Review: Comics unmasked

Adam DC reviews a new exhibition at the British Library, Comics Unmasked, which illustrates how in a period of austerity and social degeneration, the politics of the comic is moving leftwards again.



Politics is an ever present theme from the very start of the British Library’s new exhibition, with the the ‘V’ (for Vendetta) mask from Alan Moore’s comic acting as a backdrop to the beginning of the show. At times the exhibition feels like stepping into an offline meeting of Anonymous.

Emphasis is placed on British comics, with the Libraries extensive collection of comics, pamphlets and graphic novels displayed alongside original work loaned from the likes of Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison and China Mieville.

Although comics have often been seen as an American form, the exhibition shows that British artists have often subverted and enhanced the genre, both through modern reinterpretations and new, groundbreaking work such as watchmen, Kick Ass and The Sandman. In British comics the American idiom is often turned on its head, making heroes into anti-hero’s, masked crusaders into a sadistic vigilantes, and classic cowboy-lawmen into an authoritarian gangsters. This is the trajectory of the British graphic novel and comic, but it’s not necessarily a new phenomenon.

The exhibition is full of historical artefacts which show the history of comics is longer and richer than one might first imagine. Included amongst the displays is a biblical story book from 1470 called Apocalypse, which depicts an angel battling a dragon.  The story is block printed with 2 frames a page and even speech boxes: a comic strip in all but name. There is also a copy of the Glasgow Looking Glass (1825), thought to be the first ever serialised comic book, as well as Tarot card designs of Aleister Crowley, and the arcane looking “Spell Book” from the reign of Elizabeth I.

The exhibition also tackles the darker history of comics, and challenges the idea that they are just for kids. Many of the comics on display explore themes such as sex, violence, race and drugs and the exhibition also considers the way comics have been attacked by the state in the past.

Diversity and Dissent

Displays of both pre and post war British comic strips give us a glimpse of how comics have changed and developed over the years. In earlier displays, black characters are often shown, if shown at all, as golliwogs, and in one strip even asking to be painted white. Women in comics were usually treated as secondary characters and rarely as heroes in their own right. Despite the efforts of women during the war they were still presented as domestic labour or sex objects, reinforcing the pre-war concepts of womanhood. Comic strips, like the rest of society, were not immune to the hegemony of the time. Despite the nascent liberation movements, by the 1960’s sexism, and racism were still very much an accepted currency in these ‘popular’ strips.

The Politics section of the exhibition is a tight space, apparently designed along the theme of the ‘corridors of power’. The subject matter of much of the exhibit, however, the politics of dissent, suggests a ‘kettled’ city square would be a more appropriate source of inspiration. The exhibit strides through the decades of pulp production and successfully juxtaposes themes across chronology, showing Punch magazine and satirical cartoons of the 19th century with modern graphic novels and comics of the 20th and 21st centuries.

It’s unfortunate that the exhibition is short on the political, often anarchist, underground magazines and publication of the 1960’s and 70’s which often used comics to get across political messages. Some of the more well known and iconic fanzines of the era are on display, including the infamous Rupert Bear strip, from Oz (#28: May 1970), an issue that was put mainly put together by adolescents between the ages of 14 and 18. The issue included a highly sexualised parody of the popular children’s character Rupert the Bear which led to “Oz” being taken to court and tried for obscenity. The work is accompanied by a previously unheard recording of the Oz trial itself.

By the 1970s the political upsurges of the previous decade, and the industrial and liberation struggles that were now in full swing, were starting to be felt in the pages of the fanzines and independent comic book publishers. There was a proliferation of material around the women’s movement which led to women and black characters starting to be seen as agents in their own right, with their own strips, appearing as heroes and not just the butt of racist or sexist jokes.

Nevertheless, this was still a time when the far right was on the march, and racism was still acceptable in the public imagination. One cabinet hosts a copy of “Bulldog”, the National Front’s youth magazine, with advice on how to deal with the police if arrested. Alongside it is Riot (1981), an explicit examination of the Brixton riots which tells the story of a police officer so disgusted with the police handling of the events that he resigns, refusing to give evidence against a black youth. The gritty slabbed black pen work in this comic/graphic novel is a testament to the hard story it tells. Alongside it lies an uncredited 1979 Anti Nazi League (ANL) comic “Action Pact”, telling the story of two school friends, one black, one white, who become superheroes and use the power of ‘truth’ to fight the “Lie Squad”.

There is a huge amount to see in the exhibition, and some of the other interesting displays include the Anti-apartheid comics smuggled into South Africa, which got past sensors because they were “just for kids”, and the Sex exhibit, which explores the launch of a number of women’s magazines and fanzines and shows how ideas of sexual permissiveness, erotica, sadomasochism, and bondage, are all present in the world of comics.

There is also an informative and expansive interactive collection, which can be viewed via numerous iPads around the exhibition, allowing you to go deeper into some of the works on display, sometimes digital copies of the whole comic being available to read. There is a fascinating film showing the artists in their studios, and an animation from Jamie Hewlett, Tank Girl and Gorillas fame, whose new Character “Lawless Nelly”, allegedly the mistress of Charles Dickens, graces the publicity for this pivotal exhibition for the Library.


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