A Mancster down South: Comics Unmasked at the British Library. (2 of 4)

To See Ourselves.
This section looks at how all sorts of different people have been represented in comics, whether we’re talking about race, gender or disability. It also looks at how people represent themselves in autobiographical works.

One of the first examples in the section on race is a strip written by children’s author Enid Blyton with a shocking example of what sort of racism was deemed acceptable and printable in 1955. In it a caricatured Black character requests he be whitewashed in order to be beautiful.


For a more recent example, Beginnings by Asia Alfasi is on display. Here we have a comic about a Libyan/British Muslim written and drawn by a Libyan/British Muslim, which of course, goes some way to avoiding racist stereotypes of the group in question. What’s interesting to note is that it’s drawn in a Manga style as Japanese cartoons where the only ones she saw in Libya, only later discovering which country they actually came from.

The subject of women in comics seems to be a hot topic recently, whether we’re talking about characters or creators. Again, the display traces a lineage starting with an example that might not be so well accepted today. In the Andy Capp newspaper strip (1958, Reg Smythe), domestic violence against women is treated in a comical manner. We then see how self-publishing from the 1970s up until the web comics of today have given a voice to those who might not have in traditional publishing. The brightly coloured cover of Heröine (1978, Suzy Varty) shows an example of such a small-press production and is thought to be the first women’s comics magazine in Britain.

The section ends with examples of autobiographical comics. I’m my own research I’ve been finding that comics are incredibly well suited to biographical work, the ability to both show and tell the audience about your experiences is enhanced by the medium’s static, visual nature.
I was a Jap slave (Adventure Comics, 1950s) is an intense recollection by an anonymous British soldier kept prisoner by the Japanese in World War II. Apparently this story deeply affected comics artist Bryan Talbot as a child when he found it in a children’s comics anthology! One of his own biographical works; Dotter of her father’s eyes (2012) which he co-created with his wife Mary Talbot is also on display nearby. Perhaps the depictions Mary’s and Lucia Joyce’s trauma in this book were influenced in some way by this early influence in his life?
A story that uses comic’s unique features to its advantage is Straitgate by John Smith and Sean Phillips (printed in Crisis #50-#53). Telling the tale of the protagonist’s life with paranoid schizophrenia is possible in comics through the contradictions possible between what is written in text and what is shown in pictures.
Finally, the idea of “graphic medicine” is brought up. In Lighter than my shadow, Katie Green uses her graphic novel autobiography to visualise her anorexia. Books such as this aren’t just stories to be read but can help people understand what having such an illness is like and to help other sufferers feel less isolated and understand their condition better.

MUST SEE: The Enid Blyton comic provides a shocking reminder of what was acceptable to give to
children not so long ago.

Politics: Power and the People.
Whether they’re purpose made for delivering political messages or themes weaved into a larger narrative, this section shows how today’s political comics have evolved from Britain’s long tradition of satire in comics.
Beginning the story is the Glasgow Looking Glass by William Heath from 1825, which is thought to be the first mass-produced comic and a precursor to modern comic magazines. Heath’s satirical strips poked fun at Scottish politics, current events and fashions of the time, becoming so popular it was renamed the Northern Looking Glass after just five issues.

While comics have developed into mass-produced magazines over the years, artists like Dave McKean continue to experiment with that a comic can be with his painting/sculpture, Black Holes. The piece uses four canvases to form panels and the text is overlaid on top with a sheet of glass. Four dirty, wrapped syringes further convey the message of the Chinese government’s failure to tackle AIDS in the country. The text was supplied by a man from a village in China plagued by the disease who had to remain anonymous for fear of the repercussions otherwise.

Crisis (1989) was a spin-off of the long standing British comic publication 2000AD. It was an experiment by the publishers to see if a politically aware comic magazine had a market in Britain. It showcased stories such as Third World War, by Pat Mills and Carlos Ezquerra which looked at how global capitalism may affect the developing world. Interestingly, comic’s reputation as children’s fare allowed Crisis to slip under the radar in South Africa during apartheid, spreading challenging ideas that may otherwise have been censored.

On the topic of 2000AD, there’s a wonderful rare gem on show here. In Judge Dredd, Battle of the Burger Barons (1978) the famous British anti hero is caught in a battle between two rival cities that have grown around fast-food giants McDonalds and Burger King. This story is a tongue-in-cheek critique of the dangers of unchecked corporate rivalry. For obvious reasons, the publishers decided never to reprint this story due to copyright concerns and so it’s very hard to get hold of. As I was stood nearby I heard two other people discussing it, “Yeah it got cut, I always wanted to see it”. For Judge Dredd fans it’s a real treat to see this original comic on display… if only we could look inside!


Presenting another side to the usage of comics for political agendas, there’s a page entitled “White Youth – Know your rights!”  from Bulldog in 1981, a magazine linked to the far-right National Front party. This piece uses comic’s ability to clearly communicate ideas to advise young people involved in National Front protests and activities how to avoid and get out of trouble with the police. Though some may protest to such material being on display I think it’s correct that the British Library chose to show all the different ways the medium has been used, whether for right or wrong, to provide a balanced view of comic history.

MUST SEE: An incredibly rare copy of 2000AD featuring the Judge Dredd Burger Baron story.
An original page from Alan Moore & David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta clearly shows the pre
computer comic making process with pasted on speech and whited out areas.


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


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