Detail from a cartoon by Jamie Hewlett, creator of Tank Girl
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Thought bubbles: Comics Unmasked at the British Library

From the Beano to Joe Sacco’s Palestine, the library’s major summer exhibition is impressive in its scope. 

Comics Unmasked
British Library, London NW1


If you had to choose the dominant political symbol of the 21st century – a single ideogram to rank alongside the hammer and sickle, the CND peace sign or the anarchist circled A – you’d probably opt for the V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes mask.

It originated not in the somewhat sanitised 2005 movie but in the harsher 1980s comic book by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, which depicted a fascist Britain and the psychologically damaged anarchist who brings it down. Despite the ironies behind the mysterious V’s painted smile – the money from replica masks goes not to Moore and Lloyd but to the corporate Time Warner; the original story isn’t a paean to people power but a picture of anarchy as a dangerous form of politicised madness – it still stands as comics culture’s most powerful injection into the wider body politic.

“What happened with the V mask was just beautiful,” says John Harris Dunning, a comics scriptwriter and the co-curator of “Comics Unmasked”, the British Library’s major summer exhibition and – the organisers claim – the largest collection of British comics art yet seen. “Comics have so often served revolutionary, rebellious ends, from their Victorian penny dreadful roots through the 1960s counterculture up to punk-inspired comics like 2000 AD and beyond. The face of V is absolutely key to what the exhibition is about. It’s astonishing to see how he’s spread out to wider culture, as a serious symbol,” Harris Dunning tells me.

Whether you’re a seasoned geek with a bagged collection of Whizzer and Chips under the bed, an agnostic intrigued by the recent Hollywood reinventions of Batman, The Avengers and Judge Dredd, or a member of the younger, increasingly female cohort drawn to the form by the success of related genre fiction such as Game of Thrones or The Hunger Games, “Comics Unmasked” is impressive in its scope and rigour.

Teasing out themes of sexuality, violence, politics and gender identity, it treats comics as literature worthy of investigation without ever losing sight of their illicit thrill – the pulp action and filthy humour that keeps the best of them from ever descending into worthiness. There are masterpieces about the most serious of subjects: Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust graphic novel Maus and Joe Sacco’s Palestine, for example. But something in the medium suits the base, the violent and the brilliantly disgusting.

From Dudley D Watkins’s comical grotesqueries in the Beano to Kevin O’Neill’s ick-factor work in 2000 AD, it becomes clear that though the Americans might be masters of the epic and the escapist, the British excel at black humour and gross-out with a point. The exhibition offers excerpts from Action, the infamous banned weekly of the 1970s whose heroes included the football hooligan-turned-player Lefty Lampton and the shark-with-a-grudge Hook Jaw. There is also the stark body-horror work of the artist John Hicklenton, who finished chronicling his struggle with multiple sclerosis in 100 Months, then ended his life at Dignitas the following day.

Because all publishers are legally required to deposit a copy of their titles with the British Library, the repository houses the biggest collection of comics in the UK, including not only news-stand publications but arcana such as self-published fanzines and obscure Victoriana. “We felt like Indiana Jones,” confesses Harris Dunning. Among the items he and his colleagues discovered were four suppressed Judge Dredd stories from 1978 in which the taciturn future lawman goes up against murderous versions of Ronald McDonald, the Burger King and the Jolly Green Giant. IPC, 2000 AD’s then publishers, settled out of court for the unauthorised use of copyrighted characters and these acidly satirical tales have not been seen since the original run. Another extra­ordinary find is the early comics work of Bob Monkhouse – yes, that Bob Monkhouse – including a 1949 spread from Oh Boy! in which the Monkhouse-created superhero Tornado fights monsters that for some reason resemble giant penises.

It’s impossible not to be a little awed by all this maverick talent toiling away for a modest page rate and little hope, until the 1980s at least, of any recognition from the supposedly legitimate world. Unsettled, too – the erotic comics of the 1970s and John Kent’s astoundingly sexist Varoomshka strip that ran in the Guardian until 1979 would fire up Twitter mobs today. But these stories were not looking for lukewarm approval. From Lord Snooty’s plebeian pals overturning the schoolroom order to the gay, feminist and psychedelic comics of the 1970s, they were born of immaculate private obsessions. Positioned on the despised margins, they could get away with anything.

Now comics are on the up and this exhibition will reach new audiences, too. Amazon has just bought the tablet app ComiXology and an influx of younger fans brought in by Harry Potter and the Marvel movies is transforming the comics world. “You walk into a comics shop now and the people are good looking,” says Harris Dunning, somewhat amazed. “They’re cool. I miss my old morbidly obese, serial killer fellow comics nerds, the ones who smelled of milk.” He shouldn’t worry. We’ll be there, too.

“Comics Unmasked” runs until 19 August

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Islam issue

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It’s been 25 years since the Super Nintendo and Sega Mega Drive were released – what’s changed?

