Comics Unmasked exhibition review

I was standing on the platform on the underground waiting for the Jubilee Line to take me home after a long day spending my hard earned wages. Staring me in the face was an advert for the British Library’s latest exhibition ‘Comics Unmasked’.

Brand new Jamie Hewlett design for Comics Unmasked at the British Library (c) Jamie Hewlett 2014
Brand new Jamie Hewlett design for Comics Unmasked at the British Library (c) Jamie Hewlett 2014

I was intrigued by the comic book style character on the poster who looked liked she belonged in the band, The Gorillaz. Luckily for me I was given the opportunity to go along to explore the exhibition and review it for The Alt Entertainer.

Heroine, 1978 (c) Suzi Varty
Heroine, 1978 (c) Suzi Varty

Arriving at The British Museum I discovered that the exhibition was divided into 6 areas of interest. The first area was entitled ‘Mischief and Mayhem’. This section highlighted certain comics where their visually disturbing characters would undertake activities and actions that were seen to rebel against law and order. These comics portrayed more than slapstick comedy, as their realistic portrayals caused campaigns for comic censorship.

Although they looked playful and appealing their stories and themes were ones that you may expect in a 18 rated film of today’s society, blurring the lines between the art of comics and what is suitable for younger readers of these works. Look no further than the comic ‘Punch’ illustrated by William Newman, whose characters alone are enough to provide you with a few sleepless nights.

The next section of the exhibition focused on how we see ourselves and how others are portrayed in comics. Entitled ‘To See Ourselves’, this part showcased work that has established the values of storytelling and character archetypes you find today in not just comics, but also films, TV shows and books.

Torrid Erotic Art, 1979, (c) Erich von Götha - Robin Ray
Torrid Erotic Art, 1979, (c) Erich von Götha – Robin Ray

The stories found in comics such as ‘Heroine’ by Suzy Varty, would take the ‘ordinary’ citizen and throw them into a imaginative world facing life problems that ‘we’ the reader are often challenged by. Whether these comics are autobiographical or non-fiction, they reflect on real-life experiences which allow the reader to empathise with and relate to the situations.

We then found ourselves entering an area that addressed political issues during the period each respected comic was released. Comic maestro Alan Moore was well represented in this section, highlighting his work on ‘V for Vendetta’ which addressed Guy Fawkes’ plan on blowing up the Houses of Parliament, giving him a sinister looking mask which has since been adopted around the world by several protest movements.

Next up was the subject of everyone’s guilty pleasures. How sex was utilised in order to create a comic that people would feel comfortable enough to bravely read in public – well at least in their homes for no one to judge! Similar to today’s society sexual images were a taboo subject in the 18th century, where erotic comics were seen as being x-rated.

It wasn’t until post World War I that sex first entered comics, establishing the subject to be illegal and a setting stone of the rules we have against the subject today. ‘Let’s Talk About Sex’ focused on comics such as ‘Torrid’ by Robin Ray, which exampled exotic art that was strongly focused on in comics written in the 70’s.

Entering the final parts of the exhibition we came across the more latter comics, ones that have became household names of today. Comics such as ‘Judge Dredd’ and ‘Tank Girl’ kicked started the ‘Hero with a Thousand Faces’ phase of the creative platform. No longer were squeaky clean heroes dominating the industry, as audiences craved a type of anti-hero to look up to.

Judge Dredd's helmet, loaned by DNA Films - producers of 'Dredd'. Photography (c) Tony Antoniou
Judge Dredd’s helmet, loaned by DNA Films – producers of ‘Dredd’. Photography (c) Tony Antoniou

This section of the exhibition also focused on the ‘British Invasion’ of the American comic industry and how British artists were given the responsibility taking on legendary superheroes.

The final part of the exhibition explored ‘The Outer Limits of Comics’, and how the medium was no longer limited to drawings on a page. Comic pages were exploding, and generating multiple points of entry to each experience that would later lead to the birth of digital comics, blurring the lines between fiction and reality.

I for one had a great time at Comics Unmasked and hope that the British Library continues to have equally interesting and awesome exhibitions in the future. I’d strongly recommend checking out what’s coming up on their programme if you haven’t already!

Words by Matthew Rathbone.

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