Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK at the British Library

By Ben Miller | 01 May 2014

Exhibition review: Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK, British Library, London, May 2 – August 19 2014

A photo of a colourful comic depiction of a woman standing at a wall in a superhero outfit
Jamie Hewlett's design for the British Library's major new show© Jamie Hewlett 2014
A descent into dimly-lit chambers of the imagination, the British Library’s exhibition on comics – named after its essence, rather than graphic novels, and denoting the revelatory in its unmaskedness – is almost certain to be swarmed with fans of the art this summer, from Jamie Hewlett’s specially commissioned poster girl, Lawless, with her tiny blue pants and name apparently taken from Dickens’ mistress, to Cruickshank’s thick little 19th century books suggesting Dickensian youngsters become men of good character.

An image of an illustration showing part of a murder in a publication called police news
Jack the Ripper's victims, Illustrated Police News (1888)© British Library Board
There is, unsurprisingly, almost nothing here which fails to visually arrest. Like the artists who dreamed or subverted these worlds, the curatorial team’s duty was to give depth and direction to a display of creative conviction and style. Six sections split the circle: the first half the more provocative and interesting, the latter the more playful and obsessive.

The second of the six, titled To See Ourselves, is almost entirely to do with expressions of marginalisation. Grayson Perry’s Cycle of Violence, from 1992, derives from his drawings as a pre-pubescent 20 years earlier, updating its original cross-dressing spies with a Tour de France winner-turned-transvestite serial killer driven by the ghost of an abusive mother.

Janette Parris has a wonderfully simple modern-day version of the straight-to-the-point earliest comics, winning in the succinct short punch of their observational formidability.

An image of a cartoon showing a superhero trying to stop the american big bang
Pat Mills and Hunt Emerson, Diceman No5© Rebellion A/S All Rights Reserved
“I spent it on Sangria, song and my man,” says Parris’ female pensioner, a hero if ever there was for splashing her savings with joyful disregard instead of wasting precious time on formulating a final will.

Received wisdom implies that the concept of superheroes had hit a dead end by the early 1980s. British artists such as Alan Moore, whose lurid greens and purples glow from his brief but uncompromising call for alien beheadings here, largely took up the mantle.

Moore’s splattered oeuvre earned him a lifetime, somewhat honorary ban from the American Comics Code, as gloriously gory as Gareth Ennis’s godless, blood-hungry Dixie Fried series, in which love is chosen over dogma.

An entire section is devoted to sex, partly because the Library’s collection of pornography is so extensive. Here you find the explicit works of Erich von Götha – the pseudonym of Robin Ray, an advertising executive who was a pornographic artist by night, spending his twilight hours creating magazine frontispieces where women, legs akimbo, are felt by gloved men in darkened cars at the end of the 1970s.

An image of a black ink cartoon showing a superhero girl talking and laughing
Original artwork for Tank Girl (1995)© Jamie Hewlett
That seems relatively timid compared to Captain Kremmen, the brainchild of DJ Kenny Everett who, at one point, sleeps with a green, multi-limbed cross-dressing alien.

Yet their timing meant these comics drew less outrage than Tales from the Crypts, an early 1950s bi-monthly horror compendium where a man hurls an axe at a scantily-clad woman revolving on a human dartboard. It was displayed in a National Union of Teachers exhibition, its gurning vault keepers and grimacing witches ultimately serving to titillate those they wished parliament to ban from reading it.

V for Vendetta characters smile soullessly out of hooded mannequins, an eerie mob in combat jackets and t-shirts draped with the faces of comic femmes. Biscuit tins, magnifying glasses and a Judge Dredd Helmet line the shelves of a comic fan’s dream workroom. And the insight into the artistic process, pitting a large projection screen next to original drafts and letters from the artists, includes one from the comic-artist duo Gillen McKelvie, addressed to Hewlett "at the end of a f****** s***** year of s***", confessing a re-obsession with the haunting cinematics of Laura by Bat for Lashes.

An image of a colour illustration showing a universe with a turquoise circle in the centre
Original painting of Aleister Crowley's tarot card The Universe, on loan from The Warburg Institute© Tony Antoniou
That musical brand of mysticism is less pronounced than Aleister Crowley, the self-defined Great Beast 666 whose huge, cosmos-like depiction of the 16 pages of his Prometheus series channels key elements of the tarot, the Kabbalah and gnostic mysticism, an interstellar universe next to a homework book of his tarot cards.

Crowley used an Enochian language to communicate with angels and devils, as did John Dee, a magician who was once an advisor to Elizabeth I before setting his sights on faraway planets, remembered through scribblings in a huge tome. It’s next to a comic strip featuring a Victorian girl who, in what was apparently considered everyday entertainment in a society which considered opiates part of its routine, is seen dreaming of her mistreated doll hammering nails into heads.

One French couple felt evangelical enough about the art to tour Britain in a cinema-bearing double decker bus, preaching the gospel of comics and scrutinising new graphic talents at the same time as Burroughs was publishing the sadly short-lived Unspeakable Mr Hart, which appeared in the underground comic Cyclops, illustrated by artist Malcolm McNeill.

Burroughs might have enjoyed the ectoplasmic semi-human nudity of Keaton Henson's recent series, Gloaming, or even the possessed bears and steel-gazed giraffes of Alexander Tucker, whose work is perhaps only a short departure from his day job as a psych rocker. This is a show which fills you with ideas, even when the characters are impossible to believe in.

  • Open 10am-6pm (8pm Tuesday, 5pm Saturday, 11am-5pm Sunday and public holidays). Admission £5-£9.50 (free for under-18s). Book online. Follow the library on twitter @britishlibrary and use the hashtag #ComicsUnmasked.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

An image of a man in a black coat wearing a mask showing a man smiling
A V for Vendetta mannequin lining the show© Tony Antoniou
An image of the front of a cartoon showing a woman sitting in a car with a man
Torrid Erotic Art (1979)© Erich von Götha - Robin Ray
An image of a superhero's helmet which is mainly black with red bits and a gold front
Judge Dredd's helmet, loaned by DNA Films - the producers of Dredd© Tony Antoniou
An image of four blocks of a cartoon showing a figure in black against a red backdrop
Black Holes, on loan from and by Dave McKean© Dave McKean
An image of an illustration showing a woman drawn in black and white against a multicoloured stripey background
Heroine (1978)© Suzi Varty
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