On Saturday I went to the British Library’s Comics Unmasked: Art & Anarchy in the UK. It had its flaws, which I will come to, but the biggest flaw it highlights is that there has never before been such a large-scale exhibition on comics in the UK. Seriously? When the biggest blockbusters in Hollywood are powered by comic books, many of them heavily influenced by the revisionist approach of UK creators such as Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis and Mark Millar?
Then today I read Waldemar Januszczak’s demolition job in the Sunday Times. He couldn’t believe the British Library had devoted so much space to such a “lurid and misguided” exhibition. The only thing he could find to admire in the whole thing, I kid you not, was a speech bubble at the start with a quotation from professional controversialist Julie Burchill (gawd love ‘er): “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.”
He picks holes in the scholarship: a) The exhibition opens with Punch who, as any fule kno, sprang from commedia dell’arte rather than comics. Does he seriously imagine co-curators Paul Gravett and John Harris Dunning are unaware of this? The point is that it sets the tone for the “Art and Anarchy” sub-line, as well as referencing the graphic novel by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, who art-directed the exhibition. b) The catalogue, Januszczak complains, “describes Sergeant (sic) Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as ‘the album that kicked off the ‘Swinging ’60s’, even though it came out in 1967”. That’s not too far off: the ‘60s only become known as swinging half-way through, and Sgt. Pepper’s was a defining moment. It’s certainly not worth point-scoring over.
More foolishly, Januszczak pillories the exhibition for its focus on Alan Moore, “who gets more namechecks here than Popeye had cans of spinach”, which is as ludicrous and, frankly, embarrassing a criticism as if the Sunday Times’s theatre critic had lamented that there were far too many productions of Shakespeare being staged.
Januszczak does hit on a couple of genuine problems. To pick a single spread from a comic, and mount it in a glass case, is like showing two seconds from a film: those unfamiliar with the comic will get little idea of why it is exceptional; and the brief accompanying captions are unequal to the task of explaining it. [Though that’s why iPads are also provided with complete comics loaded, albeit an unexceptional selection.]
And organising the exhibition thematically into sections such as sex, politics, society and altered states (I paraphrase their more elegant titles; see below) does work well on its own terms, but may leave comics neophytes such as Januszczak wanting a more explanatory overview.
But these are small criticisms. The curators have dug up a wealth of content, sourcing original artwork and scripts from comics creators, and delving into the British Library’s archive to uncover historical gems such as a Biblia Pauperum (poor person’s bible) from 1470 with an illustrated account of the Book of Revelations; a contemporary knock-off copy of Hogarth’s The Harlot’s Progress with several panels on a single page, as a comic book might have; or serialised illustrated stories from the Glasgow Looking Glass in 1825, which Gravett says could be seen as the first true comic. And the whole thing is beautifully put together by Dave McKean, with a strikingly simple and clever 3D opening which I won’t spoil for you.
As Neil Gaiman said to me when I interviewed him for a feature in Where London magazine about Comics Unmasked, “When I was a young man I talked them into giving me a British Library Card so I could read rare books. It came in handy when Alan Moore needed a researcher on From Hell. The idea that one day the comics we were writing would be exhibited and displayed there, the idea that they would look up and realise and acknowledge that something unique had happened, was a pipe-dream of some far-off utopia. It’s a wonderful feeling.”
If you want to know more about the exhibition, I also interviewed co-curator Paul Gravett (left) for the Where London feature. Some details will have changed since we spoke, a few weeks back, but these are the highlights of each section, in his own words:
Mirth and Mayhem: “This looks at the links between slapstick comedy and dark, nasty violence. Obviously that includes British humour comics like The Beano, and more recently Preacher. But it also goes back to the 50s, when there were a lot of scare stories about comics. Ironically, one of the campaigners against them was the Communist Party, who had their own reasons for not liking ‘capitalist’ American superheroes, but a lot of edgy, counter-cultural stuff got caught up in that too.”
To See Ourselves: “This is comics as a mirror – possibly a distorted, funhouse mirror – in which British society is reflected. We explore recent developments in autobiography: Spiral Cage, by Al Davison, about his lifelong struggle with spina bifida; Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry’s semi-autobiographical comic about a kid who cross-dresses; and The Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes by Mary and Bryan Talbot, which won the 2012 Costa biography award.”
Politics, Power and The People: “This starts with how leaders are depicted. It includes Tony & Me By Georg Bush, As Told to Dr Parsons, which is drawn like a five-year-old and full of spelling errors; a very funny satire of that ‘special relationship’. There are two very interesting comics dealing with racism: one from the Young National Front, which explains to members what to do if they get into trouble with the police; and on the other side the Anti-Nazi League, whose Action Pact comic features a white guy and a black guy who get superpowers and defeat the National Front dressed in Ku Klux Klan outfits. We end with V for Vendetta and the way its Guy Fawkes mask has become such a potent symbol for the Occupy movement.”
Let’s Talk About Sex: “This covers erotica right up to Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s Lost Girls, in which a grown-up Wendy from Peter Pan, Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz and Alice from Wonderland get up to all sorts of sexual discovery in a mountain resort on the eve of World War I. It also covers the two big obscenity trials of the ‘70s: of Oz magazine and Nasty Tales. The exhibition is not recommended for under-16s, and this section is slightly separate and clearly indicated so that parents can take any kids straight past to the superhero section.”
Hero With A Thousand Faces: “We could so easily have turned this into a superhero theme park, but its main focus is to look at the enormous impact of UK creators on American comics: writers such as Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, and Mark ‘Kick Ass’ Millar. As outsiders, they were able to challenge the conventions of the genre.”
Breakdowns: “This is quite a complex section that covers magic and drugs and altered states. Alan Moore and Grant Morrison both use magic to help in the creative process. We have John Dee’s book of spells, Aleister Crowley’s Tarot cards, Moore’s Promethea comics, and the underground comics of the ‘70s. We’re also not just talking about altered states of mind, here, but the altered state of comics – going into digital, or installations. Throughout the exhibition we provide iPads on which to view comics, and here we have a whole section on Jamie Hewlett’s cartoon music group Gorillaz. You really could spend the whole day in here!”