There was a time when George Washington’s portrait was a regular fixture on living room walls. Then with the advent of entertainment mediums like film, TV, and comics, he started appearing in American homes in different artistic ways. Washington’s appearances in comics will be the focus of the new exhibit, Cloaked Crusader: George Washington in Comics and Pop Culture, based on the book of the same name by writer-editor Renée Witterstaetter.

With less than a month until the exhibit opens on October 5, 2022, at the Fraunces Tavern Museum in New York, NY, Witterstaetter chatted with Scoop about the exhibit. She shared the genesis of the book and exhibit, what will be displayed, details on the opening reception, and more.  

Scoop: The exhibit Cloaked Crusader: George Washington in Comics and Pop Culture is based on your book, so let’s start there. Tell me about your initial idea and how it grew into a book?
Renée Witterstaetter (RW): The evolution of an idea is interesting. I’m always looking for the next book idea to hit me. You know when it happens. It really is the proverbial lightbulb moment. For me it’s that thought in my head: “I’d like to read that, and if I want to read that somebody else will too.” So I guess you would say I write for myself, and then hope other people enjoy it. So far it’s worked out.

My book Nick Cardy: The Artist at War, started that way while visiting Nick at his home in Florida. He showed me a selection of sketches that he had created during World War II, and I immediately said “Nick, let’s do a book on this.” His first response was, “Do you think anyone would want to read it?” I assured him they would, and it’s been one of my favorite projects, and something I feel Nick was proud of as well. We were able to tour some conventions together and talk about the book, and I also liked that it put a spotlight not only on his artistic career at DC Comics and elsewhere, but his war service as well.

Spartan X, my series that I co-created with artist Michael Golden was the same way. Marie Javins invited me to a movie in Chinatown, and a comic book idea was born as well as leading to my time working in movie production with Jackie Chan. (FYI, we are working on the Spartan X complied book now!)

Cloaked Crusader: George Washington in Comics and Pop Culture started in a similar way. I’ve long had an interest in history and Revolutionary War history in general. One of my clients at Pros & Cons Celebrity booking, Mark Rolston, played Judge Shippen in the television show Turn, and that had me thinking, along with the musical Hamilton, about how Washington is portrayed in pop culture. (I have my nephew, filmmaker Brennan Witterstaetter, to thank for suggesting we go see Hamilton for the first time! So, thanks, Brennan.)

I was discussing all of this with my business partner (Eva Ink Artist Group), Michael Golden, co-creator of Rogue, and he said, “You know, Batman has Revolutionary War roots.” I thought.. “Oh really…..” and so a book idea was born.

I immediately started looking up appearances of George Washington in comics and pop culture, and once I started there seemed to be no end. Honestly, there is enough for more than one book. But I’m starting with one.

Scoop: How did the book evolve into a museum exhibition?
RW: A little bit of magic and timing, I’d say. Fraunces Tavern Museum is an amazing cultural heritage site in New York City. It is the location of Washington’s farewell dinner with his officers after the Revolutionary War, you can in fact still visit the room where they dined on the second floor. This edifice has been a witness to much of our history, as the oldest tavern in New York City. You can still have a meal there on the first floor as well, or have a drink with history in the bar.

Last year I began work as a member of the Museum and Arts committee there, in conjunction with the Sons of the American Revolution in the State of New York, the 401(c) non-profit that owns and cares for the museum and the historic building.

When I had my lightbulb moment about the exhibit, I ran it past my committee chair, Craig Weaver, and our President, Peter Hein, and they were very enthusiastic about the idea of making the book into a gallery show.

I’m very happy and grateful for this opportunity to work with them, and for them having the vision to present something very unique in this historic space, that ties the past to the present.

Scoop: What will be exhibited at the Fraunces Tavern Museum?
So many exciting things! Where to begin! It is a happy coincidence that the exhibit coincides with the 100th anniversary of the first monthly comic book, Comics Monthly from King Features (1922). While The Yellow Kid was the first book to have the words “comic book” (on the back cover), Comics Monthly was the first book resembling our modern, monthly floppies.

We will have a selection of rare books covering all the decades since, as well as original art by Michael Golden, George Pérez, Arthur Suydam, Graham Nolan, George Evans, Daniel Scott, Jr. and more!

In addition, we’ll be looking at other facets of George Washington in pop culture, the different eras and how his portrayal evolved – including all the wonderful DC Comics time-travel stores – and also discussing just what pop culture really is and why it is important to us.

We will even have a section on the 1939 New York World’s Fair, which was largely Washington focused, since it marked the 150th anniversary of his inauguration as president, which by the way, happened steps from Fraunces Tavern!

Washington is a very interesting person and surely one of the most recognized visages in the world. And there are very definitive reasons why.

There are not too many people in history that we can point to and say that they were offered complete power and let it go. I love the quote attributed to King George III when he heard Washington would not seek a third term. He is reported to have said: “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”

When you think of most of the series in comic books, the fight of good over evil, the desire of villains for absolute power, you can see how someone like Washington can very easily be woven into the mix.

So, if you think George Washington and our supeheroes have nothing in common, you’d be wrong. They’ve been co-starring in stories for some time.

