Thursday, July 17, 2014

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

Or, as it could also be titled: Alan Moore the Exhibition.  The Great Bearded One aka The Sage of Northampton aka The Prophet of Glycon aka That Grumpy Old Bastard who Hates Movies looms over practically everything in this exhibition - from the distant past of vaudeville right through to the modern day in the blank, grinning face of V.  V-masked protesters huddle all around the corners of the space, threatening, powerful and faintly scary. What more perfect symbol of the power of comics could there be?

With the memory of Occupy very much in mind, Art and Anarchy in the UK treats the comic book as a revolutionary medium, its egalitarian principles and disposable nature making it the ideal medium for gauging what's floating around in the British political, social and cultural soup. The scope of the exhibition takes in everything from 15th century illustrated Bibles, through to Victorian Penny Dreadfuls, Viz and the digital comics of the modern era.  

Photo by GBPhotos
The figurehead of the exhibition is an excellent illustration by Jamie Hewlett of a hungover, teen superheroine sipping from a hip flask in a Kings Cross back alley.  She looks tired, pissed off and grumpy - a perfect summation of not just the influence British writers have had on US comics but also of the increasingly weariness of the superhero concept.  This is reflected within the exhibition itself, which consciously shies away from cape clad muscle men bashing each other through buildings.  So it's pleasantly appropriate that the exhibition opens with a quote from Alejandro Jodorowsky: "Kill superheroes!!! Tell your own dreams."

Chances are I'm going to enjoy anything that opens with a Jodorowsky quote - and Comics Unmasked doesn't let me down.  I'm relatively familiar with the history of British comicbooks and every corner I turn I'm surprised by the obscure gems they've dug up and popped on display.  It's not every day you see Pat Mills' Hookjaw; an environmentally minded shark gore story sitting proudly alongside curios like Zenith's "MAD MENTAL CRAZY!" robot raver Acid Archie or the heartfelt anger of AARGH! - a one off collection protesting the homophobic Clause 28. 

Suffrage Atelier (1913)

The crux of Comics Unmasked is explaining the emancipatory potential of comics.  The most powerful exhibits are those created by subcultures, the oppressed and the socially shat upon. One of the most striking was the 1913 Suffragette illustration Suffrage Atelier alongside Bryan and Mary Talbot's 2014 Sally Heathcote: Suffragette.  Though we just see a few panels of the modern book, the anger and determination on the faces of the women is captured so perfectly it'd take countless pages of text to replicate.

Sally Heathcote: Suffragette (BASH! I've really got to check this out :) )
Similarly fascinating is the display showcasing the underground comics of the British gay rights movement, particularly the charmingly straightforward It Don’t Come Easy by Eric Presland and Julian Howell.  Here two men meet up after a party and quickly check that neither of them is a soldier, sailor, under 21 and that there's no "fuzz under the bed" before going to bed together.  Alongside it is a short from AARGH! that juxtaposes snide comments from The Sun newspaper about 'queers' and 'poofters' alongside a man being victimised in a pub by demonic, bristle-headed thugs.

AARGH!, like an extraordinarily large number of things, can be directly traced back to the hand of Alan Moore (he both contributed to it and published it).  Literally every section bears his fingerprints in one way or another. There's a fascinating juxtaposition between the comic art of Victorian Police Gazettes that leeringly shows us queasily sexualised images of Jack the Ripper's victims, and Moore's From Hell (for my money his masterpiece).  Even Ally Sloper (whose strip premiered in 1867) has a direct connection to Moore, last being seen in the pages of his The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Lost Girls
In the Let's Talk About Sex section we encounter pages from Moore and Melinda Gebbie's Lost Girls - their (often unjustly dismissed) expert examination into the latent sexuality that throbs under the skin of Britain's cultural heritage.  Moore proudly and unbashedly describes this work as pornography and its the centrepiece of some fascinatingly British sex art. The clean lines and sensual debasement of Robin Ray's Torrid (1979) says more about the aesthetics and sensiblities of the late 70s / early 80s in one image than countless analytical essays ever could.  

Cover to Torrid Issue 3 - Robin Ray
Grant Morrison, The Sex Pistols to Alan Moore's magisterial Beatles, also gets a decent look in.  There's something faintly beguiling about seeing Morrison's influential countercultural manifesto The Invisibles displayed behind museum plexiglass - though the two page spread of fox hunters turning their attention to London's homeless is an excellent choice to illustrate the series.  Aside from a brief overview of his genre-defining work in Batman and Superman, there's a much needed exhumation of his ultra-obscure 1990 The New Adventures of Hitler - this exhibition marking the first time I've ever seen it in the flesh.

Here an apparition of Morrissey appears in Hitler's wardrobe.  This really needs a reprint.
Though Morrison gets a decent look in there's no denying that this is very much Alan Moore's exhibition; his work outnumbering every other creator on display by at least two to one.  As a Moore fan I don't have the slightest problem with this - he's one of the most fascinating creative minds working in Britain today and it's refreshing to see an examination of his work that's not a perfunctory summary of V for Vendetta, From Hell and Watchmen (if I never again read that this was one of Time Magazines 100 all-time best novels I will die happy).  

What the scope and quality of this exhibition impresses upon you is that Britain is an absolute world-class leader in comic books.  Sod traditional exports like football, movies and pop music - Britain absolutely kills it in the field of comics.  This exhibition is stuffed to the rafters with smart, politically minded and forceful pieces of graphic art that're the cultural equal of anything else going on in this country. From the sub-sub-subcultural underground comics read by an audience of hundreds to the blockbusting Hollywood adaptation of Mark Millar's Kick-Ass we're owning this shit top to bottom, back to front.

My only criticism is that some of the books on display are a little far away and behind glass, making them difficult to read.  Aside from that it's a hell of an exhibition - one of the most intelligently curated I've seen this year.  If you have any interest in British counterculture you owe it to yourself to check this out.

'Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK' is at the British Library until 19 August - standard ticket price £9.50.

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