The British Library Does #ComicsUnmasked

Yesterday I took advantage of passing through London to take in the new Comics Unmasked exhibition at the British Library. I had actually been invited to the press launch, but I was in Finland at the time which put a stop to that piece of ligging. Besides, I’m happy to pay to see the exhibition if it encourages them to do more like it.

Talking of payment, the website makes it sound like you have to book in advance. However, demand for tickets doesn’t seem to be too intense, and I was able to rock up and buy a ticket for immediate entry.

Unlike the science fiction exhibition that the BL did, this even has a very specific focus. It is supposedly about political comics in the UK. Focus tends to be a good thing for museum exhibits, but in this case I’m not sure that it worked too well.

On the plus side, it did mean that lots of interesting material got in. I was, for example, pleased to see a copy of Lord Horror in there, though while it did mention the obscenity conviction it did not mention that David Britton went to prison as a result. I was also pleased to see Katie Green’s Lighter Than My Shadow and some work by the British-based Muslim comics creator, Asia Alfasi.

However, not everything got it. For example, the exhibition did have material from the Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia collection, but Spandex was conspicuous by its absence. More to the point, so much other stuff got left out.

The main problem seemed to be that, while politics was a focus, the exhibition also acknowledged that it has to talk about the history of comics, and about how they work. But the focus on British politics kept getting in the way of this.

Part of the effect of the focus meant that there was very little material from children’s comics. Lord Snooty merited a place because the comic was all about class, but The Bash Street Kids did not, nor did the entire output of Century 21. Dan Dare could not be ignored, but he had to be shoehorned in via his origins as a space force padre, and some brief comments about parallels between Dare’s solar system and the British Empire.

Historically I was pleased to see the exhibition date comics back at least as far as a 15th Century Biblia Pauperum. However, the exhibition wasn’t arranged historically, and in many cases in themed sections earlier material was presented later, which I found a bit confusing.

Towards the end there was also some material on how comics are created, including sample scripts of work by Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. There were times when the exhibition appeared to be All Alan Moore All the Time, but this was the only place where work by Neil appeared. I don’t think this is because they think Neil isn’t a political writer, but it may be that his politics tends to be fairly subtle, and there is so much in-your-face politics in comics that the subtle stuff can easily get crowded out.

Then again, some strange things did get in. There was a large section devoted to comics and magic, which included a huge spread from Promethea but was otherwise mainly an excuse for the BL to showcase its fine collection of work by Aleister Crowley and John Dee (including an alleged recording of Crowley chanting in Enochian).

There was also a carefully cordoned off section on comics and sex, which you could avoid if you were of a delicate disposition. There were some fairly hardcore comics in there, though mostly not open for viewing. The section also contained things like the George & Lynne strip from The Sun, which was supposedly about a young, middle-class couple but was mostly notable for the fact that Lynne had Very Big Boobies and never seemed to wear any clothes. I find it rather strange that something that was deemed suitable viewing for school-age me is now in an “adults only” exhibition.

Finally, as we have got onto gender issues, I note in passing that the exhibition space is littered with mannequins dressed as political protesters and wearing V for Vendetta masks. What Alan Moore thinks of that, I shudder to think. On close examination it is obvious that many of the mannequins are female. However, they are small-breasted (especially in comparison with comic-book women) and are all wearing androgynous outfits comprising jeans, t-shirts and hoodies, plus the undeniably male Guy Fawkes masks, and that makes it look like all of the figures are male. I found that rather off-putting.

Quibbles aside, however, I do want as many of you as possible to go and see the exhibition. It is a wonderful thing to happen, and is doubtless hugely irritating to all of the comics-haters out there. (The opening displays of the exhibition include a quote from Julie Burchill saying, “Comic books for adults is a complete contradiction in terms, as anyone who reads comics is not an adult and should have their voting rights removed ASAP”.) Also there is a lot of great material in there, some of which is very old, or very rare, or, like the “Burger Wars” story from Judge Dredd, unlikely to ever to be re-printed.

Update: James Bacon was at the launch and was therefore allowed to take photographs, so his report for FPI is much more detailed. The many photos include one of the “Burger Wars” splash page. He also has a shot of a remarkable suffragette poster that I suspect will horrify most modern social justice campaigners.

2 thoughts on “The British Library Does #ComicsUnmasked

  1. Did they have any (properly up-to-the-minute) modern comics there? Warren Ellis’ Moon Knight (or even his Transmet), for instance, or Kieron Gillen’s work (eg Three)?

    1. There’s a splash page of Kieron’s from Young Avengers in a small section about the development of comic art. I would have liked to see a lot more about art and process, but that didn’t really fit the theme. There’s probably a lot of Warren’s stuff in here, though the only one I remember for certain is a mention of Apollo & Midnighter in the LGb(t) section.

      I should note also that both Katie Green’s book and Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes by Bryan & Mary Talbot are fairly recent publications.

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