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comics unmasked at the british library

Today authors Francesca Simon, Lauren O'Farrell (aka Deadly Knitshade), Lauren's boyfriend Andrew and I got together to see the new Comics Unmasked exhibition at the British Library. Here we are at the entrance, trying hard to look HARD AS NAILS.

Francesca liked the panel right at the beginning of the exhibition, and its sentiment applies well to her Horrid Henry books.

Ah, here's a close-up:

And yes, most of the exhibition featured comics that would have outraged someone or other at certain points in history. But funnily enough, one of the first comics we encountered was a 15th-century comics Bible, which was actually my favourite piece in the whole show. It's amazing to think people were making comics even back then, with multiple panels, captions, speech balloons, a lot of the same elements we use now. And such a lovely colour palette; this book could fit right into something published by Nobrow Press.

Another cool thing was seeing my friend Woodrow Phoenix's huge (A1) hand-painted original comic. It's so big that it probably won't ever be reproduced, but he wanted to find out what would happen if he made a comic that size. Whenever I've seen him the last year or so, I always ask how the giant comic is coming along, and Woodrow keeps saying, 'You'll get to see it at the British Library. Just wait.' (But Woodrow, I only get to see TWO PAGES of it!)

I was very pleased to see a book by Asia Alfasi, who besides being loads of fun to hang out with, is a great comic artist and also fills an interesting niche, being a Muslim-Libyan-Scottish-Brummie.

This book jogged my memory; I'd totally forgotten how hysterically funny James Parson's comics were when Blair was in power. This one's called Tony & Me, by Georg Bush.

I've been drawing a lot of sharks recently with kids, since the launch of There's a Shark in the Bath, so it was interesting to see a VERY different approach. (I suspect this comic would not work so well with five-year-olds.)

And this book made all four of us do separate double-takes. No, that is not a moob-sucking gun. I'd say that's a proper Artwork Fail. It happens to all of us. ...But OMG, why didn't the editor NOTICE? Ha ha...

Some of the historical comics were very interesting, particularly ones about women's suffrage and gay rights. One about a careful gay tryst, from the '70s, I think, was so earnest and pedantic that it made me feel quite sad. I was glad they included some early racist, sexist and xenophobic comics because it's so important to know that's really how people thought. We stood looking for quite awhile at an Andy Capp cartoon where he's joking about how he likes to smack around his wife. I don't remember Andy Capp being like that, maybe he'd changed by the time I was reading the comic in The Seattle Times. (It was never one of my favourites.)

I think this one's by Pat Mills, but I thought that it's a great example of counterpoint between text and image; the text and image in the top three panels are telling two very, very different stories.

It was also great to see comics by Darryl Cunningham, Posy Simmonds, Katie Green, young Zoom Rockman and other people I know from comics festivals and events. But if you ask me how well I liked the exhibition, I'd have to say that the historical stuff was interesting, but I didn't really like the overall feel of it. That's no criticism to the hardworking curators - it's merely a matter of personal taste - but the aesthetic of most of the comics, particularly the more recent ones, was heavily oppressive and grim. The only comic in in the shielded over-18s section I liked was one by Steven Appleby that was totally laughing at the rest of them by being wonderfully mundane. Besides the ones I mentioned, there were hardly any comics there I liked, or would have wanted to own for my own collection. But in a way, this is good because it reminds me of the huge variety of comics that have been and are being made.

If someone were to say, 'this is representative of all British comics', or even 'all edgy British comics', they'd be totally wrong. It represents comics that appeal to curators Paul Gravett and John Dunning. If I were to host an exhibition, I'd be much more likely to include what might be termed children's comics, but which I think have a more universal appeal. I'd want to see work by the likes of Luke Pearson, Philippa Rice, Gary Northfield, Jamie Smart, James Turner, Dan Berry, Joe Decie, Viviane Schwarz, Warwick Johnson Cadwell, Rob Davis. I saw some work by Isabel Greenberg, who's one of my favourites, but strangely, it didn't seem to have any info panel like the other comics did, so you could have gone through the exhibition without learning her name.

