Under the Flashlight

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Stronger than a cast-off candy wrapper, lighter than a grocery bag, able to leap pipe cleaners in a single bound (and crush tissue paper with his bare hands!)--Yes, it's Not-a-Superhero, the Kleenex-caped crusader with a body of tinfoil, who references Nietzsche and battles the evil Temporius, Guardian of Pseudocyclical Time. Trapped in the frame-by-frame world that makes up cartoon animation, he lives in a shoebox and falls into fragments when he tries to make the transformation from becoming to being.

Currently flying through the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art, Not-a-Superhero leaped from the imagination of New York artist Luca Buvoli, a classically trained painter and sculptor (and comic book nerd) who uses materials he first scrounged while a starving artist in the decadent 1980s. Part of the Center's current exhibits on "personal mythologies" and cartoon heroes, Not-a-Superhero is manifested in the gallery in a short film, sketches, and tinfoil handprints and metallic flashes of red stockings he leaves on the wall. The work, titled Inside and Outside Time, scales cerebral heights while maintaining the childlike, flashlight-under-a-blanket appeal that lies at the heart of comic bookdom.

Buvoli--who was born in Washington, D.C., though his family returned to Italy when he was four--learned his first words from American TV cartoons like Astroboy and Batman. Growing up in Italy, he read translations of Marvel comics (his favorites were Spider-Man and Daredevil, a blind lawyer with a radar sense that allowed him to see in the dark). Like many kids, he "found friends reading and sharing the same dreams. The superhero represented an American icon, and I stayed with this myth of America of the 1960s."

When he was eight years old, Buvoli created his first superhero, Super Mark, who shows glimmerings of the vulnerability of his later, adult creation, whose adventures have been chronicled in seven comic books and three flip books (displayed in various incarnations at the Center).

"He could fly to a maximum height of ten meters," says Buvoli of Super Mark, who first appeared in homemade comic books wrapped in silver, ruby red, and gold foil. "He could read thoughts, he had a powerful watch, some kind of armor to protect himself from bullets, a radio to talk to the police. Nothing really very fancy."

To view the flickering three-minute film, Not-a-Superhero--composed of the shiny objects a crow might pick up while scavenging--viewers enter a cylindrical theater. Expectations of streamlined Hollywood crime fighters are soon shattered as the projector beats out the scratchy opening credits, written in kindergarten script.

In the theater one recent Sunday, two boys in baseball caps watch the film with their dad--he's got his arm around them and periodically leans over to whisper what the heck's going on. He's probably not explaining the finer points of Russian director Sergei Eisenstein's editing technique of "extending time" by intercutting stills of the same action filmed from several points of view. Buvoli used that technique in the film in an attempt to give a flat cartoon character some three-dimensional perspective.

Ultimately, high-flown theory is squeezed into the telephone booth where Clark Kent goes to change his clothes. Here, rather than save the world from falling rocks and villainous plots, the hero must find the strength to preserve the fragility of the inner self, yet still live in the outside world. The Kryptonite vulnerability becomes the body of the story, rather than its Achilles' heel.

Buvoli hopes that as Not-a-Superhero searches for answers, he leaves some mystery in his path, the idea "that we can still tell our stories and believe in the power of imagination without enclosing a precise definition of what things should and must be."

And keep believing until good conquers evil, or the flashlight batteries run out.


Inside and Outside Time: The Real Story is on exhibit at the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art, 8501 Carnegie Avenue (216-421-8671), through May 2. Admission is free. Hours are Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, noon-5 p.m.

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