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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. 

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

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