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You can trust the British Library in London to put on a big, important exhibition, and Comics Unmasked was no exception.  The already iconic poster by Jamie Hewlett is above. But I left with the thought that I don’t really like comics very much! I am interested in them, like to study and teach about them, love to make analysis of their visual communication, enjoy writing essays on them, like to make graphic novels, but I realised that I don’t engage with comics on a simple pleasure-in-reading level. Give me a book any time. Nor did I like comics when I was a kid when I thought that my weeklies were twee, boring and un-contemporary. Yet, I am completely devoted to the cover art of Dave McKean. I guess I just like my illustrations and text separate.

The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr Punch, by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, 1994(c) Dave McKean

This feeling was reinforced in the first couple of rooms which looked at the historical development of comics (though, of course, I did like the McKean Mr Punch artwork (above)) and continued with the adventure story type comic. I was with some students and a colleague. We argued over the shark adventure pages about who the demographic for these kinds of comics is and whether or not the reader “fills in” with their imagination between the frames. I agree that the spaces between frames act as ever morphing time clocks, but I am not so sure that much is left to the imagination. My colleague mentioned that at a recent seminar he attended it was suggested that comics are a cross between books and films. I think they are more of a cross between books and one-frame illustrations. But if they are a cross with films then that seems to prove my point that the work is done for you and only if you have one of those frantic and lively, over-active imaginations that cannot stop will it fill-in for you.

Ally Sloper's Summer Number, by Marie Duval, one of the first female comic creators

Nevertheless, I cannot help but admire the figures of comic readership. The famous Ally Sloper character of Victorian times, I overheard, helped shift 300,000 copies a week (above) and the artwork was by a female maker, Marie Duval. Nor can you ignore the rampant emotions that the comic-banning campaigns of the 1950s (the video games of their day) stirred up. Comics appeal to huge numbers of people.

Punk Memories, Escape 9, by John Bagnall (c) John Bagnall

And, yes, when I found a comic – Punk Memories (above) – that appealed very directly about a story that I shared with the maker, John Bagnall, I did engage in a very intense, amused and intrigued manner. I was sorry when I got to the end of the double page spread and could not turn over the page behind glass. Bagnall makes his autobiography of punk times tongue in cheek, with his sister commenting on his nice new haircut and his mum liking his “hobby” of three-chord wonder-ing on his guitar. Maybe I just cannot get into tales of adventure with sharks and superheroes! May be I just like my satire too realistic!

Ceasefire Fanny no.1, 1991, by Angela Martin (c) Angela Martin. Published by Fanny and Knockabout Comics

But once we got into the political comics rooms my interest was stirred. Here is where comics work for me, in the subversive spaces of critique and satire, of political comment and rebellion. Comics fill a gap that the mainstream can never hope to. Here you can see a direct history from secretly printed broadsides to the ever-threatened with censorship. Here anti-hunt campaigners, suffragettes, pacifists (above) and gay rights have a voice. The exhibition only dealt with the UK, but I could see a whole range of other comics and graphic novels, such as Marjane Sitrapi’s Persepolis, that could have fitted in these categories.

Black Holes, on loan from and by Dave McKean (c) Dave McKean

Dave McKean (above), naturally was featured quite a few times in this show (after having been on display local to GDP headquarters earlier in the year – fantastic!). Perhaps my best piece in the entire exhibition was his political imagery commenting on China’s appropriation of AIDS funding and the selling instead of inferior medicines to patients. Yet it was not a straightforward comic strip, but only loosely divided into frames, on a bright red background with abstract figures and real syringes wrapped in Chinese papers. Heavy black text quoting patients’ lack-of-medicines tale, was added in a layer of acetate on top. This was “an artwork” in its current format, but even as a printed page it was not like a regular comic, yet functioned in the same way, drawing the reader’s eye around the narrative.

This was perhaps the only exhibition that I have attended that had a bar on unattended under-16s. This was because of the inclusion of a section on sex comics. The exhibition leaflet describes the “air of pansexual permissiveness” that comics enabled and the exaggerated and stereotyped characters left me needing a sit down! Yet the historical links back to Hogarth’s prints and other underground publications and the suggestion that comics allowed a glimpse into what people really thought – or fantasised – about sex was probably a more useful revelation about society than some official texts could ever be.

ty – well known 1978 dark female comic book of supernatural and horror stories. Photography (c) British Library Board

At the end of the exhibition was a section called Breakdown: The Outer Limits of Comics. This included such eclectic objects as the novels of H P Lovecraft and Aleister Crowley’s writings as well as a tape of him chanting Enochian angel spells (hello Supernatural fans!). I was struck at how much like famous the tape of Kurt Schwitters chanting Dada poems  this was! Both seem to be hypnotically rhythmic chanting of nonsense, though the Schwitters has a few more jump scares in the audio. Also here were the dark comics (above – Misty, creepiness for girls; and below) and comics that were more than comics, with The Ring-like hairy characters pairing up with installations of creepy cottages in the woods (hello Supernatural fans again!). I enjoyed this last section but I did find it a bit disjointed and some of the connections between objects on display seemed not quite explained. Here they showed Arkham Asylum graphic novel, which might be the only adventure type comic that I would pick up for pleasure – not for the storyline but for the fantastic coloured illustrations.

I would have liked to have seen more about the making and construction of comics, although there were a few fascinating contributions to this. The “room” exhibits were a good idea, showing how and where most comics would be read, as the glass cases were, of course, quite far from that! And the many, many Guy Fawkes masked dummies were a constant reminder that it is not just life that goes into the making of comics but that comics can prompt real life – this hero of V for Vendetta is now a symbol of the Occupy movement

The Trials of Nasty Tales, 1973, cover art (c) Dave Gibbons

If you want to catch this exhibition you have until 19th August 2014 – details here. You might also like Professor Kuskin’s MOOC about comics and graphic novels here or GDP’s graphic novel project here.

All images courtesy of the British Library Press Office.

From top:

Brand new Jamie Hewlett design for Comics Unmasked at the British Library (c) Jamie Hewlett 2014

The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr Punch, by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, 1994(c) Dave McKean

Ally Sloper’s Summer Number, 1882, by Marie Duval, one of the first female comic creators

Punk Memories, Escape 9, by John Bagnall (c) John Bagnall

Ceasefire Fanny no.1, 1991, by Angela Martin (c) Angela Martin. Published by Fanny and Knockabout Comics

Black Holes, on loan from and by Dave McKean (c) Dave McKean

Misty – well known 1978 dark female comic book of supernatural and horror stories. Photography (c) British Library Board.

The Trials of Nasty Tales, 1973, cover art (c) Dave Gibbons and Richard Adams