “Chess and comics are a natural pair,” Shannon Bailey, chief curator of the World Chess Hall of Fame (WCHOF), told Hyperallergic. “The concepts of battle, the struggle of good versus evil, strategy, and speed, have always played a central role in both chess and comic book themes.”
Bailey organized POW! Capturing Superheroes, Chess & Comics now at WCHOF, a nonprofit institution that explores the connections between art and chess in its programming. Founded in 1986 by the United States Chess Federation, WCHCOF opened in St. Louis’s Central West End neighborhood in 2011, following the closure of its Miami museum in 2009. Recent exhibitions range from Designing Chessmen on the imagery of chess, to chess during World War II and the games designs of Michael Graves. WCHCOF is active as a collecting institution, and since POW! opened in March, collectors Floyd and Bernice Sarisohn — whose memorabilia and ephemera form the foundation of the exhibition — have decided to donate their comic books and related sets.
“Our mission is to promote the cultural and historical aspects of the game of chess,” Bailey stated. “My main vision and goal is to make chess fun and accessible to everyone.”
The POW! gallery surrounds viewers with more than 200 comic books featuring chess visuals and themes. Special-edition chess sets with comic character pieces are arranged in the center of the room, a few available to play. Some of the comics, exhibited in frames and cases, can be scrolled through with gallery iPads. There are components of the exhibition definitely aimed at kids, like a dress-up space, but there are deep themes present on how the history of comics links with that of chess. What’s recognized as the Golden Age of Comics, stretching from the 1930s to 1950s and punctuated by patriotic heroes such as Superman and Captain America, coincided with international conflicts including World War II and the Cold War, with both sides often characterizing the other as villains in their propaganda. This tone was echoed in comics. For instance, the “Five Dooms to Save Tomorrow” tale in The Avengers Vol. 1, No. 101 was issued in July 1972, at the time when grandmasters Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky were engaged in the World Chess Championship, a match that Fischer won, and ended over two decades of Soviet chess domination. The comic is a Cold War fantasia of looming nuclear holocaust featuring a Russian chess player character, a chess-playing computer, and chess pieces laced with poison.
“Chess is a game of war — there’s always a winner and a loser — there’s always a battle,” Bailey said. “You capture pieces, you dominate another player and the board. These exact references are made in many of the comics both literally and figuratively.”
Sometimes very literally, with numerous covers showing characters being controlled as chess pieces on a giant board. In a 1980 Marvel comic, the Hulk is pummeled by colorful robots on a gridded floor, the text “CHECKMATE!” in red all-caps letters; the 1960s series Strange Tales: Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., illustrated by Jim Steranko, featured the villain Prime Mover, a chess-playing robot concocted by Doctor Doom. The DC Comics series Checkmate, which started in 1988, focused on a covert operation team whose hierarchy was based on chess pieces. For some comic artists, there was a personal connection to the game. In an accompanying exhibition essay, author Michael Tisserand notes that “one of the country’s first editorial cartoons, a severed snake with the title ‘Join, Or Die’ (published in 1754), was drawn by the founding father and chess enthusiast Benjamin Franklin,” while C. W. Kahles, who created the early 1900s comic Hairbreadth Harry, decorated the walls of the Brooklyn Chess Club, of which he was president, with his art.
As Bailey pointed out, chess isn’t always symbolic of a high stakes conflict between good and evil. Sometimes, as with its appearance in the Archie comic series, it’s just a “school activity that the average kid does.” Still, chess is a compelling activity for its twists and the unpredictable moves of the opponent, rewarding strategic thinking and creativity, qualities that easily align with superhero narratives and the dynamic stories of comics. As Bailey stated, “At first glance, these two may seem unrelated, and yet the more we learn, we understand why popular culture in general has so many chess references.”