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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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After Strictly, I'd love to see Ed Balls start a new political party

My week, from babbling at Michael Gove to chatting Botox with Ed Balls and a trip to Stroke City.

If you want to see yourself as others see you, write a weekly column in a national newspaper, then steel yourself to read “below the line”. Under my last offering I read the following comment: “Don’t be angry, feel pity. Her father was a member of the European Parliament. Her older brother has been a member of parliament, a cabinet minister, a secretary of state, a historian, a mayor of London. Her younger brother is a member of parliament and minister for universities and science. She has a column in the Daily Mail. Can you imagine how she feels deep inside?” Before I slammed my laptop shut – the truth always hurts – my eye fell on this. “When is Rachel going to pose for Playboy seniors’ edition?” Who knew that Playboy did a seniors’ edition? This is the best compliment I’ve had all year!

 

Three parts of Michael Gove

Part one Bumped into Michael Gove the other day for the first time since I called him a “political psychopath” and “Westminster suicide bomber” in print. We had one of those classic English non-conversations. I babbled. Gove segued into an anecdote about waiting for a London train at Castle Cary in his trusty Boden navy jacket and being accosted by Johnnie Boden wearing the exact same one. I’m afraid that’s the punchline! Part two I’ve just had a courtesy call from the Cheltenham Literature Festival to inform me that Gove has been parachuted into my event. I’ve been booked in since June, and the panel is on modern manners. De mortuis nil nisi bonum, of course, but I do lie in bed imagining the questions I hope I might be asked at the Q&A session afterwards. Part three There has been what we might call a serious “infarction” of books about Brexit, serialised passim. I never thought I would write these words, but I’m feeling sorry for the chap. Gove gets such a pasting in the diaries of Sir Craig Oliver.

Still, I suppose Michael can have his own say, because he’s returning to the Times this week as a columnist. Part of me hopes he’ll “do a Sarah Vine”, as it’s known in the trade (ie, write a column spiced with intimate revelations). But I am braced for policy wonkery rather than the petty score-settling and invasions of his own family privacy that would be so much more entertaining.

 

I capture the castle

I’ve been at an event on foreign affairs called the Mount Stewart Conversations, co-hosted by BBC Northern Ireland and the National Trust. Before my departure for Belfast, I mentioned that I was going to the province to the much “misunderestimated” Jemima Goldsmith, the producer, and writer of this parish. I didn’t drop either the name of the house or the fact that Castlereagh, a former foreign secretary, used to live there, and that the desk that the Congress of Vienna was signed on is in the house, as I assumed in my snooty way that Ms Goldsmith wouldn’t have heard of either. “Oh, we used to have a house in Northern Ireland, Mount Stewart,” she said, when I said I was going there. “It used to belong to Mum.” That told me.

Anyway, it was a wonderful weekend, full of foreign policy and academic rock stars too numerous to mention. Plus, at the Stormont Hotel, the staff served porridge with double cream and Bushmills whiskey for breakfast; and the gardens at Mount Stewart were stupendous. A top performer was Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff, who runs his own conflict resolution charity. Powell negotiated the Good Friday Agreement and also has a very natty line in weekend casual wear. Jeremy Corbyn has said he wants a minister for peace, as well as party unity. Surely “Curly” Powell – a prince of peace if ever there was one – must be shoo-in for this gig.

PS: I was told that Derry/Londonderry is now known as “Stroke City”. I imagined stricken residents all being rushed to Casualty, before I worked it out.

 

On board with Balls

Isn’t Ed Balls bliss? From originating Twitter’s Ed Balls Day to becoming Strictly Come Dancing’s Ed Balls, he is adding hugely to the gaiety of the nation. I did the ITV show The Agenda with Tom Bradby this week, and as a fellow guest Balls was a non-stop stream of campery, charleston steps, Strictly gossip and girly questions about whether he should have a spray tan (no!), or Botox under his armpits to staunch the sweat (also no! If you block the armpits, it will only appear somewhere else!).

He is clever, fluent, kind, built like a s*** outhouse, and nice. I don’t care that his waltz looked as if his partner, Katya, was trying to move a double-doored Sub-Zero American fridge across a shiny floor. After Strictly I’d like to see him start a new party for all the socially liberal, fiscally conservative, pro-European millions of us who have been disenfranchised by Brexit and the Corbynisation of the Labour Party. In fact, I said this on air. If he doesn’t organise it, I will, and he sort of promised to be on board!

 

A shot in the dark

I was trying to think of something that would irritate New Statesman readers to end with. How about this: my husband is shooting every weekend between now and 2017. This weekend we are in Drynachan, the seat of Clan Campbell and the Thanes of Cawdor. I have been fielding calls from our host, a type-A American financier, about the transportation of shotguns on BA flights to Inverness – even though I don’t shoot and can’t stand the sport.

I was overheard droning on by Adrian Tinniswood, the author of the fashionable history of country houses The Long Weekend. He told me that the 11th Duke of Bedford kept four cars and eight chauffeurs to ferry revellers to his pile at Woburn. Guests were picked up in town by a chauffeur, accompanied by footmen. Luggage went in another car, also escorted by footmen, as it was not done to travel with your suitcase.

It’s beyond Downton! I must remember to tell mine host how real toffs do it. He might send a plane just for the guns.

Rachel Johnson is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories