Comics Unmasked at The British Library

comics unmaskedI went to see the Comics Unmasked exhibition at the British Library last week. Along with my kin; a couple dozen bearded geeks ogling original pages from Watchmen and V For Vendetta, marvelling that the cult pamphlets of their disregarded past had become respectable history.

I was surprised, perhaps foolishly, at how little original art there was. It makes sense: any exhibition at the British Library will consist mainly of books because books are their thing. And early on, I confess, the £10 admission fee wore heavy because of how many books I already had at home. Worse, in some cases they were showing the trade collection when I had the original, the show being one mediation away from history than one I could have created myself. The realisation that physical objects considered historical are physical objects associated with your own youth; this is called being old.

The other surprise was how much of the exhibition had already appeared on this blog. I thought, and derived some value from the thought, that I was covering relatively obscure work in the two-and-a-half years I’ve been intermittently writing about comics. Instead, according to what will probably be a key historical record, I’ve been mainstream. Zenith, Marvelman, Marshall Law, Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, Jamie Delano’s Hellblazer and most of all Fleetway’s Crisis and Revolver were on show: Third World War, New Statesmen, Skin, Dare the Future, Rogan Gosh, The New Adventures of Hitler, True Faith, even Straitgate. Given its longevity and the measure of its influence I would’ve expected far more from 2000AD, but instead a relatively forgotten – very few of the above are still in print – title was afforded prominence.

And there were many absences. Yer average Brit still thinks, when encountering the word “comics”, of the output of Dundee’s DC Thomson and its rivals. Dudley Watkins’s work was there but there was nothing from the Beano or Dandy, no Commandos or Starblazers, and very little from Whizzer & Chips, Topper, Beezer, Buster, Pow!, Shiver and Shake, Hotspur, Oink!, Battle, all those. They were represented, here and there, but the massive mainstream of British comics from my youth – every kid got one of those – was largely ignored.

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Nor was there much from Crisis’s competitors in the graphic novel boom. Deadline was there for one Tank Girl page. Warrior was entirely Alan Moore’s contributions. A1 wasn’t there at all, and nor were Near Myths or Pssst! or even Heavy Metal, all of which contributed DNA to the state of comics today. Warren Ellis was absent – a page of Authority credited to him was actually Millar and Quitely – and there was no room for Eddie Campbell’s Alec work, no room for the comics that appeared in Sounds or Melody Maker or The Face.

I’m griping. There was lots of fantastic stuff; the autobiographical story of being a Japanese POW from an British war annual, the puppets from Gaiman & McKean’s Mr Punch, an original colour Jonah strip, Grayson Perry’s teenage graphic novels, the infamous Oz Schoolkids’ issue, all kinds of fascinating left-wing small press stuff I’d never heard of. If you’re into comics and around London then go see it, definitely.

ghostworldThe issue I had with the show is summed up by the public face of it: a characteristic Jamie Hewlett drawing of a sullen, disillusioned superhero in a filthy back alley. It’s a great image and no doubt it’s attracted people to an important, and popular, show. But it’s still a superhero. And, like the opening sequence to the American Splendor movie where young Harvey Pekar won’t dress up as one, like the Ghost World book cover where Enid’s wearing the mask, like every one of the thousands of headlines that say Wham Biff Pow Comics Aren’t Just For Kids, we’re still summoning superheroes to remind everyone what the medium is before we try to dismiss them. Which makes even less sense in a British exhibition because superheroes really only began over here in the 1980s.

Comics have grown up; the medium has, I’m confident of saying, reached adulthood. If I were recommending a comic for an adult reader I’d be spoilt for choice. Comics Unmasked remained focused – as I’ve been in this blog, I’m no better – on their awkward adolescence. I can understand why and I was glad, gratified, to see Straitgate in there. But I’m not sure why, in a major exhibition in 2014 a quarter-century on from that coming-of-age, adulthood couldn’t just be taken as read.

Comics Unmasked is at The British Library until August 19th. If you’re interested in any of the stuff from Crisis, the hyperlinks in the text above will quite often take you to pages with download links. 

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