Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy In The UK:
A Co-Curator's Top Ten Best In Show
After two years spent rummaging through the British Library’s vast comics collection in London, co-curator John Harris Dunning and I have cherry-picked around two hundred items to display in Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK. Simply this country’s largest ever exhibition of British comics spanning centuries, it’s arranged in six thematic sections exploring violence, society, politics, sex, heroes and altered states, and continues daily till August 19th. From Jamie Hewlett’s sassy new mascot Lawless Nelly to Dave McKean’s brilliant design concepts, from prints, publications, scripts, sketches and original artwork to artefacts, audio and video clips, webcomics and Sequential’s iPad samplers, it’s really tough to choose, but here’s my personal Top Ten (I’d probably choose another Top Ten tomorrow!). And don’t miss the final weekend, August 15th to 17th, when Comica Festival presents in the BL Foyer a free Comica Comiket Fair & Drawing Parade, and a programme of celebrity panels and signings in the Conference Centre, including Bryan Lee O’Malley and Emmanuel Guibert.
My Top Ten Best In Show:
1. A Paupers’ Bible: The Apocalypse, circa 1470
How far back do comics actually go? We’ve not excavated and shipped over any cave paintings for the exhibition, don’t worry, but uncovering this exceptionally rare Medieval Bible was a revelation. Its striking imagery of angels battling demons, its bright block colours and carved narrative texts, even its page format are uncannily close to modern comic books. Despite their name, Paupers’ Bibles were not owned by the poor but by priests and monks, who may have used them to teach the illiterate to read, and by wealthier lay people to meditate on while praying. Maybe reading comics has always been something of a religious experience?
2. The Illustrated Police News, October 13th, 1888
Hold the front page! You can feel East Enders’ panic pulsating through this docu-comics reportage about Jack the Ripper’s murder spree. Was The Illustrated Police News pandering to the morbid or providing an anxious public with vital information and even assisting the police manhunt? One thing is sure, the grisly details shifted thousands more copies. These weekly covers would serve as period reference to Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell for their Ripper autopsy From Hell.
3. Ally Sloper Ventriloquist’s Dummy, c.1890s
All but forgotten now, the bulbous-nosed Cockney scoundrel was the Spider-Man of his day, star of the world’s biggest-selling comic, Ally Sloper’s Half-Holiday, shifting up to half a million copies a week. His multi-media cross-overs included two of the earliest British live-action films in 1898 (sadly lost), masses of merchandise, much of it unauthorised, popular songs and music hall appearances by comedy impersonators. Another popular spin-off was the ventriloquist Professor Nomis, stage name of Simon Cross, who operated this three-quarter life-size dummy, a miracle that such a fragile rarity has survived.
4. ‘Co-Co Nutt’, Black Eye, 2002
Did you know there was not one, but two black versions of adult satirical magazine Viz? In 1994, riding on the phenomenal sales of Viz, 20-year-old comedy writer Bobby Joseph persuaded publishers X-Press to try Skank, the first adult comic by and about British blacks. Joseph was forced to close when athlete Linford Christie sued for libel, but he bounced back in 2002 with Black Eye. He lent to The British Library the original artwork by Daniel Francis for this episode of the money-hungry ‘brown sugar’ Co-Co Nutt, in which she has to contend with sex, drugs and Robert de Niro while vacationing in funky Jamaica.
5. ‘What A Woman May Be’, Suffragette poster, 1913
A century ago, as part of the suffragettes’ long-fought campaign for the vote for women, the Suffrage Atelier was founded in February 1909 in Shepherd’s Bush, west London, to design and print their own low-cost posters and postcards. This persuasive woodcut print by an unknown woman artist uses two rows of panels to starkly contrast the women in responsible roles, who were denied suffrage, with the male prisoners, lunatics, drunkards and others who were still entitled to vote. This rare and timely reminder was loaned by the Victoria and Albert Museum.
6. Marvelman Family No. 16 c. 1958
The hooded lynch mob, the Ku Klux Klan, were conspicuously absent as villains in American superhero comic books and popped up in just one episode of
Superman’s radio show, Clan of the Fiery Cross from June 10th to July 1st, 1946. London in the summer of 1958 saw a large mob of white people attacking West Indian residents. Perhaps to address the Notting Hill race riots, British creators Mick Anglo and Don Lawrence concocted this well-meaning if heavy-handed story showing the Marvelman Family intervening at a university in America’s Deep South, where ‘coloured’ students are being terrorised by the Klan. It takes our white superheroes to disguise their identities by blackening their faces and trick the Klansmen, unmasking their leader as a respected leading citizen.
7. ‘The Adventures of Delia’, Fads and Fancies, 1950
One of the co-curartors’ goals for this exhibition is to unearth and honour forgotten comics creators. So it was a thrill to discover pioneering erotic illustrator Reina Bull working under her pen-name Janine in Fads and Fancies, an adult mail-order fetish magazine. Written by ‘Aubrey Lamonte’ (probably a saucy pseudonym), ‘The Adventures of Delia’ presented generously proportioned heroines trussed up in exquisitely painful-looking outfits and the titular heroine perpetually in peril. As an artist-for-hire Janine also provided memorable covers for science-fiction magazines and pulp fiction books for Todd Publishing, including titles by Agatha Christie and Daphne Du Maurier.
8. Watchmen #1, page 16 and script, 1986
Maybe only British creators would dare ask ‘Who Watches The Watchmen?’ Once read, never forgotten, this is in many ways the key page from this landmark interrogation and deconstruction of the might-is-right genre. Vigilante superheroes had been punching baddies for decades in American Code-approved comics but with no sense of any real effect. Here was psychotic loner Rorschach snapping a hapless hood’s pinkie. In comics terms, a minor act of cruelty, but a major shock conveying genuine pain and horror. To accompany the stunning full-scale original art, co-creator Dave Gibbons generously lent scans of his annotated copy of Alan Moore’s script for these nine intense panels.
9. The Joker Mask from Arkham Asylum, 1989
By taking a surprising, subversive outsider’s perspective, the Brit Pack seem to have developed a special love-hate relationship with America’s superhero icons. In their seminal graphic novel Arkham Asylum, Grant Morrison and Dave McKean twisted the never-ending battle between Batman and The Joker into a provocative, magic-inspired psychodrama. As well as displaying Morrison’s original outline script and one of Aleister Crowley’s painted tarot cards incorporated into the book, we were lucky enough to borrow this grimacing model of The Joker’s face which McKean modelled and photographed for his stunning pages. Smile please!
10. She Lives, 2014
The grand finale of Comics Unmasked explores musical, animated, digital and installation forms of 21st century comics. Woodrow Phoenix’s She Lives stands as perhaps the ultimate comic as art object, an unpublished, if not unpublishable one-metre-square gigantic book whose single copy can only exist in its original form as page after thick, crinkly page of inky black-and-white artwork. Normally housed inside a glass cabinet like Sleeping Beauty, Woodrow is allowing the public to follow the whole wordless, electrifying tale in communal page-turning readings at 6pm on July 22nd and August 12th. You can read an interview with Woodrow on the British Library’s blog here and watch a high-speed video flip-through below.