Art & Anarchy in the UK The British Library 2 May – 19 August 2014
For no apparent reason my primary school used to get two publications delivered every week for the benefit of the pupils. One was the now long defunct Children’s Newspaper which didn’t exactly get my 8 year old juices flowing the other was the Eagle comic which most certainly did. I could hardly wait to get my hands on it and immerse myself in the space adventures of the ever so British Captain Dan Dare.
That’s where my love affair with comics started. It wasn’t long before I would run up to the local news agent with my pocket money to buy the exotic US imports from DC and Marvel comics. Contrary to what the current generation of kids think you and I know that Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Iron Man and their like have been around for a very long time indeed. In fact the first issue of Action Comics featuring Superman was in June 1938 and the first appearance of Spidey was well over 50 years ago.
My affair with comics and especially comic book art continued unabated and I still gain enormous pleasure from graphic novels which are, in essence, comic books for grown-ups. You can only imagine my excitement when I was invited by the British Library to a viewing of their new exhibition chronicling comics through the ages. The exhibition is laid out in sections featuring various historic and cultural references. Everything from Bible Illustrations from, believe it or not, the 15th Century, right up to present day.
Unsurprisingly, in common with every other art form, comic books reflect the socio-political climate. Hence there are examples featuring war time propaganda, suffragettes and feminism, marijuana, psychedelia, anarchy, punks, gay love etc etc.
There are examples of publications banned at the time because of their horrific content and an entire section devoted to sex and erotica which is very, very graphic and certainly not for the narrow minded or easily offended.
I found illustrations by the magician and occultist Aleister Crowley and original drawings for the horror novels of H P Lovecraft particularly fascinating. As an exercise in curating one can only admire the work and research that has gone into this homage to a sometimes sadly underrated artform, however I do have a few gripes. First and foremost although the works of English writers and artists are covered extensively there is only a passing nod to the American influence which I believe has been responsible for taking the modern comic book to another level. Neither is there anything from the other European sources especially the French who have an equal or even stronger comic book culture to ours. I know this is somewhat unfair as the title of the expo says it all and no doubt this would have probably taken forever to put together and needed a much larger space but I think a little section would have been welcome. Secondly, I found the layout somewhat confusing in parts and considering it is such a vibrant art-form the lighting was very dull. This may have been to protect the valuable displays, however the 15 th Century bible illustrations were in the brightest part of the walk-through. Lastly and by no means least some of the signage was downright frustrating. Explanatory text cards were placed either high above the eyeline, low down in the showcase or even on the floor. If, like me , you have to wear reading glasses you’ll be bopping up and down and straining to read pertinent information. Overall, if you love comics or graphic art you will find this a very rewarding couple of hours and irrespective of a few negatives a truly educational and entertaining experience.
“Sequential” is a graphic novel app for iPad.
For Comics Unmasked they have made a special version of their ‘gold standard’ comics software to allow visitors to read full-length digital versions of some of the comics on display in the exhibition.
An exclusive anthology of over 100 pages of comics from the Comics Unmasked exhibition, including work by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, Brian Bolland, Eddie Campbell, Pat Mills and many more, will be available to download for free on the SEQUENTIAL app for the duration of the exhibition. The app is free to download for iPad from the App