A couple of Jonathan Cape-rs recently popped down to the Comics Unmasked exhibition at the British Library. Here’s what they thought:
Although thematically grouped – ‘Mischief and Mayhem’, ‘To See Ourselves’, ‘Politics: Power and the People’ – each work was intriguingly stand-alone. The breadth of style and subject was astonishing and made more dynamic by the constant jumble of old and new, yet the books on display were staggered and unadorned. Orderly queues of viewers crept along with their noses against the glass, trying to read everything packed into each book’s one spread on display. It was frustrating: all the glass boxes and the coy angles of the suspended books; craning your neck around someone craning their neck to read the small packed text or to follow a whimsical ink line. I’ll admit, I felt COMICS UNMASKED was an immersive tease. I wanted to hold and parse through the books that were new and surprising to me, such as Gareth Ennis’s True Faith or Asia Alfasi’s Beginnings. One seemed to be about spurned love and pyromania in Northern Ireland, and the other about moving from Libya to Birmingham as a young Arab-Muslim woman. But I was also appreciative of the cultural narratives underlying the exhibit as a whole.
British comics showed off their diversity and depth, if not many of their pages. I suppose the sparse display made a point of how much gets packed into each frame of a graphic novel, as the opened books spoke vividly for themselves.
Comics Unmasked at the British Library is the most important exhibition about British comics there has ever been. And it is truly astonishing in its content, tracing the legacy from illuminated manuscripts, Punch & Judy strips, and the influence of American superheroes through to the political subversion of V for Vendetta and our very own Sally Heathcote. I could have spent days in here, reading every word, spotting old favourites, such as Oor Wullie and Tamara Drewe, as well as brilliantly observed comics I’d never heard of.
That said, it was a little frustrating that this wealth of content was displayed in such a way that it was very difficult to read. I kept squishing my nose into the glass trying to read tiny, ancient lettering, and had to queue at cases displaying more celebrated works. But the worst thing was when we walked out of the section on political subversion to find that we were only about half way through the exhibition, with a mere ten minutes before the British Library closed! We galloped through the remaining exhibits but it felt like a waste to catch only a glimpse of such wonderful comics. Next time I’ll book off an entire day and bring a magnifying glass.
The highlight, though, was a total surprise… spotting a comic a pal of mine published in 2002. I met Dr Parsons about ten years ago, when he was selling zines such as This is Me by Michael Jackson, and 101 Ways Diana Could Have Died. Tony and Me: by Georg Bush as told to Dr Parsons was in the section showing how comics can be politically subversive in a way that almost no other medium can… you can read what Dr Parsons thought here.
But overall, huge kudos to the British Library for recognising comics in such a spectacular way, and make sure you catch it before it finishes next weekend.
Have you been to the exhibition already? Let us know what you thought!
The exhibition is currently on at the British Library and closes on August 19th. Find out more here.