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.
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.
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.
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.
There’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.
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.