This past weekend my wife and I went to the Comics Unmasked exhibit at the British Library. It was pretty good, but somehow it left me feeling a little unfulfilled.
Let me put my cards on the table here: I like my comics pretty mainstream, with the notable exception of Age of Bronze. I am a superheroes guy, broadly speaking. Nothing against the underground stuff, but that is what I seem to have wound up liking and I’m OK with that. I don’t love ’em uncritically, of course — I don’t do anything uncritically, as you may have noticed. But I think that the fairly widespread attitude of rejecting cape comics as “mainstream” or “conventional” or whatever is completely misguided. A Kirby issue of Fantastic Four has more non-mainstream content in it — in the form of weird, brainbending Kirbyness — than nine out of ten earnest, diary-style comics. Now, that may not be true of an issue of New 52 Justice League, but I’m just pointing out that while there’s a lot of garbage in there, I think it’s a big mistake to write off the genre.
And the impression I sort of got from this exhibit was a little bit like the one I got from the BL’s science fiction exhibit — that when they have this geeky material, they sort of handle it with tongs? I don’t know. Anyway, let me recount my experience.
So you walk into the exhibition room, which is this usual hushed, dimly lit sort of space, and there are the usual glass cases full of open books, such as you might find in any British Library exhibition. And there are also these mannequins in men’s clothes and Guy Fawkes masks standing around in packs and one or two other cool pieces of art here and there. The exhibit is divided up into various sort of zones — you proceed through the zones pretty linearly, but within them you can wander around and look at stuff. There are some tablets with comics on them attached to the benches, which I thought was cool, and there are some computers with interactive stuff near the end, which I didn’t really look at. Most of the zones are just exhibit spaces, but there’s one set up as a little artist’s studio where you can add your drawing to the ones other people have done and one that’s like a little faux office/studio space with reference works and stuff.
The zones are divided up thematically: there’s one on identity, one on politics, one on sex, etc.
OK, the good stuff:
- It is the British Library, so they have everything. Little underground publications, typescripts, weird unpublishable 3D comics, super-collectible stuff, whatever. They’ve even got a Renaissance “pauper’s bible,” one of those brightly illustrated collections of Bible stories. It’s pretty cool. (I don’t think it’s that actual one, but you get the idea.)
- They cast their nets wide in tracing the influences of comics — there’s a big spread-out front page of the Illustrated Police News (a Jack the Ripper headline), for instance. They’ve also got illustrated ballad sheets, children’s picture books, political cartoons, and so on and so on, to really give you a full grounding in the “illustrated trash literature” genre that comics grow out of. It’s thorough and it’s informative.
- They nail some of the key things that are particularly British in British comics and that have since become standard in American comics, such as the kind of wry, cynical attitude toward violence (although you could argue that this actually existed in US comics but was just suppressed … what do I know?).
What’s not great about it?
- One of the problems with British Library exhibitions in general is that people tend to spend a longer time reading a book than they would looking at a vase or something. This isn’t so bad when what you’re just looking at a medieval Bible or a Chinese scroll or something, but when it’s an Oor Wullie strip and it’s in English (or Scots in this case) people will stop and try to read it. And what this means is that if there are a lot of people in the exhibit, it can turn into one long line just veeeeeery gradually shuffling along in front of the display cases.
- The thematic division is interesting, but it felt broken up to me. Maybe it’s just that I would have preferred to see it done chronologically, but it felt weird and bitty to me, and I felt like it obscured the connections between things rather than highlighting them.
- It really lacked American comics. Now I know that this is the British library and they have British things, but I don’t think I saw anything (or barely anything) from Marvel UK, for instance. I just think that from the war onwards you can’t really understand what’s happening in British comics unless you see where the US influences are pushing them and how they’re responding to them.
I also thought there was a bunch of predictable silliness. Like, they show a two-page spread from “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” and the sign says, I don’t know, something like “we see Superman confronting his own mortality, exemplified by this panel of him sitting on a bed crying.” Now I know that (hat tip to Chris Sims) it is impossible for DC comics not to try to create cheap pathos by having Superman cry, but what I can’t understand is why the card doesn’t say “we see Superman confronting his own mortality, embracing it as part of his humanity and settling down to raise a child with his beloved Lois in anonymous old age” since that is what happens literally on the very next page.
For Pete’s sake. I don’t think I saw the phrase “grim and gritty” at any point, but there were parts of it that were remarkably like the 1990s. And I’m not talking about the good Grant-Morrison-JLA 90s either.
Oh, and there was a display of HP Lovecraft paperbacks, because Lovecraft influenced British comics writers. Which of course he did — although not as much as they claim he did; they’re using “Lovecraft” to stand in for “spooky occult shit” — but if HPL gets in, why doesn’t Jack Kirby? Or Alex Raymond? Or or or or …
In short, while I think it was an interesting if incomplete look at UK comics as an art form, I think that if you were looking for an exploration of UK comics as a cultural phenomenon I think it was lacking in some ways. I realise Crisis was important, but there must have been half a dozen issues in there, and not one of Commando or Starblazer. I get what they’re trying to say — comics aren’t just for kids, they aren’t just superheroes, look at all this other stuff they have done. And maybe to an audience that’s not as aware of that diversity, that’s fair enough. Maybe all the stuff I took for granted is news to some people.
Enrique Goddamn Alcatena drew for Starblazer.