‘Comics Unmasked’ at the British Library. Catch it before it’s gone.
It does not have long to run, but it is worth catching the British Library’s ‘Comics Unmasked’, before it finishes on 19 August. I had not been able to see the exhibition until last night, when I took the Laydeez do Comics curator’s tour lead by Adrian Edwards, the lead curator of printed historical sources.
As usual the British Library leaves no stone unturned when exploring how literature sits within its context. So, with respect to comics, that leads into some very thought provoking arenas.
Comics are not something that the British Library has explored before and the 193 exhibits (or objects) have been carefully selected to provide a walkthrough of British comic making, taking in a wide range of historical eras and subjects.
There are six areas:
- Mischief and mayhem
- To see ourselves
- Politics: power and the people
- Sex and sexuality
- Hero with 1000 faces
- Breakdowns: The outer limits of comics
The exhibition was initially proposed by Paul Gravett and John Harris Dunning and further developed to reflect comics in relation to social history. It was also a chance, as with all the British Library exhibitions, to showcase the potential of the Library’s resources for researchers. So the choices for inclusion in the exhibition could only be described as heroic, given the British Library’s vast storerooms. For this reason I do not think we have seen the last of their wealth of comic literature.
To provide some focus for the selection, this exhibition concentrated on sedition, people being a thorn in authority’s side and minority groups; in fact any issues that pushed boundaries. So if you are going to see ‘Comics Unmasked’, do not expect an extensive collection of children’s comics because they were usually directed towards instilling good citizenship in the next generation. Any dissenters such as the Action comic, reflecting the cinematic blockbusters in stories such as Hook Jaw, based on ‘Jaws’, were finally made to tone their content down, thus killing sales.
Creativity is not confined to the comics. Anyone who knows Dave McKean’s work will sense his input in the overall design of the exhibition, as you walk through a distorted mirrored arch to be confronted by a hooded anarchist from V for Vendetta, one of many such denizens to loom out at you during the exhibition. Ribbons, reminiscent of Mobius strips, hang at intervals from the ceiling with complex and strange images rippling across their surface. The whole ensemble gives an impression that you are walking in a stream of consciousness and one that threatens to unbalance you (if the off-centre and uneven cabinet near the entrance is anything to go by).
The first area, Mischief and Mayhem, declares its intent with a blood spatter pattern across the base of display cases and McKean’s Mr Punch making an early appearance. This is the first indication that the comics are not just drawn but crafted in a number of imaginative ways. McKean’s work will often make use of strangely rendered photographs of models of his characters. This creativity is displayed later on in the Sex and sexuality section as Gareth Brooke’s imaginative embroidery sits alongside his disturbing and hilarious The Black Project.
Within Mischief and Mayhem is something that looks more at home in an old-fashioned children’s illustrated book. The two block woodcut, printed in Germany in the fifteenth-century, is included because it is the first example of printed sequential art.
The taste for gory details is not confined to this century and Police News depicting the Mitre Square murders demonstrates a Victorian public keen for every detail of Jack the Ripper’s activities and sits alongside Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell.
To see ourselves
This section changes pace, but is emotionally charged, as it shows how the different sections of society have been represented over time. Ethnic, and religious matters, are also examined here, as well as autobiographies exploring challenging issues. This area particularly reveals how useful British Library resources can be with regards to researchers wanting to understand changing social attitudes.
It is certainly breath taking now to think of a black boy wanting to be whitewashed so he fits in, or how the wife beating of Andy Capp was seen as a suitable subject for humour.
The first comic hero Ally Sloper clearly demonstrates the shift in social mores as the character changes over many years, to fit in with changing attitudes. This is also where the British Library’s knack of acquiring relevant artefacts adds some depth to a printed object, as the eerie Ally Sloper ventriloquist’s dummy perches in a glass case nearby.
