Comics Unmasked – Exhibition Review

Steve Slack

Steve is a professional heritage geek, working in the world of museums, galleries and days out. Basically anything with a tea room or a gift shop.
He tweets as @steveslack and blogs at steveslack.co.uk

Think of comics.  Chances are you’ll leap to tightly-clad superheroes fighting crime and intergalactic terror. You might think of made-up stories giving teenage boys across the globe an escape into a world of fantasy and heroism.

Well the British Library is encouraging visitors to think again in their new exhibition Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK.

As the title suggests the exhibit is all about showing that there’s more to comics than lycra and outside underwear. Comics have been a place where inventive–and often unconventional–writers and artists have been breaking ground for centuries. From illustrated Bibles and Victorian Penny Dreadfuls, to webcomics and graphic novels dealing with mischief, identity, politics and sex comics are a way into the world of the subversive.

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Banish from your mind the hackneyed image of pimply teenagers ironing pages of comic books to keep them pristine. Comics Unmasked shows how as an ephemeral (and relatively inexpensive) art form comics give people the freedom to respond to the issues of the day in a more creative and certainly more personal way than other mediums. That’s not to say comics are the ultimate expression of anarchic society, but they afford a chance to challenge the status quo, whether socially or politically.

AARGH! (Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia) (1988) pokes fun at bigoted and offensive 1980s queer-bashing stereotypes. The touching comic It Don’t Come Easy (1977) depicts someone establishing that the guy in his bedroom isn’t in the armed forces and that there are no feds under the bed before they ‘consent’ to sex–it’s a cute story which raises a wry smile, but it’s also a reminder of sexual reality in this country only a few years ago.

One of the exhibition’s curators Adrian Edwards puts it succinctly: “Comics have been a place where under-represented parts of the community can see themselves, be they black or gay or lesbian. We see this again and again.” There’s a chance every visitor will find something of themselves there, queer or otherwise. From a story of a gay teenager wrangling with feelings of filth and desire to a 2014 comic about ‘generation rent’ trying to get onto the property ladder comics are as universal as the messages they convey.

“Aren’t comics always about sex anyway?” Tim Burton’s words open the exhibit and, with plenty of sexually explicit content and (you’ll be pleased to hear) a healthy dose of same-sex action, there’s good reason why the show is strictly for ages 16 plus. What, you’ve stopped reading and are booking tickets online already? Hey come back, there’s more!

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From 18th-century pornography and 1950s mail-order bondage magazines, to more graphic portrayals of sex and even instructional comics, the exhibit charts the development of the manner in which the nation’s sexual underbelly is presented through comics. It’s fascinating to behold how far we’ve come. Today sexuality is just part of storytelling and advertising. Perhaps it’s not as shocking as it would have been years ago.

The quality of the comics on show is a reminder that we are in the British Library, home of Shakespeare and Magna Carta, and the exhibition revels in its uniquely British perspective.“One of the reasons for mounting the exhibition is to celebrate British coming-making. The Americans and other countries in Europe celebrate their comics, but it’s not something we’ve traditionally done as much as them” Says Edwards. Perhaps people in the UK just are not as aware of comics and their wide-ranging appeal as they should be, something this exhibit hopes to help remedy.

Scattered throughout are more familiar British titles for readers of all ages, with the likes of Viz, Punch, Dan Dare and Andy Capp reminding us that comics are not just for teens, but are a core part of our cultural heritage.

Alongside this there are reminders of how established artists have used the medium to carry their messages-such as Raymond Briggs’ When the Wind Blows a 1982 graphic novel warning against the perils of nuclear war; or the 1989 story of a fag-addicted Andy Capp quiting smoking.

But comics aren’t just to be admired! You too can have a go at making a comic in the mocked-up artist’s studio. Visitors are invited to get creative and to start thinking about what they would put in a comic-with the British Library’s programme of events between now and August providing ample opportunities for inspiration. It’s certainly an inspirational space.

For a long time the British Library has been accused of staging rather gloomily-lit exhibitions. Unmasked breaks this tradition gleefully. The show is awash with colour and-from V for Vendetta-inspired mannequins to upturned display cases-enjoys a creative treatment which intrigues and surprises, making the exhibition as dynamic and thought-provoking as the comics behind the glass.

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True geeks who want to see their favourite comic heroes in the inky flesh will, of course, feel right at home here. However, there is also plenty for those who wouldn’t necessarily define themselves as comic fans. With a focus on British creativity and expressions of the subversive this exhibition is a compelling journey into the British senses of identity and humour.

Ultimately, Comics Unmasked is unashamedly geeky, but also offers a wealth to discover for anyone interested in social history and the visual arts. Oh yeah, and those who enjoy a lycra-clad anti-hero picking up in a sauna.

 

Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK is at the British Library, 2 May – 19 August 2014

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