Visiting Comics Unmasked: Art And Anarchy In The UK

It took me a long time to visit the exhibition at the British Library, mainly because it was happening while I was in the process of moving house (and it was a complex and fraught move, but you don’t need to hear about that …), so I felt there was no rush to share my thoughts. Another reason was the fact that I wasn’t blown away by the exhibit, and I didn’t want to be vocally negative about a very public comic-book-related event – it seems a little churlish of me when I love comic books so much and everyone else seemed to love it.

The best thing about Comics Unmasked is that it existed – there was an exhibition devoted to comic books in the British Library; how great is that? It wasn’t a pseudo-exhibit with a tenuous link: it was all about comic books in all their forms, and that is nothing to be sneezed at. I went near the end of the run when they had to extend the opening hours to the early evening to accommodate everybody who wanted to visit – I arrived at 6pm and stayed for the full 2 hours until throwing-out time, and the place was packed. There are lots of things to do in London in the summer, so it’s an impressive achievement.

As you entered the exhibition, on the walls there were quotes from famous people about comic books (Julie Burchill, Salvador Dali, Alan Moore), providing the first indicator that this is taking the topic seriously. The first section was about Mischief And Mayhem – going back to Mr Punch from the late 1800s and coming to the present with Biffa Bacon from Viz – followed by Not Suitable For Children, which had a selection of comic books (which are, in the public eye, aimed only at kids) that made the adults who didn’t get it think that somebody should think about the children, such as Action! and Tales From The Crypt. There was a section on religious comic books – there was an old Bible which had images to help tell the story, and the modern examples included Troubled Souls and Preacher.

To See Ourselves displayed comics books that reflected humanity in all its forms, looking at the class system, such as an old Victorian Christmas comic strip, Lord Snooty and A Small Killing; there were books that focussed on women and minorities (including Crisis, a Muslim manga and Al Davidson’s Spiral Cage). There was a large section devoted to Politics (there were lots of mannequins around the exhibition, dressed in hoodies and jeans but with V For Vendetta masks on their faces – it was rather creepy, truth be told), all about satire, finance, poverty, suffragettes, homophobia, racism, nuclear war, so the books included When The Wind Blows, some pages of Alan Moore’s script for V For Vendetta, and even the Judge Dredd story Burger War). It was a very good display of the way that comic books can tackle any subject and will do it readily.

There was closed-off section devoted to Sex: the infamous page about Rupert the Bear from Oz magazine and the obscenity trial, pages from Lost Girls, comic books about gay sex, SDBM, early erotica, explanations of AIDS. There weren’t quite as many books as in the politics section, but it made up for it in intensity. The section, Hero With A 1000 Faces, was filled with pages of lots of different characters from 2000AD (Dredd, Slaine, Zenith, Halo Jones, Zenith) and pages from the work of British creators on other characters (Dan Dare, Batman, Superman, Watchmen, The Authority, Kick-Ass, Marshall Law), i.e. the famous stuff that most of the public would know and the comic book geeks would want.

The final section, called Breakdowns, was devoted to magic (artwork from Promethea, pages of John Dee’s book in Enochian, stuff on Aleister Crowley) and altered perception (artwork from Batman: Arkham Asylum, Animal Man with Morrison in the book, Rogan Josh, Hellblazer, Swamp Thing, The Sandman – an excuse to show Gaiman’s script for The Sandman #28 and rough mock-up of The Sandman #21 drawn by Gaiman). It seemed a strange way to finish the exhibition, but it did leave a lasting impression.

In addition to the exhibits, there were also tablets dotted around which had a variety of comic books on them (Zenith, Dotter Of My Father’s Eyes, Slaine, Judge Anderson), if you wanted to spend some more time investigating some of the exhibits. Personally, I didn’t want to sit around reading comics because of the fact that it was too chilly to stop moving – the exhibition was in the downstairs area, with no windows and strong air-conditioning. The lighting wasn’t particularly great – viewing the pages of artwork behind the glass cases, you had to view it at the right angle or the reflection would obscure your vision, making it hard to read the comics, and the shadows created by the light would fall on the explanatory text. I still enjoyed my two hours in the British Library and the fact that there was this huge display of comic book pages, but I wouldn’t have recommended it if I’d seen it earlier in the exhibition’s run.

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