Comics come under academic scrutiny at the British Library in London this month thanks to the Comics Unmasked exhibition. But does it reveal enough of this diverse and exciting comic scene to get non-comics fans interested?
The Comics Unmasked exhibition at the British Library is part of a month long celebration of the UK’s eclectic comic scene curated by comics historian Paul Gravett and art directed by Arkham Asylum artist Dave McKean. The main exhibit itself divides the history of the UK scene into thematic chunks instead of following a chronological structure making it much more accessible for non-comic fans. The various areas cover Violence, Politics, Sex and the Supernatural and includes elements from Medieval manuscripts, to Victorian picture newspapers as well as artwork the very latest US comics written by Brit’s like Mark Millar and Grant Morrison.
Each exhibit featured some incredible artefacts, from original artwork by luminaries of the British scene like David Lloyd (V For Vendetta), Dave Gibbons (Watchmen) and Simon Bisley (Slaine) to scripts from heavyweight comic authors like Neil Gaiman (Sandman) and Alan Moore (V For Vendetta & Watchmen). There were also classic comics from the 1930s and 1940s, obscure indie comics from the 1960s and 70s and the present day, as well as iPads showing the cutting edge of digital comics courtesy of the Sequential iPad app which was running there for fans to stop and take in at their leisure.
The exhibition itself had a strong mix of traditional glass panel boxes showing off the comics and posters, through to a comic book creators studio (complete with all sort of geeky ephemera) and also free standing glass pillars with comics suspended in them. There was also a collection of mannequins dressed up in V For Vendetta masks in the Politics section which gave you an unsettling air as you expected them to jump at you like you were at a carnival, while the ‘Sex’ section (which contained some very explicit content and so meant under 16s weren’t allowed access) was respectfully cordoned off for those of a more sensitive disposition. (Although it was pretty busy when we were there!)
Because of the nature of comics as a readable medium, many of the exhibits would inevitably get crowded and be difficult to take in. Despite the British Library attempting to regulate entrance times for punters, seeing things at your own speed could be frustrated by other patrons at times which was a shame. We would have loved it if they could have had more work mounted on walls so people could view them more easily and not bunch up as much, but we appreciate that some of these older books could not be displayed in that fashion.
With the exhibition covering such a broad topic and such a long time period it inevitably felt like there were some elements missing, and also that there weren’t nearly enough of some of our favourite elements. (We would have loved to see more 1980s and 1990s comics and original art for example.) In the same vein there were also, some areas which covered things in more depth than we were interested in, for example the abundance of Aleister Crowley elements in the Supernatural section, were interesting but we would have liked to see more comics from the writers and artist he influenced instead of hearing him chant occult nonsense!
Although more hardcore comic fans may find Comics Unmasked both enlightening and frustrating in equal measure, non-comic fans will get a fantastic look at the diversity of the UK comic scene and if that is the exhibition’s primary aim then it certainly does a fantastic job!
“A delightfully diverse look at the entire spectrum of the UK comics scene from Victorian picture papers to the current crop of UK-born superstar comic creators. Dividing it into thematic chunks means it isn’t built around a chronological narrative and so is great for non-comic fans, but does mean it sometimes focuses on themes which more hardcore comic fans may not enjoy as much as others.”
Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK runs until August 19th 2014 at the British Library, London. Click here for tickets.