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Comics Unmasked:

A Curator's Perspective

If you’re a comics collector, or historian-cum-hoarder like me, you may have invested in some rare collectors’ items enshrined in their ‘Mylar snugs’ or stashed away some well-thumbed copies in the attic, but who has the biggest and best collection of British comics in the country? It may well be The British Library, headquartered near King’s Cross in London, the official depository for all things published in the UK and Ireland. Made of ten million bricks, it’s the largest 20th century public building constructed in Britain. And its surface buildings are merely the tip of an iceberg of printed matter, in five basements stretching like a multi-storey Batcave down to a subterranean 24.5 metres. Huge bound volumes of daily newspapers, weekly comics, monthly magazines and books of every description line their shelves and those in an even huger storage facility, their Fortress of Solitude in Boston Spa, West Yorkshire. Somehow they have to find room for 3 million extra items every year and counting.

So you can imagine the thrill of being allowed to explore these astonishing collections and the challenge of picking out which comics to present in Comics Unmasked: Art & Anarchy in the UK, the Library’s first major exhibition on the subject this summer. Usually, the British Library calls mainly on its own expert staff to look after their wide-ranging programme, recently covering propaganda, the Georgians and this autumn, Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination. They had never highlighted comics before, partly because nobody in house felt they had the breadth of knowledge. Two years ago, I joined my colleague John Harris Dunning, journalist, author of the graphic novel Salem Brownstone: All Along The Watchtowers and co-founder with me in 2003 of Comica, the London International Comics Festival, to propose a project and we struck at just the right time. We were both brought in to co-curate what has grown into the biggest exhibition of British comics this country has ever seen.

Opening May 2nd and running till August 19th, The British Library unveils Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK in the spacious PACCAR Gallery. It’s been the most complex process to define and refine this exhibition. Rather than attempting to put together some exhaustive, and exhausting, complete overview, we resolved to chart a less conventional course through the creative legacy and currency of the medium in Britain. This is not a feast of nostalgia about all those favourite titles you enjoyed as a child. Some familiar characters will be included, of course, but not always in their overfamiliar forms. So we’re including a few Beano terrors like Beryl the Peril but also her little-known, unauthorised adult version as the radical ‘Beril’ from the International Times or IT. Nor is it an earnest plea for comics to be elevated and legitimised primarily as graphic literature. Instead, our strongest focus and filter became subversion. We want to celebrate how a significant part of comics since their earliest printed forms have had a strongly rebellious streak to them and to confront the controversies this has raised.

In Britain, this provocative quality has sparked complaints, censorship, campaigns for them to be banned, court cases and convictions, even parliamentary debate and legislation. It’s easy to forget that only forty years or so ago, comics were in the dock. The ‘School Kids’ issue of Oz and the first issue of Nasty Tales, sold on newsstands, were each the subject of trials at the Old Bailey. Both magazines for adults were accused of obscenity particularly for reprinting the brazen underground comics of American provocateur Robert Crumb. What greater crime could there be than sticking Rupert the Bear’s innocent head onto Crumb’s X-rated sex-romp ‘Eggs Ackley among the Vulture Demonesses’ from Big Ass Comics #1 (above)? Especially if this collage was the handiwork of guest editor, a fifteen year-old schoolboy named Viv Berger? Shorn of their long hair, the Oz publishers were found guilty and sent to prison, only to have their conviction widely protested by supporters and quashed on appeal.

The Oz obscenity trial, the longest in Britain, exposed the generation chasm between the old-guard, reactionary Establishment and the young hippies of the ‘sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll’ counterculture and marked a turning point in social change. Most of the trial was recorded and visitors to the exhibition will be able to listen to extracts from some forty reels of tapes allegedly left on the National Sound Archive’s doorstep. What’s more, on July 14th former Oz and now Fortean Times publisher Felix Dennis will be meeting with comics legends Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton, of Furry Freak Brothers fame, and two of the original schoolboy co-editors, now grown up into rock critic Charles Shaar Murray and Design Museum director Deyan Sudjic, for what promises to be an extraordinary reunion. The legal arguments in court around Nasty Tales were no less surreal and after the verdict of not guilty, they were adapted into comics in The Trials of Nasty Tales in 1973 (above, with cover artist Dave Watchmen Gibbons). This included testimony by feminist writer Germaine Greer in defence of Crumb’s exuberant pornotopia ‘Grand Opening of the Great Intercontinental Fuck-in and Orgy Riot’.

