Last weekend I attended the British Library’s exhibition Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK. The exhibition set’s about to challenge preconceptions and prejudices surrounding comics, at the same times as celebrating British comics.
It is the UK’s largest comic exhibition, which stands as a bold statement of the cultural and media influence that comics have had in recent years. With such fanfare for a medium that I love, it goes without saying that I was very excited to see it.
Upon entering the British Library the exhibitions presence was obvious, the gift shop was plastered with comic-related merchandise. Walking through the gift shop to enter the exhibition you are greeted by mannequins sporting V for Vendetta Mask, a theme that ran throughout the exhibition (for reasons unbeknown).
Effectively the exhibition was broken up into six parts: “Mischief and Mayhem”, which concentrated on humour; “To See Ourselves”, which contained more socially-conscious examples in comics; “Politics: Power and the People”, which, as you have probably guessed, focused on politics in comics and their often anarchic standpoint; “Let’s Talk About Sex”, another easy one to guess, this was a slightly sectioned-off area which had examples of the more erotic side of comics; “Hero with a Thousand Faces”, celebrated the hero-types and spoke of the British influence in American comics; The final section was titled, “Breakdowns: The Outer Limits of Comics”, and featured the depiction of magic and spirituality in comics.
I preconceived the exhibition to have an abundance of wall-to-wall framed original artwork, as this is what I have come to expect from illustration exhibitions in the British Library. Instead the work was housed in glass cabinets, mostly prints, with very few original pieces.
Some examples on display dated back before the twentieth century, they gave focus to Punch and the Penny Dreadful. The accompanying descriptions often only explained what was happening on the page. Occasionally there was information regarding the creators and the state of politics at the time of their publication. However, overall I did not feel the descriptions explained well enough why the curator chose that particular example, why that page, why those creators. The majority of examples just felt completely random.
This randomness of examples may have worked if there were a plethora of work. But this was not the case, the examples were limited. If I were alone in the exhibition, and not queuing to see each piece I think I would have been in and out within 30 minutes (and I read very slowly).
Some smaller gripes with the exhibition were the fact that it was presented as a praising of UK comics and the majority of the “Hero with a Thousand Faces” section were American publications. I completely agree that the influence of UK creators on an international scale should have been represented in as exhibition such as this, but some of the examples were not particularly note-worthy, and just muddies any statement of the sort. Reading the accompanying information, I felt at no point did the descriptions adequately explain the impact that the UK creator’s had on the comic industry. They would uses words such as “groundbreaking” but not go on to explain why it was groundbreaking.
Another gripe, which is probably just me, was that there were quite a few examples of racism in UK comics and strips. From my basic knowledge of the UK comic scene, historically and todays, I do not feel racism has ever been a spotlighting factor. The examples were not by any eminent creators, and the issue felt a little shoe-horned in. Perhaps one or two example may have shown how comics were being used as a means to express social reactions. However more than that seem as if the curator was trying to make a point, a point which I feel is simply not there.
Suffice to say, I walked out of the exhibition (through the gift shop), disappointed. I felt the British Library really missed the boat on this one. The exhibition was convoluted and didn’t offer much in the way of learning. The information given was only for specific pieces, which did not help create a bigger picture of the history of UK Comics. I can honestly say that if I did not know anything about UK comics, after visiting this exhibition, I still would not know. Perhaps I am not the target audience. Perhaps it is just aimed at those whom do not already have an appreciation for the comic medium. In which case, I would have to concede and say it does offer a broad scope of what comics are capable of, and what they have already achieved.
Side note: If you are interested in the history of UK and US comics, I highly recommend picking up Comics, Comix & Graphic Novels. It is extremely informative and chronicles the milestones of the medium.
With that all said, I still highly commend the British Library for putting on the exhibition in the first place, and I do hope that it stands as a statement for other esteemed establishments to pay attention to. I guess what it may come down to, as with most things inspired by comics, you simply can’t please everyone.
If you have seen the exhibition, or are planning on going I would be most interested in hearing your opinions. Am I alone in my criticisms, do you disagree? You can leave us a comment, or drop us a note on Facebook and Twitter.
The exhibition will be running until 19 August 2014.