I suppose the sort of exhibition I'd prefer, I could get a lot of it in a browse on the top floor of Gosh Comics shop, whereas this is material I wouldn't have looked for or found by myself. That's saying something.

So if you want to go see the kinds of comics I like, and occasionally profile here on my blog, I'm not recommending this exhibition. But if you're a grownup who wants to learn a lot about the history of comics, and experience a certain dark side of British comics, then I'd say definitely don't miss this one. And I'm thrilled to see comics getting so much space and attention in the British Library. It's a huge exhibition, give it lots of time.

Comics Unmasked runs until 19 August, details on the British Library website. Suitable for adults, not children.


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 21st, 2014 06:43 am (UTC)
I agree!
I have to agree with you. Whilst much of the stuff was interesting, there was far too little on the early children's comics (where was issue 1 of The Beano, Eagle and the like?) and far too much on threatening dark comics. There was also just cursory coverage of newspaper comic strips. This exhibition was clearly made by, and for, serious comic fanatics, but failed to appeal to those with a more light-hearted interest in this important story-telling genre.
May. 21st, 2014 09:33 pm (UTC)
Re: I agree!
I'm with you, a lot of it really wasn't my cup of tea. But at least it sort of did what it said on the tin, 'art and anarchy'. But yeah, there's different kinds of anarchic comics, they're not all grim and torturous.
May. 21st, 2014 02:01 pm (UTC)
Paul Gravett .. I knew he was behind this exhibit in some capacity. The Man At The Crossroads.

I got into a large wrangle about Andy Capp once -- defending him. I said, he never actually beat his wife, you know! But then I got an early collection of the strips, and I have to say I was wrong. It's kind of sick.
May. 21st, 2014 09:35 pm (UTC)
Yeah, it's really horrible! I've never really followed Andy Capp very closely while growing up, it always felt a bit too grown up for me, and a man sitting in a put didn't have much appeal. But it was always there, I never questioned it.
May. 21st, 2014 03:20 pm (UTC)
Thanks for this write-up
I can't easily make it to this exhibition, but in any case I got the impression it was going to feel a bit 'blokey'. Of course I would like to see more girls' comics (and British weekly comics of the traditional sort, generally) in it - along with lots on small press/indie, women creators and so on. It sounds like they are in it, but not as the main focus - or at least, overwhelmed by the 'here's proof that comics have grown up' stuff featuring sex & violence.

I don't want to denigrate PG's and JDH's hard work, especially as I haven't seen it to judge it myself, but I think I would have wanted more of the joy of comics rather than the dark side of comics. I would also very much have liked to be able to take A and B along to it too - maybe not to all the sections, maybe R and I could have taken turns to keep them in the more kid-friendly sections or something. But if the whole lot is adult-oriented not kid-friendly then it makes it a lot harder for me to be able to go along to right now.
May. 21st, 2014 09:37 pm (UTC)
Re: Thanks for this write-up
Aw, that's sad if you have to miss it; you're one of the people who really knows about these kinds of comics. And yeah, I hate to label stuff 'blokey', but the overall feel of the exhibition was very much that. But I hope there will be more exhibitions, with totally different feels to them.
May. 21st, 2014 05:45 pm (UTC)
I agree - on a personal level, I *wanted* to like it more than I *actually* liked it. I don't think it is claiming to be a general history of comics, but is focussed on the political / progressive side of things.

I went when I was there to see the Neil Gaiman / Tori Amos event: I think I'd have been a bit disappointed had I travelled up to London solely for the exhibition! (I blogged the evening,- it's the last entry in my journal, if anyone is interested)
May. 21st, 2014 09:39 pm (UTC)
Exactly! I really, really wanted to like it, too! There were loads of interesting things, but as an overall impression, it didn't leave a good taste in my mouth. Still very glad I went, though.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )


Sarah McIntyre

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