Scoop: What type of context from the book will accompany the artwork?
All the text on the walls will be text from my actual book, distilled of course, because I still want you to buy the book to read the rest! But the story of the gallery show will take you on a journey from Washington’s pop culture beginnings, through his historical appearances in such books as Classics Illustrated, to the time-travel stories – both forward and backwards, to the fever of the bicentennial, and to modern day where Washington is still a touchstone – a metaphor if you will – for what we are trying to convey in our sequential art stories.

We also as said, delve a bit into what pop culture really is and how it binds people together, even if we are from diverse upbringings or diverse parts of the world.

I often feel that way about the comic book community as a whole. It is a pop culture that brings us together, a shortcut to get to the communication. When I enter a comic con, be it in the United States, France or Dubai, I know there are friends in the room that I just haven’t met yet.

That’s the way I felt when putting together this George Washington project. The more I researched him, the more interesting it was to piece together his trajectory through pop culture history. The vehicle of the 100th anniversary of the monthly comic book coinciding with that made it all the more fun.

Scoop: Based on your research, is it fair to say that George Washington is featured in more comics than other presidents?
RW: It’s been fairly amazing how many times Washington is referenced in comic books. I’ve found probably a thousand and I’ve had to distill it down into what I wanted to have in the show, hitting many of the highlights, and focusing on certain creators like Jack Kirby, Russ Heath, Neal Adams, Stan Lee, and Steve Ditko, among many others. I also talk some about the great illustrators like Lyndecker and Rockwell.

My companion book is Abraham Lincoln in Comics and Pop Culture, and I’m in the discovery stage of that book right now. It may be neck and neck. Teddy Roosevelt is pretty popular too. But the two presidents paired most often together in comic books, when there are two presidents, are Washington and Lincoln without a doubt.

But I’d venture to turn a phrase with the well known quote that George Washington was “First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen, and potentially also first in number of comic book appearances!”

Scoop: Let’s talk about the opening reception. What can people expect when the doors open on October 5?
RW: Sure! We have put in a lot of work to make this a fun and exciting night for everyone. First off we will have the opening reception from 6 PM to 8 PM. This includes admission to the exhibit, the silent auction, live sketching and opening remarks by Marvel Editor in Chief Jim Shooter. In addition everyone attending the opening will receive a signed art print by artist Michael Golden. Arthur Suydam, Michael Golden, and Jim Shooter are the Guests of Honor for the reception.

Following the reception, we will also have a VIP dinner which includes a three-course dinner with beverage, a goodie bag, an additional signed print by Arthur Suydam, and signatures from Jim Shooter if you bring your books. Not to mention other surprises, including a raffle ticket to win a Michael Golden original sketch.

In short it’s going to be one beautiful night of celebrating comics, pop culture, George Washington, and the wonderful things in pop culture that unite us.

All proceeds go to benefit this amazing, historical building and the Fraunces Tavern Museum. Just go to the website and register!

Scoop: How long does the exhibit run?
RW: We are starting the exhibit to open the day before the New York Comic Con and to celebrate 100 years of monthly comic books. It will run throughout 2022 and 2023, and perhaps a bit longer, as we head up to the 250th anniversary celebration of the United States.

Another aspect of this exhibit that I’m very excited about is that it will also in part be presented in a virtual gallery. The virtual gallery will also have added material so that the visitors can explore more stories of Washington in pop culture than we can present on the walls. This is presented by Demetrius Angelo of Elite Metaverse Xperiences. Everyone attending the opening will have a special preview of this cool technology and how it’s being used in the museum.

Michael Golden designed most of the merchandising in the gift shop so that is well worth checking out too. I know I’m getting a t-shirt!

For more information on my book, I can be contacted at: evaink@aol.com It will be solicited via Diamond Comic Distributors soon, and I’ll have it on the convention circuit next year.

Scoop: Let’s jump off topic for the last question. Since you were the editor on The Sensational She-Hulk, what are your thoughts on the new Disney+ series, She-Hulk: Attorney at Law?
Well I’m very excited. She’s always been one of my favorite characters. This marks several times now that books I’ve worked on in the past such as Guardians of the Galaxy and Thanos Quest, have been made into really great movies or television shows.

Normally it was finding a movie or book project and adapting it into comics as I did with Jurassic Park, Xena, Hercules, James Bond, and The X-Files, among others.

I enjoyed working on She-Hulk with John Byrne a great deal though. It was one of those times when the alchemy all comes together and something golden is made. So many good times on that series, and if they capture a fraction of the fun we had, it’s going to be tremendous.

People ask me all the time, if I knew John was going to draw me in as a character in the book, and the answer is “No. I didn’t.” It was always a surprise at the last minute when the art came in and it would be too late to change anything – which I wouldn’t have anyway.

I was a complete co-conspirator.

I have to say I loved the office he gave me in the comic book as well. I assure you a corner penthouse was not the reality. But in comic books, hey, we can make anything happen. Thanks to John, I suppose I’m one of the few editors that is a real person (really I am), and also a comic book character.

And for those of you that ask: “Who is going to play you on the TV show?” I don’t know, but I hope they have a pair of cowboy boots and a Texan accent at least.

Seriously though, I think the show is great. I love signing my books at conventions and meeting the fans, and I adore seeing all the cosplayers dressed up like She-Hulk. If I’m somewhere near you, please do come by and say hello.

For even more on Cloaked Crusader: George Washington in Comics and Pop Culture, check out our previous news coverage.