Gaming may be a lonelier pusuit now, but there have been positive changes you can console yourselves with too.

Let's not act as if neither of us knows anything about gaming, regardless of how old we are. Surely you'll remember the Super Nintendo console (SNES) and Sega's Mega Drive (or Genesis, if you're an American)? Well, it's now been 25 years since they were released. OK, fine, it's been 25 years since the SNES' debut in Japan, whereas the Mega Drive was released 25 years ago only in Europe, having arrived in Asia and North America a bit earlier, but you get the idea.

Sonic the Hedgehog by Sega

It's amazing to think a quarter of a century has passed since these digital delights were unveiled for purchase, and both corporate heavyweights were ready for battle. Sega jumped into the new era by bundling Sonic, their prized blue mascot and Nintendo retaliated by including a Mario title with their console.

Today's equivalent console battle involves (primarily) Sony and Microsoft, trying to entice customers with similar titles and features unique to either the PlayStation 4 (PS4) or Xbox One. However, Nintendo was trying to focus on younger gamers, or rather family-friendly audiences (and still does) thanks to the endless worlds provided by Super Mario World, while Sega marketed its device to older audiences with popular action titles such as Shinobi and Altered Beast.

Donkey Kong Country by Rare

But there was one thing the Mega Drive had going for it that made it my favourite console ever: speed. The original Sonic the Hedgehog was blazingly fast compared to anything I had ever seen before, and the sunny background music helped calm any nerves and the urge to speed through the game without care. The alternative offered by the SNES included better visuals. Just look at the 3D characters and scenery in Donkey Kong Country. No wonder it ended up becoming the second best-selling game for the console.

Street Fighter II by Capcom

The contest between Sega and Nintendo was rough, but Nintendo ultimately came out ahead thanks to significant titles released later, demonstrated no better than Capcom's classic fighting game Street Fighter II. Here was a game flooding arcade floors across the world, allowing friends to play together against each other.

The frantic sights and sounds of the 16-bit era of gaming completely changed many people's lives, including my own, and the industry as a whole. My siblings and I still fondly remember our parents buying different consoles (thankfully we were saved from owning a Dreamcast or Saturn). Whether it was the built-in version of Sonic on the Master System or the pain-in-the-ass difficult Black Belt, My Hero or Asterix titles, our eyes were glued to the screen more than the way Live & Kicking was able to manage every Saturday morning.

The Sims 4 by Maxis

Today's console games are hyper-realistic, either in serious ways such as the over-the-top fatalities in modern Mortal Kombat games or through comedy in having to monitor character urine levels in The Sims 4. This forgotten generation of 90s gaming provided enough visual cues to help players comprehend what was happening to allow a new world to be created in our minds, like a good graphic novel.

I'm not at all saying gaming has become better or worse, but it is different. While advantages have been gained over the years, such as the time I was asked if I was gay by a child during a Halo 3 battle online, there are very few chances to bond with someone over what's glaring from the same TV screen other than during "Netflix and chill".

Wipeout Pure by Sony

This is where the classics of previous eras win for emotional value over today's blockbuster games. Working with my brother to complete Streets of Rage, Two Crude Dudes or even the first Halo was a draining, adventurous journey, with all the ups and downs of a Hollywood epic. I was just as enthralled watching him navigate away from the baddies, pushing Mario to higher and higher platforms in Super Mario Land on the SNES just before breaking the fast.

It's no surprise YouTube's Let's Play culture is so popular. Solo experiences such as Ico and Wipeout Pure can be mind-bending journeys too, into environments that films could not even remotely compete with.

But here’s the thing: it was a big social occasion playing with friends in the same room. Now, even the latest Halo game assumes you no longer want physical contact with your chums, restricting you to playing the game with them without being in their company.

Halo: Combat Evolved by Bungie

This is odd, given I only ever played the original title, like many other, as part of an effective duo. Somehow these sorts of games have become simultaneously lonely and social. Unless one of you decides to carry out the logistical nightmare of hooking up a second TV and console next to the one already in your living room.

This is why handhelds such as the Gameboy and PSP were so popular, forcing you to move your backside to strengthen your friendship. That was the whole point of the end-of-year "games days" in primary school, after all.

Mario Kart 8 by Nintendo

The industry can learn one or two things by seeing what made certain titles successful. It's why the Wii U – despite its poor sales performance compared with the PS4 – is an excellent party console, allowing you to blame a friend for your pitfalls in the latest Donkey Kong game. Or you can taunt them no end in Mario Kart 8, the console's best-selling game, which is ironic given its crucial local multiplayer feature, making you suspect there would be fewer physical copies in the wild.

In the same way social media makes it seem like you have loads of friends until you try to recall the last time you saw them, gaming has undergone tremendous change through the advent of the internet. But the best games are always the ones you remember playing with someone by your side.