Only a few years later, the lurid and hugely popular boys’ weekly Action was pilloried in the media, famously by Frank Bough on the BBC’s Nationwide programme. Branded ‘the seven penny nightmare’ by The Sun, the final straws were a front cover suggesting that a fallen policeman was about to be beaten by a chain-wielding youth, and a football story inside that appeared to condone, or at least not condemn, a football fan throwing a bottle at a player. The publishers pulled Action from sale and reined in its excesses so much, readers soon abandoned its neutered makeover. But the lessons of Action‘s audacity led directly to 2000 AD, the sci-fi weekly and home of Judge Dredd, still going strong in 2014.

Looking back further still to sixty years ago, the climate for comics was no better in Britain. It’s ironic that the first exhibition devoted to comics was probably the touring display of so-called ‘horror comics’ - imports, reprints and imitations of uncensored American comic books like the notorious Tales from the Crypt - organised by the National Union of Teachers. This display toured the country and was the basis of a film strip projected in schools. While these were intended as part of their campaign to raise alarm about the effects of this shocking material, it probably also gave many youngsters their first exposure to these tempting terrors. Pressures on the government to take action came from many sides, including the unlikely alliance of the Church of England, right up to the Archbishop of Canterbury himself, and the anti-American Communist Party who discreetly ran the Comics Campaign Council. The result in 1955 was the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act. Very few prosecutions resulted but it is still in force and the stigma against comics has never entirely gone away.

But nor have comics diminished in relevance. If anything they are more a part of culture today than ever before. Comics Unmasked sets out to re-evaluate how mainstream and underground comics have dealt with violence, sexuality, society, politics, heroes and altered states through dreams, drugs or magic. It spans the centuries, tracing back as early as Medieval Bible stories from 1470 (above) and coming bang up-to-date with the boom in cross-pollination with movies, games and more and the ‘infinite canvas’ beyond the printed page offered by digital, interactive and gallery-installation comics. While the exhibition is principally made up of glorious print, we also wanted to demystify the creative process, so there are some revelatory examples of scripts, sketches and stunning original artwork also on loan from Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Dave Gibbons, Simon Bisley, David Lloyd, Frank Quitely and plenty more, as well as new videos of artists in their studios.

There are also some extraordinary 3D objects, such as Dave McKean’s puppets and stage set for his Mr Punch graphic novel and a large ventriloquist’s dummy of Ally Sloper, who in his Victorian heyday was the biggest selling comics character in the world (above). Reflecting the vital role which magic continues to play in the visionary writings of authors like Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, rare artefacts from John Dee and Aleistair Crowley are on display alongside the comics they have inspired. As the artistic director of the exhibition, Dave McKean has devised the striking design and decor, while Jamie Hewlett of Gorillaz has created a sassy new heroine to represent the spirit of British comics. From suggestions for her name by British Library staff, Jamie Hewlett chose Lawless Nelly, a reference to Charles Dickens’ mistress Ellen Lawless Ternan, subject of the current movie The Invisible Woman.

In the complex selection process, whenever John and I would request a rarity we had never seen in the flees, more often than not a copy would be located from The British Library’s resources. Photocopied small press comics and zines would arrive, preserved in specially made archival boxes. Little-known full-colour Victorian comics, some based on the readers’ own experiences and drawings, and Fifties erotica by the female pioneer Reina Bull are being shown for the first time in Britain.  Star objects include what many Scots would argue is the first comic, The Glasgow Looking Glass from 1825, a fortnightly full of topical cartoons and comics, a sort of illustrated version of Have I Got News For You. Equally surprising may be the comics conceived by figures as diverse as William Burroughs, Bob Monkhouse, Enid Blyton, Anita Roddick and Grayson Perry, or organisations like the Young National Front and the Anti-Nazi League. Who would have thought that a Guy Fawkes’ mask would become an international symbol of protest thanks to the graphic novel V for Vendetta?

Comics Unmasked sets out to prove that comics have never been confined exclusively to a children’s audience and can tackle any subject. Rather than censoring its uncompromising content, parental guidance is advised for visitors under 16. Many of the best British writers and artists have been revolutionaries, for example in their interrogation and deconstruction of America’s iconic superheroes or their evolution of graphic novels as reportage, autobiography or boundary-breaking experiments on paper and online (such as Woodrow Phoenix’s gigantic book artwork She Lives, above, and video view here). Once demonised, burned and banned by parliament, comics are now being recognised as a unique medium, winning literary awards and artworld acclaim, with the power to change people’s minds and people’s lives. Come to the British Library and you will never see comics the same way again.

Comics Unmasked continues until August 19th. For tickets and full details of the events programme, visit the British Library’s website. You can also download a big selection for your iPad of The Digital Anthology of over 150 FREE pages of comics from Sequential (above), and take a whirlwind tour shot by Rich Johnston for Bleeding Cool by watching the video below:

Posted: May 4, 2014

This article originally appeared in Fortean Times 341, May 2014.


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Comics Unmasked:
Art & Anarchy in the UK
by Paul Gravett
& John Harris Dunning
(British Library)