The best exhibition of the Summer

I’ve been wanting to write this post for a couple of weeks. Since Father’s Day in fact, when my family took me to the British Library as a treat.  But the Portus MOOC was such hard work, and the Lego modelling so compelling, that everything else was put on hold.

It’s not too late to recommend this exhibition though, which is a “must see“, even if you don’t think you are that interested in Comics. Yes, comics.

The exhibition is called Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK, a title which I think might be the weakest part of the whole thing. The bit after the colon is fine. For those of us reading comics as kids in the 70’s the sub-title is redolent with the memory of the likes of Action comic, about which our parents and the media expressed such horror that it was cancelled. Of course the epitome of those punkish days, and the longest lived publication, is 2000AD which has been the spawning ground of  British comic talent, and which has given us memorable characters like Halo Jones, and most famously the fascist cop satire, Judge Dredd. That’s good. And that’s why I’m so disappointed with the main, before the colon, title. “Comics Unmasked” screams “hey, comics are more that super heroes!” but, in this country at least, comics are hardly ever about superheroes. So the title starts the experience off, it feels, a little on the defensive.

Which wasn’t the curators’ intention I’m sure. Here, the explain what they wanted to do in their own words:

The exhibition design is brilliant, led by reknowned illustrator and occasional comic creator Dave McKean. Using a a tucked away cul-de-sac space not dissimilar to the British Museum’s new gallery (which hosted the dreadful Vikings exhibition), McKean and the BL team have created a design that sings to the subject and draws visitors into the story. A million times better than Vikings and, I bet, on a fraction of the budget. Visitors encounter huddled groups of Occupy protesters throughout the exhibition. Mannequins somewhat menacingly sporting Guy Fawkes masks in a way that connects the exhibition with modern day anarchic politics and also reminds us how that mass protest, and the Anonymous hacker movement, have taken for a badge a mask drawn for a comic.

The Library’s content is arranged thematically,  but in a way that also shows a chronology of the development of British comics, kicking off with Mischief and Mayhem, which manages of combine the likes of the Beano and Viz comic with religeon and the earists days of comics, including this fabulous 15th century chapbook, a bible story that looks a LOT like a a comic. (No photos were allowed in the exhibition, I guess there are lot of rights-holders involved, so this is sucked from James Bacon’s preview for Forbidden Planet International):

Then there are sections on identity and diversity (To See Ourselves) and Politics: Power and People (with more masked mannequins) before an optional section (the whole exhibition has a parental advisory for under 16s, but my children enjoyed most of it – but not as much as I did!) called Let’s Talk About Sex. This section contained the learning highlight of the day for me, as it showed a double page spread wherein the american style hero of the story has a fist fight with giant ambulatory penises (penii?). The learning point? That this was one of many comic stories written and drawn by Bob Monkhouse. Yes, that Bob Monkhouse, comedian, script-writer, game-show host and general light entertainer.

Outside the optional sexy bit, there’s more wholesome fare, including Dan Dare’s prototype incarnation, not as a “Pilot of the Future” but rather an Interplanetary Chaplain.  This kicks off the Hero with a Thousand Faces section which chronicles the so called “British Invasion” of UK writers into American superhero comics, wherein they managed both to celebrate and subvert the genre for a while.

The final section Breakdowns: The Outer Limits of Comics brilliantly dives into inner-space magical fantasy, as well as putting the two modern day self-proclaimed actual wizards of comics, Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, into the same room as, not just each other (they don’t get on in real life), but John Dee, Elizabethan wizard. Dee is represented by his last notebook which, I happen to know, contains an account of his scryer, Bartholomew Hickman, summoning an angel to advice on Dr Dee’s piles…

I wished I’d stayed longer, I want to go again, and writing this, I curse myself for not buying the catalog.

The exhibition ends on the 19th of August. So go. Now!

I shouldn’t have delayed you by making you read this.

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