Detail from a cartoon by Jamie Hewlett, creator of Tank Girl
Show Hide image

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

Show Hide image

No, J J Abrams – Star Wars was never “a boy’s thing”

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”.

In 1977, millions of people went to cinemas to see Star Wars: A New Hope, and afterwards, a good portion of them were suddenly rendered invisible. It didn’t matter that they rushed to line up for the sequels; it didn’t matter that they were eager to buy and play with the toys; it didn’t matter that they grew up to read the novels and explore the expanded universe and sit through the prequels and introduce their children to something they had loved as a child. They’re a group that overlaps with the invisible force that haunts comic book shops, or plays a lot of video games, or makes up nearly half the audience for superhero films, or, to one New Statesman staffer’s persistent, possibly-only-half joking incredulity, liked Doctor Who long before Russell T Davies got his hands on it. 

With less than three weeks before J J Abrams’s rebooted Star Wars hits screens, the director went on Good Morning America yesterday to talk in vague, broad strokes about his turn with the franchise. But the otherwise-unremarkable interview made headlines because of one segment, when Abrams was asked who he most excited to hear from about the film. He said:

“Star Wars was always about, you was always a boy’s thing, and a movie that dads take their sons to. And though that’s still very much the case, I was really hoping that this could be a movie that mothers can take their daughters to as well. So I’m looking forward to kids seeing this movie and to seeing themselves in it, and seeing that they’re capable of doing what they could never imagine was possible.”

That invisible group of Star Wars fans, who love that well-known “boy’s thing”? Women, who have spent the past four decades loving the franchise just as much as all those fanboys, even if no one else – the fanboys themselves in particular – seemed to take much notice. Abrams’s offhand remark coincided with recent headlines like Bloomberg’s “‘Star Wars’ Toys Aren’t Just For Boys Anymore as Rey Takes Over”, a reference to the female lead of The Force Awakens, portrayed by Daisy Ridley. Across the web, aside from stirrings by the now-mandatory Internet Outrage Machine, the overwhelming response seemed to be one of sad and somewhat resigned frustration, with women sharing memories of falling in love with the series, essentially saying, “We’ve been here this whole time.” My friend Lori Morimoto, in “An Open Letter to J J Abrams”, wrote, “I’d like to tell you the story of a girl who became a Star Wars fan. I hope you can suspend disbelief over my existence long enough to make it to the end.”

Star Wars is a universe populated by complicated gender politics, on and off screen. The three original films fail most facets of the Bechdel test (I laughed out loud here seeing the suggestion that A New Hope deserves a pass because the only two named female characters could have talked offscreen). Princess Leia’s enslavement and escape (and the bikini she wears while doing it) is a cultural touchstone that’s launched a complicated feminist dialogue over the decades. And it is perhaps because of the mostly-male cast in the films – and the long-held assumption that science fiction is a primarily masculine property – that the franchise has long been marketed exclusively to boys, despite the massive and loyal female audience.

But the modern Star Wars empire is helmed a woman, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, and when she revealed that two-thirds the story team behind the newest film was female, she also pledged that there would be a woman in the director’s chair before too long. And since one of the leads in The Force Awakens is a woman, her character, along with a black male lead – portrayed by John Boyega – sparked anger from the reactionary white guy corner of the internet in recent months (sorry that the SJWs ruined your movies, guys!). For films that once portrayed a place so alien that only white men were allowed to speak to each other, the widening of representation in this reboot apparently looks to some like a political – or, to them, a politically correct – act.

The welcome diversity of the leading cast highlights all the good intentions in Abrams’s statement: that this new film promises more than a panoply of white guys, that girls and people of colour can see themselves reflected back in these new heroes. All the girls who thought the movies weren’t for them because they only saw men onscreen, or the endless line of male action figures on the shelf, have a point of entry now – that’s what representation means. And that’s certainly worth cheering for, even if it only took us 40 years to get there. But it’s hard for all the people who aren’t white men who’ve found other points of entry over the years, who managed to love it without seeing themselves there. I can speak from personal experience when I say that a lifetime of media about white guys hasn’t stopped me from finding characters and stories to fall in love with.

Here’s a theory: you might not have noticed that you were surrounded by female Star Wars fans all these years because you were the one who rendered them invisible. Women who like things such as Star Wars, or comics, or anything else that leads journalists to write those painful “not just for boys anymore” trend stories, have had to take it from all sides. Enthusiasm for something seen as the province of men clashes with mainstream perceptions of femininity. Even women liking this stuff in the context of traditionally feminised fan spaces, like fanfiction, find themselves fending off assumptions from men and women alike, perhaps the accusation that they are sexualising something too much, or they are placing too much weight on the emotional elements of a storyline. Basically, that they’re liking the thing the wrong way.

But women’s enthusiasm for perceived “male” spaces is always liking the thing the wrong way. The plainest illustration of this is the Fake Geek Girl, in meme and in practice: the barriers to entry are raised immeasurably high when women try to join in many male-dominated fannish conversations. The wonderful Noelle Stevenson illustrates this beautifully – and then literally, when a guy challenges her on her work. I’m sure that just by writing about Star Wars, I’m opening myself up to the angry gatekeeping-style pissing contests that men like to toss at women who claim to like the things they like. (Let’s get it all out in the open here: Star Wars isn’t my fandom. I saw the three original films on dates with my first boyfriend – our first date: Star Trek: First Contact, because we were clearly the coolest kids in town – and upon rewatches as an adult nothing grabbed me. But I am also a fandom journalist, so that’s kind of how this works.)

There’s a persistent myth – and I say persistent because I keep seeing these deluded boys get mad in new viral posts – that women who claim to like geeky things are just pretending, the somewhat confusing notion that they are doing it for attention. (And then there’s the inevitable anger that in this supposedly desperate plea for attention – why else would a woman claim to like their beloved characters?! – these women still don’t want to sleep with them.) And what never seems to occur to any of these gatekeepers is that these women were there all along, liking these things just as much – and are finally being given the cultural space to be open about their interests and passions. But that space is given haltingly; plenty of women, tired of waiting, are going out and taking it. The result is the tension (and, at times, outright hostility) that has marked certain corners of the fannish world in the past few years.

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”. There are many reasons that people love Star Wars, and most of them are universal things: the themes, the characters, the archetypal struggle of good versus evil. Most of the time we default to the white guy; he struggles with things we all struggle with, but somehow, he is deemed most relatable. Abrams, Kennedy, and everyone behind the new films should be applauded for their efforts to give non-white guys a turn at the universal story – I think these are incredibly valuable choices, and certainly will make the films vastly more accessible, particularly to children.

But we don’t just need Rey on screen and Rey dolls on the shelves for mothers and daughters – those same mothers and daughters have found plenty to love without many women to look to on their screens. We need boys to love the female heroes as much as we’ve loved the men over the years: we need universal to be truly universal. And when we express that love, the default reaction shouldn’t be a challenge: not, “You don’t like this thing as much as I do,” or, “You don’t love this the right way.” Isn’t it easier to say, “Oh, I’m so glad that you love this, too!”

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.