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Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK
August 13, 2014
The British Library in King’s Cross is currently home to ‘Comics Unmasked – Art and Anarchy in the UK’; the UK’s largest ever comic book exhibition. To mark the closing weekend of the exhibition this weekend, the Library will host the annual Comica festival with Bryan Lee O’Malley, creator of Scott Pilgrim, and Pat Mills, creator of 2000AD, to name but a few.
As you descend into the exhibition room, just inside the main entrance, you are faced with a sight familiar to all of us who grew up in the UK; Mr. Punch. The jester puppet of Punch and Judy fame, often seen whacking a crocodile with a slapstick, is given the honour of setting the tone for the room. Alongside an actual Punch puppet there is a collection of comics starring the deranged, squawking wife beater.
However, opposite the Punch exhibit is one that I saw many people walking past without taking any notice, which was a true shame. A two-page example of what I have found to be a highly entertaining body of work, the exhibit for The Zoom! comics is refreshingly light hearted against the harsher tone of Punch. Written and illustrated by then-8-year-old Zoom Rockman (what else did his parents think he was going to do when they named him that?), the titles on display are; $kambo, a comic about a little boy who pushes his luck to get out of school and make money; and Hornsey Hills Cop, about an American cop who moves to a London suburb and, out of boredom or stupidity, arrests a number of people for petty misdemeanours with overdramatic gusto. Both show an inert talent for cheeky humour and an obvious grasp of how to draw comics, but where Hornsey Hills Cop feels like a very young mind, still trying to find its feet (albeit with great potential), $kambo shows wisdom and ideas beyond the artist’s years, with amazing attention to detail (look out for the ‘Dell Boy’ laptop).
The exhibition then moves on to show some early examples of storytelling pictures in the bible (circa 1470) and to show their use in social commentary – making fun of people from different classes and backgrounds, showing Victorian-era comics that, during a period of time when the lower classes may not have been able to read, were able to be appreciated by everybody.
Other issues that the medium has been used to tackle are those of gender and race equality. The comic Mandy, Mops & Cubby and the Whitewash, published in 1955,was the first British newspaper comic strip to be both written and illustrated by women (Enid Blyton and Dorothy M. Wheeler respectively), however the subject matter is horrendously racist, with the black character Mops asking to have his face painted white in order to look beautiful: a decision made by prejudiced white publishers.
All in all, the overarching theme of the exhibition is that of the anti-hero. The V for Vendetta mannequins that loiter about the hall embody this rather effectively and comics on display such as From Hell, Hook Jaw and Preacher tell a story of how gore and violence can be adored and abhorred in equal measure by the same society, with some comics being banned from UK shops, or altered to show less blood. It’s also a commentary on how society is (d)evolving that these harsh images are slowly trickling their way into mass media, with the obvious example of The Walking Dead comics getting a major television programme, with news that the hard-hitting supernatural exploits of Preacher will be coming to screens in early- to mid-2015.
Further examples of the anti-hero, or perhaps more accurately in this case, of sticking it to the man, come in the form of V for Vendetta. Alongside the Guy Fawkes-mask wearing mannequins that populate the hall, there is a copy of the graphic novel itself, next to which is a quote from David Lloyd (who created the novel, along with Alan Moore) that reads; ‘It would give Guy Fawkes the image he’s deserved all these years. We shouldn’t burn the chap every November 5th but celebrate his attempt to blow up parliament!’ and that certainly seems to ring true with the general theme that can be felt throughout the exhibition.
Of course, no study of comic books would be complete without the tour coveringing superheroes which, for many, is possibly the first thing that springs to mind when the word ‘comic’ is uttered, given the saturation of comic book properties into film, television and games. There’s an issue of Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future from 1951 and alongside Judge Dredd: The Complete America (2003) is the helmet worn by Karl Urban in the 2012 film Dredd (personal Nerdgasm) followed by a copy of Kick-Ass, alongside some nice original storyboards and a copy of Watchmen alongside an original, hand-scrawled notebook. These touches really give you a feel for the creative process behind the comics and, if you’re like me, a deeper appreciation for them.
Words by Christopher Canaway.
Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK is showing at The British Library until 19th August 2014. For more information go to – bl.uk/whatson/exhibitions/comics-unmasked