A Mancster down South: Comics Unmasked at the British Library. (Part 1 of 4)

“Comics”, it’s an awkward word that means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. The British Library has taken the very open definition of “storytelling in sequential pictures” to show a wide variety of pieces dating back hundreds of years up to the present day, covering a huge number of subjects and media. It seems their aim is to show that the comics medium is open to any sort of storytelling for any audience, to challenge preconceptions of what a comic actually is and show that it’s an artform worth discussion. With everything from comical mischief to graphic violence, everything is on display in what is likely the largest and most in-depth exhibition of British comics ever.

Upon entering the exhibition it is clear there’s a skilled art director behind the scenes, who I later found out to be Dave McKean, an artist famous for his collage and mixed media work in comics (Arkham Asylum, Sandman). Here he lays out a collage of speech bubble mounted quotes, audio recordings and video to support the printed books and original pieces on display. The way the comics are displayed on pedestals in grass cabinets lends a sense of respect to the items on display, the message being that they’re just as valuable and essential as any other art form.

Each book, magazine, engraving and photo is accompanied by an informative placard which succinctly explains the piece’s origins, meaning and context in the wider narrative of the exhibition. It comes as no surprise that Paul Gravett, one of the leading names in comic history and analysis contributed to these excellent and informative descriptions.

Rather than try and force one linear chronological timeline through British comics, the exhibition is grouped into six loosely themed areas. One admirable thing I noticed is that even though the curators will have had messages they’d like to put across, they show several sides to the discussion in each section, never forcing an opinion upon the viewer but allowing them to draw their own conclusions from the material on display.

And there is an awful lot on display! I spent a whole three hours in the exhibition and I still feel I missed half of it. I’m going to break down this report into the six exhibition sections which will be published over several days. There was a no photography policy inside the exhibition so I made sketches of interesting items in each section to illustrate this report. Hopefully, if you choose to go to the exhibition, this breakdown will leave you well prepared!

Mischief and Mayhem.
This first section ranges from comedy and slapstick to serious violence and controversy. It begins by looking at the magazine Punch, with an original copy of the 1841 edition on display. Starring the pantomime puppet Mr. Punch this magazine featured satirical cartoons and “comic” violence. Side by side with the 1840’s magazine is the 1994 graphic novel Tragical Comedy  by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean. Here the exhibitors have provided a lineage from comics as comical magazines to the more serious, adult-oriented graphic novels of today in just two examples. This neat solution to showing the evolution of the comics medium in Britain in small cross-sections is repeated throughout the exhibition and probably works better than if they had tried to cover the whole history of comics in one go.

A more serious side to violence in comics is shown across the room with The Illustrated Police News (1864), an illustrated newspaper depicting some of the most brutal crimes of its time. Fast forward to 1976 and we have Action, a comic magazine for boys. Pages on display include Hookjaw the shark biting people to shreds and a post-apocalyptic youth wielding a chain over a fallen man in Kids Rule OK! On this display it mentions the controversy caused by American horror and crime comics caused and the resulting Comics Code Authority being formed to regulate comics in America.  Even though there was some unrest here, looking at the pages of the British Action produced not too long after, you may suspect that the true problem wasn’t the violence, but as the display suggests, anti-American sentiment and Communist groups, an interesting angle I’d never considered before.

Finally, a third display looks at the intersection between violence, comics and religion. Here was one of the most fascinating pieces in the whole collection to me, a Biblia Pauperum from 1470. With panels, captions, speech boxes and sequential images of angels slaying dragons, this Bible is surely the oldest example of a comic in the exhibition. Image

Putting all these other examples in the same section as Punch highlights one of the medium’s problems; with the name “comics” coming from such childish, comical strips there can still be confusion (and outrage) when a comic neither intended for children nor comical in any way is seen out of context or in the wrong hands.

MUST SEE: The Biblia Pauperum is a fascinating, ancient piece of work that may challenge what you would consider a comic.


“Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK” is open at the British Library from 2nd May to 19th August.

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