I visited the Comics Unmasked exhibition running at The British Library recently.
Please go here to The Comics Grid and see what I wrote about it.
"This exhibition is incredibly well thought out. It was designed to appeal to afficionados and those with more of a passing interest. The wording throughout reflect this, starting with the title. Superheroes must be contended with, and so masks are mentioned. But they are “Unmasked” – cleverly having the superhero cake, and refusing to eat it.
The emphasis is on British comics, and comics with a rebellious, political or somehow “edgy” aspect. Many of the comics still pack a punch, despite decades having gone by. For example, Andy Capp’s vision of domestic abuse with the line “Look at it this way, hon, I’m a man of few pleasures, and one of them ‘appens to be knockin yer about.” “I was a Jap Slave” from a 1950s Adventure Comics annual was very powerful, especially in that context. I read the first two pages and wanted to read more.
There were more widely known names being confirmed as part of the UK comics tradition, including Grayson Perry and Raymond Briggs. There are many comics affiliated items here too: a quite eerie ventriloquist’s dummy of Ally Sloper, loaned by Roger Sabin. I don’t know how he sleeps with that thing in the house. It was good to see Oor Wullie mentioned as “a gentle dreamer and local hero in Dundee, his dialogue in strong Scots”.
Black Holes by Dave McKean was a sudden departure from the mass produced nature of the other comics. Four paintings in a frame with syringes, and writing on the glass, giving a 3D effect. Loaned by the artist, this was definitely an art piece.
V For Vendetta has a notable presence in the exhibit. A wise decision, as it has the recognisability of the mask having reached out to the general public through its appropriation by protest groups such as Occupy. It’s also a very highly regarded book in itself. There was a page of script and corresponding original art page, as well as about 18 masked mannequins. An atmospheric soundtrack played on a loop with chanting, what sounded liked sound effects from the 1970s Invasion of the Body Snatchers movie, police sirens, Alan Moore’s voice with echo on, and more. Too much more. It became distracting to me as I tried to take in the work surrounding it.
There was a table for drawing (I couldn’t resist doodling a Fred Egg Comics logo), a large video screen, showing artists drawing and a wall of process work.
Sex comics are in their own slightly sectioned off area, illuminated by red light. Aubrey Beardsley’s exquisite art had a big influence on Lost Girls, and they were placed together here. I couldn’t help but find Oliver Frey’s Rogue from Him International slightly jarring. I hadn’t seen any of this work before, and primarily associate Frey with Dan Dare. The work leads up to a sort of crisis point around 1973 and the Oz schoolkids issue, with its Rupert the Bear/Robert Crumb mash-up comic (which still makes an impact decades later). After, the exhibition moves to the 1980s and proactive benefit comics such as Strip Aids and Knockabout Comics Anthology 4 – “the obscene issue”. Then it came up to date with work by Hunt Emerson, Sacha Mardou, and others.
The exhibition didn’t ignore superheroes completely of course, as they are a significant part of British comic history. But the ambivalent attitude to superheroes was attested to once again with the quote at the introduction the their dedicated section; Jodorowsky stating “Kill superheroes! Tell your own dreams!” British heroes included Dick Turpin, Dan Dare, Judge Dredd, Slaine, Halo Jones, Tank Girl Zenith, New Statesmen and more. Then it was British creators’ contributions to US comics, under the title “Born in the USA?”; Pencil and blue pencil art by Frank Quietly for All-Star Superman 1, with interesting notes showing some of the artist’s thinking. Superman’s expression is mirroring his thoughts: “Oh hi, come in”, and his eyebrows are doodled, presumably ahead of the drawing being done.
By an original page and copy of the script was a caption stating “Watchmen is one of the most important graphic novels in any genre.” These words have again been chosen very carefully. I can imagine some people twisting themselves in knots trying to unpack that sentence.
From Arkham Asylum, there was a sheet of paper by Grant Morrison of ideas for each page of the comic, ranging from one to five words for each page. The Joker mask by Dave McKean was also on display.
There was a Sandman script – on loan from Gaiman, which looked brand new. Either it was printed off just prior to handing to the library, or he looks after them extremely well. There was not one bend on those pages. Interestingly, Gaiman had made a mock-up of the whole issue for artist Jill Thompson. It resembled a very rough scribbled minicomic.
She Lives by Woodrow Phoenix is a massive comic with square metre pages of original art. I had a unique experience viewing it. One page has 8×8 panels and I thought “They’re too small” – somewhat like Joe Matt’s Peepshow. But this is a one off art project, not meant for reproduction! These panels will never be shrunk from the size they are – roughly 2.5 to 3 inches – Bigger than your average panel in a comic book page. What an impressive object She Lives is.
Other artworks in this section were Gloaming by Keaton Henson with its related scary house installation, and a digital section with Skint! by Metaphrog, the silent webcomic of John Allan. There was also a backdrop of Gorillaz videos on 2 big screens with no comment.
There are certainly favourite comics I may have hoped to see represented which weren’t, but that’s to be expected. It couldn’t have everything. What I got was a lot of very interesting and stimulating work. I learned a lot seeing this exhibition. I would sum it up by saying it was a very worthwhile, loving and knowledgeable tribute to comics."