A Mancster down South: Comics Unmasked at the British Library. (3 of 4)

Let’s Talk About Sex.
This section looks at how changing attitudes towards sexual imagery in Britain has affected comics. This is the only part of the exhibition which has been separated from the others, which says something about current attitudes in itself.

William Hogarth’s engravings series A Harlot’s Progress (1732) present a sequential narrative in images and words showing the life of a woman in six images, from arriving in London from the countryside, becoming a prostitute and finally dying of a venereal disease. Previously I’d only heard of the male equivalent of this series, A Rake’s Progress. Perhaps the content of A Harlot’s Progress has made other museums and galleries less likely to display it.

Also on display are some 18th century pornographic books, showing what sort of erotic illustrations were being produced before comics on the subject were produced.  Bringing erotic illustration to a more mainstream audience was Aubrey Beardsley as part of the Victorian Aesthetic Movement. In his illustrations for Lysistrata (1896) he avoided drawing too much controversy due to the ancient Greek origin of the story lending “ancient credentials” to the work. The illustrations are exquisite, contrasting large areas of black with white and intricate detail with empty space; detailed fabrics meet delicately outlined human forms.



A more modern piece that caused plenty of controversy was a strip by Vivian Berger from underground magazine Oz in 1971. This comic combined edited images from American underground comics (or comix) artist Robert Crumb with text from Alfred Bestall’s Rupert Bear children’s books. Berger carefully replaced the character’s head from the Crumb original with that of Rupert to create a strip where Rupert has intercourse with an unconscious “Gipsy Granny”. Vivian Berger was only 15 at the time of creating the strip and so the brunt of the moral outrage and obscenity charges fell on the creators of Oz. In the end they were fined and given custodial sentences which were eventually quashed. Like no other subject, sex seems to cause more moral outrage than any other subject and laws remain in place to what level of erotic material can appear in magazines.

MUST SEE: Beardsley’s illustrations amaze me even now. They hold a sense of style and graphic
design far ahead of their time.

Hero with a Thousand Faces.
This section looks at heroes in British comics, an area where the differences to American comics are especially apparent. This is an expansive area with a home-like area built into it with plenty of nooks and crannies each holding items to be examined. The section introduction suggests a reason behind the love of an antihero in British comics might come from Victorian “penny dreadfuls”, such as the popularity of stories about Dick Turpin, a real-life highwayman.

One of the main homes for home-grown comic heroes in Britain has been 2000AD, its contributing writers reads like a who’s who of British talent; Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, all names that have cropped up repeatedly throughout this exhibition. Of course, Judge Dredd is on show again along with other 2000AD stars such as a beautiful original painting of Halo Jones (1987). The series created by writer Alan Moore and artist Ian Gibson aimed to show the life of the eponymous 50th century woman, not a super hero in anyway but just a regular person living in that time. Unlike many American female comic characters, there’s no attempt to overly sexualise the character but rather a focus on the merit of the story and detailed world-building which helped 2000AD “match European comics in science fiction and fantasy”.

With his new artwork adorning all of the exhibitions promotional material and covering the front of the British Library, it’d be impossible not to mention Jamie Hewlett and his creation Tank Girl. Another late 80’s comic heroine, Tank Girl was heavily influenced by Punk art and quickly gathered a following from those interested in alternative music and culture as well as feminists. The notes say that such works are evidence of the “brazen confidence” of British comics creators in the late 80s.


This confidence may be what allowed British talent to permeate the American industry in what was known as the “British Invasion” of the 1980s. Previously mentioned 2000AD writers Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman were recruited by DC comics for their unique take on comic writing. This had a long-standing effect on the company as they created their Vertigo line to house this new, more mature and experimental style of British storytelling and even abandoned the Comics Code.

There’s plenty of home grown Superhero genre comics on display in this section, though they often serve to subvert expectations built up by American Superhero comics, most famously with Moore’s Watchmen (1986). One of the best parts of this section is the sheer amount of original sketches, scripts and complete pages on display. One can only wonder what the some of the notes and diagrams mean, comprehensible only to the writer themselves such as the notebook for Dial H by China Miéville (2012).

MUST SEE: So many original sketches and notes allow you to peek behind the process behind
comics creation.


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


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