Comics are usually seen as a man’s preserve, but there is a good representation of woman at work in the comic scene in the exhibition. Modern authors in this section include Nicola Streeten’s Billy Me and You, concerned with coping with grief, Mary and Bryan Talbot’s Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes explores the relationships of James Joyce’s daughter Lucia with her father and Mary Talbot with hers, a Joycean scholar. I also noticed Lighter than my Shadow by Katie Green, a weighty and beautifully rendered tome on eating disorders.
Politics: power and the people is where the sinister becomes overt and is accompanied by a disturbing soundscape of a demonstration and what seems to be a legion of uplit hooded mannequins in V masks, looming behind and to the side of you as you look at the exhibits.
The short-lived Glasgow Looking Glass was a caricature magazine that changed its name to The Northern Looking Glass after five issues, possibly because it would sell better. It satirised the social and political life of Scotland in the 1820s. Unfortunately the British Library does not possess the deluxe handcoloured versions, held in Glasgow, but we were told that those issues may have been a special version used as a marketing tool. The pictures are wonderfully detailed and must have been very expensive to produce.
Satire and politics have gone hand in hand for some time, but sequential art can also be used to directly reflect the serious side of political issues and the Suffrage movement poster eloquently drives home the sexual inequalities of the day, as does the work depicting the problems with modern day human rights.
Profit and Loss
Having a go at big business is not a recent phenomenon as the comics on display in this area demonstrate. It is also an example of how little has changed, in that one cartoon shows a businessman’s adaptation of a product that remains the same despite its change of use as pharmaceutical pills, shoe polish and baby food. The most startling display is Skin, Peter Milligan and Brendan McCarthy‘s violent anti-corporate attack.
Sex and sexuality
This area approaches the subject head on and is one of the reasons why parental guidance is required for anyone under 16. It was interesting to find out that the Georgians had an open and very relaxed attitude to the literary expression of sex, which then went underground in the Victorian era only to re-emerge with a vengeance later on. The controversy of Oz and Nasty Tales is given some coverage, along with the offending literature and the comic satire of the Oz trial. The blending of Rupert Bear and Robert Crumb, certainly brings a new meaning to my childhood annual Christmas presents.
Super heros are not excluded from the exhibition and in Hero with 1000 Faces and it was nice to see the strong tradition of female heros matching that of the male, with Tank Girl, Halo Jones and Modesty Blaise in attendance.
The Breakdowns section is probably the least successful in coherence, and confusing as to what it was trying to achieve. However, seeing the original Tarot card, ‘The Universe’ painted by Aleister Crowley, placed in the same case as Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s Arkham Asylum, where it is featured, is an interesting juxtaposition.
The exhibition also provides a look into the creative worlds of the comic artists, so it is possible to see them at work and examine their techniques in detail.
It is impossible to do justice to the huge British Library collection and please everyone, but I came away knowing more than I had when I went in and having enjoyed seeing original artwork, as well as the stories behind them. For me the point of the exhibition was to highlight the fact that comics can be used to get some powerful messages across and that they might be a useful, alternative way of examining social history. There was also the usual delight of ‘out of the box’ thinking that comes with a British Library exhibition.
If you do take a curator tour, then recognise that each curator is likely to provide a slightly different slant on the objects. With Adrian Edwards, the main message in his eloquent and enthusiastic tour was to enlighten us as to the sheer scale and variety of comic resources the British Library has to offer, and that he would be delighted if someone began to dig into them for research.
If you do want to go to the exhibition and want to orientate yourself before you go, the British Library have teamed up with Sequential for a free download for the period of the exhibition of a special magazine with excerpts from various comic artists within the themes.
The Exhibition finishes on 19 August, but there are still curator’s tours available on Thursday 14 August 13:00, Tuesday 19 August 13:00, Tuesday 19 August 18:30. The curator’s tours are certainly worth going on because they possess a considerable depth of knowledge about the exhibition and a great deal of passion for divulging the nuances of the objects. If you are not able to go on a tour the downloadable magazine is very useful and the iPads around the exhibition will allow you to read the sections of the magazine that accompanies the exhibition.