Published on May 20th, 2014 | by JCDoyle0
Comics Unmasked: Exhibition And Entertainment
“Kill Superheroes. Tell your own dreams.” Alejandro Jodorowsky
Britain has a history of challenging and controversial comic books and cartoons that dates back not just a handful of decades but for hundreds of years. This is the premise behind the British Library’s new exhibition entitled Comics Unmasked. The curators of the show have rifled through their archives to find examples of sequential art dating as far back as 1470 however the majority of the examples come from the last 200 hundred years. A surprising amount of these are from the 19th century and illustrate ideas of subversion and political commentary which most people would associate with the late 80’s comics of Alan Moore and Art Spiegelman.
When putting the show together Paul Gravett and John Harris Dunning had a decision to make regarding focus. Even today there is a problem when discussing comics that is difficult to overcome and that is the mindset that comics are ‘for children’. Many conversations will start with “I read comics” and end almost straight with a response along the lines of “Oh yeah, I used to read the Beano, when I was a kid”. To make sure the exhibition is taken seriously they have deliberately drawn on adult themes that have been the backbone of sequential art since its earliest forms. Themes of violence, sex, rebellion and anarchy are prevalent throughout the work on show and the exhibition space has been filled with eerie, intimidating manikins all dressed with the Guy Fawkes mask made famous in V for Vendetta. Everywhere you go, these silent metaphors of political upheaval watch over you, never letting you forget that the work on display is more than just images on paper.
One of the things that is easy to forget, in a world where the Marvel Universe dominates the cinema screens and DC have reign over the small screen, is how much impact some comics had on the society when they were produced, and in most cases this was met with outrage and controversy. The exhibition is split into six different sections, each of which displays modern comics against historical counterparts to contrast reaction and show how times have changed. Some titles you may have heard of, Tales from the Crypt being a famous one, but it is surprising how many there have been over the years. It’s also fascinating to see the titles that didn’t cause a stir and were just accepted as products of their time. The Andy Capp strip often featured spousal abuse, an issue of Marvelman saw the hero blacking up and the superhero Tornado, written by Bob Monkhouse, was shown pitted against seed spewing, phallus shaped Kharucha aliens.
There are a whole host of notable works on offer. An avid comic reader/collector may find themselves ticking off a long list of titles that they have read or even own but there are easily enough rarities to keep the most devoted collector interested. Among the brilliant exhibits are some pages of Alan Moore’s script for V for Vendetta. If you’ve never read an Alan Moore script prepare to spend a good portion of your time marvelling over his exhaustive descriptions of each panel. The beauty of this particular example is that it contains changes he has made with his own hand, portraying his thought process and often fickle mind. An added bonus is that the original drawn page for this script is hung on the wall behind. To see how Alan Moore’s script was turned into a readable work of art by David Lloyd is illuminating.
A page from The Illustrated Police News from 1888 regarding the Whitechapel Mystery is as gruesome and as shocking as Eddie Campbell’s art in From Hell. Dave McKean’s Black Hole painting cum sculpture shows how affective sequential art can be in relaying important and sometimes political information to the public. It also demonstrates that comics don’t have to be simple pencil and ink drawings on paper, it is a reminder of the vast array of art styles that can be used to create a mass produced product.
If you have an interest in history, it is worth going to see this exhibition. If you lean towards social and political studies it will be as relevant to you. If you are a fan of art and literature then it is a ‘can’t miss’ experience and, obviously, if you are a fan of comics then you will be able to spend a good, long afternoon moving slowly around from one exhibit to the next.
The British Library has managed to pull together a wonderful, informative selection of historically significant documents that illustrates without doubt that the comic industry can produce culturally relevant products which are as important as anything produced in any other medium. And I believe that this is one of the exhibitions main triumphs.
My personal favourite exhibit is the Alan Moore scripted, J H Williams III drawn Promethea issue 32. This particular comic has been dismantled and framed as it was meant to be seen, as a poster, with the story flowing through a single image. Although I have not read all of Promethea, it is on my long list of titles to collect at some point, this single issue represents everything that a comic can be. It is a work of literature, it is educational, philosophical, it draws from history and spirituality and above all it is a work of Art. Promethea issue 32 demonstrates that comics can be so much more than 32 pages of drawings and speech bubbles.
There is no ordinary person. – Alan Moore
Just like the start of a lecture from a guest speaker, 250 people crowded into the Conference Room at the British Library and were awash with excitement and anticipation at what promised to be an interesting couple of hours. The room was introduced to the Exhibition mentioned above and the ideas behind it before two of the shows curators invited Neil Gaiman onto the stage. The audience gave him the welcome he deserves.
