The current British Library exhibition Comics Unmasked Art and Anarchy in the UK takes a look behind the art form and history of comics. One of the things that the exhibition highlights is how comics, be it catering for children or more adult readers, will invariably have an underlying social or political aspect to them. How comics tell stories will either adhere to conventional or unconventional ideas or personal views. In terms of a subversive medium any ideology or comment can be very subtle or screamingly overt.
I enjoyed looking back at some of the comic creations that I had grown up with and learnt more about one’s that I was less familiar with or was to coming to for the first time. I remember owning a comic strip book of Andy Capp, the flat capped, chain smoking layabout whose adventures always made me chuckle. I think I was too young or naive to appreciate just what a chauvinistic character he was but then from memory it was his long suffering wife Flo who typically got the upper hand and was a foil to Andy essentially being a bit of a loser. One carton on display did strike me as outrageous though as it had Andy saying “Look at it this way, honey, I’m a man of few pleasures, and one of them ‘appens to be knockin’ yer about,” with a picture of Flo on the ground obviously after being smacked by Andy. This was obviously from a bygone age as you can’t imagine the subject of wife beating, even in jest, being acceptable today.
There has always been a tradition of cartoons in UK daily newspapers. Along with Andy Capp, two others at the exhibition I remember seeing were The Gambols and George and Lynne. Both these comics were slices of family life, The Gambols had conventional roles of George as the breadwinner and his wife Gaye as the housewife and although they did not have kids they were the archetypal suburban couple. While George and Lynne seemed to be portrayed as a very liberal couple who liked to get naked a lot!
Image Judge Dredd, the Complete America, 2003, by John Wagner and Colin MacNeil (c) With the kind permission of Rebellion
The British library exhibitions are usually reliably well curated and so was this exhibition. The iPads with different comics and graphic novels are great as you could run through a number of creations and also sit down while doing so, always a bonus. I got to learn more about Judge Dredd, which for some reason I had down as an American publication but in fact was British. Maybe it was because of the Judge character, locations and themes that were very American. The artwork for the comic looked amazing and the ‘America’ cartoon throwing up lots of conflicts between liberty and freedom but also how you have to effectively be a violent police state to enforce and keep the peace gave the comic a number of extra dimensions that seem very relevant for the world we live in today.
Images (left) Ceasefire Fanny no.1, 1991, by Angela Martin (c) Angela Martin. Published by Fanny and Knockabout Comics
(right) Heroine, 1978 (c) Suzi Varty
One of my new discoveries was the graphic novel Days of the Bagnold Summer which tells the story of a mother having to spend the school summer holidays with her heavy metal liking teenage son. The book by Joff Winterhart was shortlisted for the 2012 Costa Award for Best Novel.
Some of the comics of previous childhood generations alluded to the very British preoccupation with class. The Bumpkin Billionaires which was regularly featured in children’s comics such as Whoopee, Whizzer and Chips and Buster revolved around a family of yokel’s who hated being rich and wanted to go back to a simple lifestyle but however hard they tried to lose their money on crackpot schemes they just ended up getting rich again. The not too subtle message being that money does not bring you happiness. Then there was Lord Snooty which appeared in a favourite kid’s comic The Beano. The main character who is known as Snooty is actually an earl who has a butler. The premise of a person trying to be ordinary and just a regular person when actually part of the higher classes has had political satirical magazines such as Private Eye making comparisons of Snooty with the current British Prime Minister David Cameron.
Image Ceasefire Fanny no.1, 1991, by Angela Martin (c) Angela Martin. Published by Fanny and Knockabout Comics
Walking around the exhibition you can’t help noticing the V for Vendetta figures everywhere. V for Vendetta was originally a graphic novel by Alan Moore which was turned into a movie and most famously ended up being a symbol for global anarchists and the Occupy Movements.
The Comics Unmasked exhibition is a neat way of spending a couple hours. It shows how comics have portrayed our world or conjure up new worlds. Just like comedian’s who push the boundaries of taste or what is acceptable or politically correct comics have that same capacity to make statements a lot of time grounded in espousing perceptions that would be less palatable in other formats. Some comics engage us with gripping or interesting stories, others also have great illustrations and some just make us laugh.
Comics Unmasked Art and Anarchy in the UK exhibition is on at the British Library until 19 August 2014