Breakdowns: The Outer Limits of Comics.
This section focusses on something I’ve never really considered; the role of magic in British comics. With some of the biggest names in the industry being practising magicians it makes sense though. A lineage from opiate use in Victorian dream comics, to astral-horror writer Lovecraft to modern day comics writers like Alan Moore is presented, providing a timeline of altered states being studied in fiction. To finish off the exhibition, the future of comics and crossovers into other media are also looked at.
To start the section is one particularly disturbing comic by Percy Cruikshank titled Dolly’s Revenge (1884). The availability and relative acceptance of opiate use at the time resulted in many dreamlike / nightmarish comics such as this one which depicts a young girl being tormented by her mistreated doll which stuffs her inside a dolls house and even hammers nails into her head.
The previously mentioned British Invasion is noticeable in several pieces in this section such as Arkham Asylum (1989) by Grant Morrison (another magician) and Dave McKean. This story is different from most Batman tales in that it focusses on psychology, mysticism, dreamlike states and is packed with symbolism rather than concentrating on my physical struggles. A copy of the book is open on a page featuring Thoth Tarot card designs by British occultist Aleister Crowley. Nearby is an original painting of one of the cards featured in the book, painted by Frieda Harris under Crowley’s instruction.
Another “British Invasion” piece is Sandman by Neil Gaiman, which was originally published by the American DC comics. Again, this story isn’t so concerned with physical struggle and action but with exploring themes such as memory, shared mythology and dreams through the god-like protagonist Morpheus, an anthropomorphic embodiment of the concept of dreams. Even though Gaiman only writes the scripts you can see his passion and vision for the finished product explicitly through one of the preparatory pieces on display. Here he has created a complete mock-up of the finished comic book of Seasons of Mist (1992), with both text and rough sketches of how he envisioned the completed book to look right down to the front cover.
Finally, coming to the end of the exhibition are examples of how comics have influenced other media and vice versa. There are clips playing from the critically acclaimed Arkham Asylum video game series, which draws on a wide range of comic sources, including the 1989 graphic novel. Musician Alexander Tucker’s explorations into comics are on display showing how he has tried to take the feelings usually expressed musically and present them visually. One of the last things you see as you leave is a montage video of Jamie Hewlett’s “virtual band” Gorillaz co-created with Damon Albarn of Blur fame. Hewlett’s experience in comics allowed him to create a highly lucrative project where fictional musicians take on their own personalities and tell a story in a different way.
MUST SEE: If like some of the greatest British comics writers, you believe in magic, then the original
painting of Crowley’s tarot card is surely imbued with some.
That concludes my look at the expansive Comics Unmasked exhibition! If the sheer length of this piece hasn’t told you yet, it’s an enormous show with far more than I could sensibly mention here. It is masterfully laid out and annotated, making it suitable for those who know nothing about comics to hard core fans. Regardless of which camp you may belong to, there’s plenty on show that will be new and informative to you with many rare items you might never see in real life again once the exhibition closes!
“Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK” is open at the British Library from 2nd May to 19th August.