Tag Archives: Comics

Comics at the British Library

Action 1976-77, by Jack Adrian and Mike White. Action, used with permission from Egmont UK Ltd.

The British Library’s current exhibition, Comics Unmasked: Art And Anarchy In The UK is one of their best for a while. A thematic study of seditious comics in the UK, it covers a lot of ground without over-cramming – a consistent fault of BL exhibitions to date. And while exhibitions devoted to books can get a little frustrating – essentially, you are staring at hundreds of book covers you cannot read – comics work perfectly as you can read a single page and at a glance grasp an awful lot about the concept from the artwork and a couple of panels, such as this from Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s London classic From Hell.

From Hell, by Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell published by Knockabout Ltd. 1999 (c) Knockabout

Another plus is that the exhibition never makes excuses for its content matter so we are spared yet another analysis of why comics are for grown-ups. Instead it shows that comics have always been for grown-ups, right back to George Cruikshank (whose work is presented in a tremendous juxtaposition with an OZ strip about Edward Heath). The exhibition also takes a bold step by looking at the historical inspirations for comics writers’ love of magic and fantasy, with exhibits including John Dee’s spell book, the first draft of Crowley’s Diary Of A Drug Fiend and one of his tarot cards. These items are somewhat tenuous, but they are also marvellous and suggest an area a future BL exhibition could explore.

Original painting of Aleister Crowleys tarot card 'The Universe', on loan from The Warburg Institute. Photography (c) Tony Antoniou

There are several items with particular London resonance or import. I was fascinated by Riot, a book written in the immediate aftermath of the 1981 Brixton riot about which I’d love to know more. I also enjoyed the juxtaposition of Batman with Spring-Heeled Jack. There were also several contemporary strips, including Janette Parris’s Arch, about life in Archway, and Katriona Chapman’s contribution to Ink + Paper about renting in modern London. Oh, and there was a comic written by William Burroughs during his London sojourn.

Riot

Riot

Spring-Heeled Jack

Spring-Heeled Jack

IMG_2515

Other countercultural exhibits included a beautifully bound copy of IT, with the cover a reprint of a Situationist comic the publishers had found stuck on their office door (or a lamppost, I forget which) and a comic about the Nasty Tales trial, the IT spin off that was charged with obscenity.

The Trials of Nasty Tales, 1973, cover art (c) Dave Gibbons and Richard AdamsThere’s also loads of stuff on Batman and Superman, with particular reference to the work of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, while Moore’s Lond0n-set V For Vendetta is a recurring motif. And there’s a decent amount of 2001, including Judge Dredd’s helmet and a never-reprinted Judge Dredd strip about a war between fans of Burger King and fans of McDonald’s – featuring a psychotic Ronald McDonald – that has never been reprinted for fear of a law suit. I also learned that tedious busybody Dan Dare of the Eagle had originally been created as an intergalactic space vicar, which probably explains why I never much liked the man.

Judge Dredd's helmet loaned by DNA Films - producers of 'Dredd'. Photography (c) Tony Antoniou

Now do you want to hear the flaws? There were only three I really noticed. One was the design, which was never quite as weird and psychedelic as I’d have liked (though that may be why I am not an exhibition designer). Another was that there wasn’t enough about the artists, who while by no means neglected were never quite given the attention and praise they deserve. And finally I’d like to have seen more about the development of the grammar and rules of comic book art – how artists have torn up the traditional episodic, thought-and-speech-bubble panel-based framework – which was addressed only superficially towards the end. These though, are little more than quibbles. Go see.

V for Vendetta mask on a manequin in Comics Unmasked. Photography (c) Tony Antoniou

 

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To the library! For comix!

When I was a kid I used to pretend to be ill so I could bunk off school and go to the library. That’s how square I was. I’d feign illness, then nip down to Cheam Library to choose books, before coming home to eat cheese on toast, lounge on the beanbag and read. Boy, was I a devil.

That’s pretty much my ideal day still, and so it’s no coincidence that since turning freelance – which is basically licenced truancy – I have rediscovered my love for the library. Let’s just take a minute to appreciate what a wonderful concept this is: a huge building where you can borrow thousands of books for free, or just hang around avoiding the tramps and reading periodicals.

It’s particularly useful because I have also rediscovered my love for comics. As a teenager, I subscribed at various times to Transformers, Roy of the Rovers and 2000AD but put these childish things away when I was 16 and thought I should be reading NME and Camus, even though I really preferred Rogue Trooper to The Plague and The Lemonheads.

I’ve often wanted to get back into comics and picked up the odd book from the rejects pile at Time Out, but balked at paying £15 for something that I could get through in a couple of hours – if I want shitty value for my entertainment I’d go to the cinema. 

Which is where the library comes in handy. I can nip down there once a week and pick up five new books without paying a penny. Brixton Library has a pretty decent selection of comics, and I have a lot of catching up to do, so it’ll keep me happy for a few months yet. Although I wish they’d get in a complete set of The Invisibles.

So here’s the best of what I’ve been reading: V for Vendetta, Swamp Thing, Y: The Last Man On Earth, Superman: Red Son, Batman: The Killing Joke, Batman: The Dark Knight, Batman: Face To Face, Slade, JLA: The New Frontier, Tamara Drewe, Gemma Bovery, Greyshirt, Crisis On Infinite Earths and Preacher.

Most of these are great. Gemma Bovery and Tamara Drewe are wonderfully subtle English middlebrow lit classics – and far preferable as such to, say, Ian McEwan.  Greyshirt is a wildly smart genre spoof that reminded me of the best of the Coen brothers. JLA: The New Frontier was wonderful nostalgia. And anything involving Batman is always going to be great. Well, apart from all of the films.

Then there’s Preacher, which is one of the lewdest, sickest, smartest, weirdest, funniest, scariest and most brilliantly written, drawn and dramatised pieces of art I have seen in any form for years.

When one of my friends found out I was reading comics again, she accused me of reading ‘tosh’. I suppose it is, but only to the extent that most fiction – be it radio, cinema, TV and novels – is ‘tosh’. And some of it is very far from tosh indeed. Equally, I’ve been surprised how many people I know have also turned out to be fans of comics, quietly chipping in with recommendations and suggestions when I’ve mentioned my regained love. And it is love. How could it not be with something as beautiful as this?