There’s no mistaking Neil Gaiman, at least not by anyone who has more than a passing interest in comics, and his naturally endearing personality radiated from the stage from the very beginning. There was a short chat about his first foray into the comic industry, which included an anecdote regarding a journalistic endeavour where a piece of his writing wasn’t published because it ‘lacked balance’ and seemed to suggest that graphic novels were ‘a good thing’. Neil agreed that he was unable to give them the balance they wanted and was happy to let the article go unpublished. After this Tori Amos was invited up onto the stage and the conversation really started to flow.
It is worth noting that both Neil and Tori had given up their evening despite their busy schedules. Tori Amos is in the middle of a European tour and this was her ‘night off’ and Neil had just flown in from Jordan where he was acting as an ambassador for the United Nations Refugee Agency. This was a harrowing experience for him and when he spoke about it he was obviously moved by what he had seen. It is worth checking out his writings and interviews about it even though they aren’t all easy viewing.
Basically, the fact that they had managed to both be in the same place at the same time seemed to be a minor miracle and this was reflected in the conversational style of the evening. The pair of them are obviously best friends and they feed off each other creatively and emotionally. There was a spark in the room that everyone one could feel. Some of their stories have been circulating for years, especially the ‘how they met’ tale but the telling felt fresh and new when they batted it back and forth between them.
Neil Gaiman has an incredible knowledge for dates and places while Tori expressed her creative journey through her own personal spirituality. It was touching to hear them speak of The Blueberry Girl which was a prayer written for Tori’s unborn daughter and then laugh together as they remembered another event in two conflicting ways. You could tell why these two amazingly creative people had been such good friends for over twenty years.
And that enjoyment of each others’ creativity was passed into the room. Tori Amos constantly referred to the audience as Artists and it wasn’t just a platitude, the whole conversation was about that the fact that people influence each other in random, unconnected ways. Neil Gaiman explained that when he got together with his friends, other big British names from the comic industry, they very rarely talked about comics, and it was always about new poets they’d discovered or Novels worth reading. For the comic world to grow and consistently evolve, just as it did in the late 80’s and early 90’s with the British Invasion of the American comic book, it has to draw influence from the worlds outside of itself, allow music and film and Art movements to provide new, interesting ways to produce innovative comics.
However, the most memorable thing from the talk was that Neil Gaiman is obsessed with being a ‘head in a jar in Futurama’. Maybe someone should start a petition.
I think it’s going to be a long night – from Club Salsa created by Dave McKean
After the intimacy of a small conference room, the excitement moved out into the entrance hall of the library where musical entertainment was provided. It felt like the opening of the exhibition with two bars set up and free evening entry round the show, they were even laying on special late night tours where the darker side of the exhibition was discussed.
Amanda Palmer was due to host the evenings’ entertainment but personal issues meant she could not attend however this did not affect the mood of the night. Everyone was treated to a music/video fusion from Dave McKean, the long time Neil Gaiman collaborator and The Sandman cover artist, which was entrancing and as spellbinding as any of his other work. It was like a live version of his film MirrorMask. The songs were bitter sweet and well received by all present.
Following this was more from Neil Gaiman as he read a selection of his short stories, the most notable being The Day The Saucers Came. Even if you have heard this before, it is still funny and you get dragged into the ridiculousness of it all.
Marc Almond was the headliner, replacing Ms Palmer, and he filled the role graciously, almost apologising at the beginning because he only had a few weeks to prepare. You wouldn’t have noticed.
The final act of the night was a very loud, electronic, dance music performance by Alexander Tucker and Pam Hogg, a famous fashion designer, was on DJ duties between acts providing a brilliant rock based soundtrack for the evening.
On a personal note, the entire day, from entering the exhibition to leaving with a ringing in my ear, was totally enjoyable. They curators of the show have put on an informative and entertaining retrospective of British Comics and then provided a number of events to celebrate everything that surrounds and influences the amazing talent on display.
My highlight of the day was getting to meet and speak to Dave McKean whose work I have admired for so long. He hinted at the possibility of recording his music and signed my copy of The Sandman issue 41, which was the first issue I bought. I had great associative memories attached to that comic already and now I have a whole heap more.
All in all the experience was exciting and different, it reflected the earlier conversation between Neil and Tori that comics are not just about monthly superheroes printed on a page. There is so much more feeding into the comic book world, influencing it and helping it to grow. Without the acknowledgment of these other influences we would be left with self referencing clichés in a pool of stagnant stories, and nobody wants that.
If you get the chance I would highly recommend a visit to the Comics Unmasked Exhibition which runs until 19 August. There are also a series of related events, some of which promise to be very exciting, for example Dave McKean will be back for a full evening of music.
And if anyone knows how to, maybe you could start a ‘Neil Gaiman’s head in a jar for Futurama’ online petition. I, for one, would sign it.
For more information regarding the Comics Unmasked Exhibition please visit their web site:
Photos by Chelsea Abbott