Friday 2 May was the first chance to see the British Library’s extensive comic book collection on display alongside original artwork and scripts loaned from such names as Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Dave Gibbons, China Mieville and Mark Millar. From the 1825 Glasgow Looking Glass, thought to be the first ever comic, to Judge Dredd’s helmet from the recent film adaptation of the 2000AD Judge Dredd series, the exhibition traces a long and tumultuous history of the British comic book.
Highlights of the exhibition also include an example of a medieval ‘comic’ from 1470, Apocalypse, a ventriloquist dummy of Ally Sloper, one of the earliest comic strip characters, 70’s underground comics tried at court for obscenity, such as Oz which is accompanied by a previously unheard recording of the Oz trial itself, as well as 21st century material, including original artwork and manuscripts of the likes of Kick-Ass, Sandman and Batman and Robin, and Keaton Henson’s 2012 doll’s house installation, Gloaming, adapted specially for the show.
Showing how the form has broken boundaries over centuries, the exhibition explores many comics and graphic novels which unflinchingly address issues around such challenging themes as sex, violence, race and drugs, but also the inspiration and context behind them. The exhibition looks at intriguing historical figures, from 19th century occultist, magician and writer Aleister Crowley, whose original tarot card painting of ‘The Universe’, on loan from The Warburg Institute, is on display in the UK for the first time since its initial presentation in the 1930s, to H P Lovecraft to Punch and Judy.
Curated by comic creator John Harris Dunning and leading UK expert Paul Gravett, working with Adrian Edwards, the British Library’s Head of Printed Historical Sources, the exhibition displays over 200 exhibits and uses newly commissioned artwork by celebrated comic book artist Dave McKean, the show’s artistic director.
Dave McKean, the artist behind Batman: Arkham Asylum, is just one example of the many British comic creators championed in the exhibition. Showing how British artists and writers have had a huge impact on the industry, Comics Unmasked includes personal loans of original scripts and artwork for British triumphs, including Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Tank Girl, Sandman, as well as examples of how British comic creators have subverted typically American super heroes, like Batman and Superman, and of course politicians and public figures.
Curators John Harris Dunning and Paul Gravett also aim to deconstruct comic books for a wider audience. As part of this idea the Library has recorded a day in the life of four important comic book artists as they work in their studios, including Isabel Greenberg and Posy Simmonds, which appear as life size projections in the show.
John Harris Dunning, co-curator of the show, says: “We hope that this show will stimulate creative disobedience and throw down the gauntlet to young creators – as well as show audiences, who perhaps have not read comics before, what a diverse and exciting medium they are. The demystification of the process of creating comics is a key part of this exhibition, with once in a lifetime opportunities to see original artwork and scripts from comics greats.”
Adrian Edwards, Head of Printed Historical Sources at the British Library, says: “We’re delighted to be celebrating the tradition of British comics with this landmark exhibition. Few realise how far back the form goes and the Library’s collections are unrivalled.”
Paul Gravett, co-curator of the show, says: “Much more than childhood nostalgia, comics are a powerful adult medium which can reflect and impact on society and change’s people minds and lives. From the very start, comics have been cross-pollinating with movies, music, theatre and all the other media and today are on the cutting-edge of digital storytelling and multi-media installation art.”
At a time when digital comics have never been more popular the Library has worked with webcomic pioneer, Daniel Merlin Goodbrey, and digital graphic novel company Sequential to display digital comics and graphic novels around the exhibition, allowing visitors to explore the content further and see the culture shift in the industry. Among the webcomics curated by Daniel is Club Salsa, a 1996 (now fabled) comic, defunct for years, which has been restored for the exhibition.
Renowned artists and writers in the events in the Comics Unmasked season include Bryan and Mary Talbot (2 May), Neil Gaiman with Tori Amos (16 May), Woodrow Phoenix and others (23 May) Dave McKean’s Nine Lives (6-7 June), Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis and others on superheroes (16 June), Melinda Gebbie (3 July), Alejandro Jodorowsky (4 July), Pat Mills, Dave Gibbons and Frazer Irving on 2000AD (9 July), Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton plus those involved in the ‘Oz Trial’ (14 July), Posy Simmonds and Steve Bell (18 July) and Bryan Lee O’Malley (15 August).
Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK runs from 2 May to 19 August 2014
Price: £9.50 / £7.50 and £5 concessions / Free for 16-18 year olds
Booking information To book tickets for Comics Unmasked visit www.bl.uk/comics-unmasked, call 01937 546546 (Mon – Fri, 09.00 – 17.00) or buy tickets in person at the British Library.
Exhibition opening hours
Monday 10.00 – 18.00, Tuesday 10.00 – 20.00, Wednesday – Friday 10.00 – 18.00, Saturday 10.00 – 17.00, Sunday and English public holidays 11.00 – 17.00