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

Words and pictures combine to tackle controversial issues in this edgy art form, says Will Brooker

May 1, 2014

Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK
British Library
2 May-19 August 2014

Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK
By Paul Gravett and John Harris Dunning
British Library Publishing, 192pp, £25.00
ISBN 9780712357357

The comic book “came of age” in 1986, at around the same time as me; between the end of the miners’ strike, to paraphrase Philip Larkin’s Annus Mirabilis, and U2’s Joshua Tree. As a sixth-former and then an undergraduate, I was glad of the grand new term “graphic novel” to describe the comics I was reading at the time; these weren’t throwaway kids’ stories but glossy hardbacks, sold in mainstream bookshops and sometimes even reviewed in the quality press. Eventually I grew less pretentious and a little less fond of such airy sophistication – thankfully I never used the terms “sequential art” and “narratives for the post-literate generation”, which were also bandied about at the time – but I never grew out of comics.

It’s revealing and reassuring that the British Library’s new exhibition chooses that unapologetic term for its title: “comics” carries the implication of subversion and provocation rather than the striving for traditional respectability embodied by “graphic novel”. It also encompasses a far broader history, taking in Victorian cartoons from Punch (1841) and Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday (1884), the humour weeklies The Dandy and The Beano (launched in 1937 and 1938 respectively, just before Batman’s 1939 debut) and the underground “comix”, such as Oz, of the 1960s. The term “graphic novel” emphasises the innovative and new, but one of the key feelings evoked by “comics” is nostalgia. We hear the word and think of titles we grew up with, whether Frank Hampson’s “Pilot of the Future” Dan Dare of the 1950s, Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby’s cosmic, psychedelic Doctor Strange and Silver Surfer of the 1960s, or the debut of Judge Dredd in the spiky, punky 2000AD, in the late 1970s.

This nostalgia is not, it turns out, incompatible with the exhibition’s stated aim of showcasing “works that uncompromisingly address politics, gender, violence, sexuality and altered states”. I found myself most affected by the glimpses of comics from my late teens – not the superhero titles, but the edgier, rougher work with an urgent political purpose, such as Alan Moore’s edited collection from 1988, AARGH (Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia), which raised funds to campaign against the UK government’s anti-gay Clause 28.

One of the strengths of a broad historical scope is that it encourages us to make links between comics from different centuries, and to explore the continuities and contrasts between distinct cultural moments. We might look back in amusement at the 1950s campaigns against American comics, but Hunt Emerson’s rollicking adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover was a risky dig at obscenity laws, even in 1986 – 25 years after the “Chatterley ban” mentioned in Larkin’s poem – and Grant Morrison’s St. Swithin’s Day, about an alienated teenager planning to assassinate Margaret Thatcher, raised questions in the House of Commons on its publication in 1989. Morrison’s equally controversial New Adventures of Hitler (1990) features a portly, bigoted John Bull, drawn by Steve Yeowell, who inevitably recalls Tenniel’s John Bull from 19th-century issues of Punch; Mr Punch himself, the family-friendly star of Toby magazine in the 1920s, appears again, far more frightening, in Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s Mr. Punch (1994).

We can draw interesting parallels across the exhibition in terms of women’s oppression and struggle for equality. The Illustrated Police News from October 1888, with its grisly line drawings of Jack the Ripper’s victims, is chillingly similar to Eddie Campbell’s intricate black-and-white art in Alan Moore’s From Hell (1999), an in-depth investigation of the Ripper murders, while the Suffrage Atelier (1913), pointing out that male convicts could vote and female doctors could not, anticipates Mary and Bryan Talbot’s Sally Heathcote: Suffragette, drawn by Kate Charlesworth and published 101 years later.

As these last examples suggest, the exhibition’s focus on “comics that question conventions, challenge acceptability, provoke debates and sometimes court controversy”, according to the accompanying book (written by Paul Gravett and John Harris Dunning), leads to a welcome foregrounding of work that highlights the experiences of marginalised groups. Comics Unmasked helps us to remember the important role that queer writers and artists have played in the development of the medium, and the importance that the medium has had, in turn, for queer creators. At the more understated, underground end of the spectrum, Eric Presland and Julian Howell’s It Don’t Come Easy (1977) is a touchingly simple but resonant story about two men drawing the curtains and checking that neither of them is a soldier, member of the merchant navy or under the age of 21, before going to bed together; at the glossier end, I was interested, and not entirely surprised, to learn that Oliver Frey, who painted pretty teenagers on the cover of computer games magazines throughout the 1980s, was also famous for hardcore gay artwork, including Bike Boy and Meatmen.

We are also reminded of the ways that comic books have represented disability, and again, provided a unique means of expression for creators to explore their relationships with their own bodies: most obviously, of course, through scenes of sexual encounter – such as Sacha Mardou’s Lolajean Riddle of 2005, depicting her one-night stand with Hans, who is blind – but also through autobiographical depictions of disease. Al Davison’s The Spiral Cage (1988), for example, which describes his experiences of spina bifida through a variety of art styles, is praised as a pioneering work of “graphic medicine”. Again, Comics Unmasked offers revelations even for diehard fans, and invites rereadings of the familiar: I was saddened to learn that John Hicklenton, whose work I knew through his twisted, nightmarish characters and landscapes in the 1980s science fiction story Nemesis the Warlock, suffered from multiple sclerosis, and addressed the illness explicitly in his final work, 100 Months, before ending his life.

There is much to celebrate about comics. However, we must also remain appropriately critical. While the British Library’s exhibition tends away from the more obvious superhero books – as perhaps indicated by the “Unmasked” of its title – it is hard to avoid high-profile, mainstream stories such as Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke (1988, art by Brian Bolland) and Morrison’s Arkham Asylum (1989, art by Dave McKean). Released at the height of the graphic novel’s self-importance, complete with glossy covers, literary allusions – Arkham Asylum’s faintly pretentious subtitle, “A Serious House on Serious Earth”, is from Larkin – and psychological theories, these sophisticated superhero tales and many others of their genre, for all their clever writing and attractive artwork, are sometimes questionable in their politics.

The Killing Joke, for instance, centres on The Joker’s brutal shooting and sexual assault of Barbara “Batgirl” Gordon – the crime is explored only in its effects on Batman and on her father, rather than her own experience – and features people with disabilities in the role of sinister fairground freaks. Arkham Asylum depicts The Joker as an arch, stereotypical “degenerate”, with lipstick and high heels, his implied queerness part of the threat he poses to Batman. In the book of the exhibition, Gravett and Dunning note the class element in the fact that Moore’s Joker is revealed, in flashback, as a “working man pushed too far”, but neutrally observe merely that Moore “demonstrated the extent of the Joker’s brutality” through his scene of Batgirl’s violation, rather than asking whether sexual violence against women should be used as a plot device to explore male characters’ relationships. Similarly, Morrison and McKean’s Joker is described as a “deadly transvestite” and the “most dangerous incarnation to date”, without noting the implications of conflating gay sexuality with death (Andy Medhurst’s scholarly essay “Batman, Deviance and Camp”, published in 1991, offers a valuable reminder).

One of the fascinating aspects of comics is, of course, the way that their pictures and words combine to create meaning. It would be heavy-handed for the British Library to direct visitors explicitly to seek specific meanings in the visual texts of its exhibition; but I hope its curators remember that some of these images, with their representation of gender, sexuality, disability and race only loosely disguised by superhero costumes, can benefit from a critical, contextual framing.

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