Trip Report: Magna Carta

So, I was in London last week visiting my mother, who was in town, so my wife and I went with her and some family friends to see the Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy exhibit at the British Library. I have written about previous trips to the British Library and said that I found them sometimes good, other times less satisfying. But this one is right in the BL’s comfort zone, and it shows.


Magna Carta — it’s reassuring to see that Bill Clinton, in his video for this exhibit, also says the Magna Carta — is one of those documents where the thing itself is not as important as its perception. And both the thing itself and the records of its reception are in the British Library in heaps. So there’s not only the original documents — saved until the end — but lots of legal or other documents to give them context and then a bunch of stuff about people’s reactions to the document. That includes both the work of later legal scholars and the popular response to the document. If I were clever, I’d say that it includes both John Hancock and Tony Hancock:

Again, the interesting thing here is basically that the myth of Magna Carta is so potent that its actual importance is secondary. It’s not a statement of guiding principle like the Declaration of Independence, it’s not a living legal document like the Constitution — and the exhibit acknowledges that, even including videos from legal scholars who point out that the document doesn’t have the importance people ascribe to it. And yet, the hype over the 800th anniversary meant that there was no way the BL was getting away without doing something to mark it.

And, you know, that’s kind of what I like about it. Like, this is a document that emerged from the mess of a particular historical situation. It was never intended to be a national symbol; it just sort of worked out that way. And that, in itself, is a pretty good symbol of British (well, OK, English) constitutional history.

Trip Report: Magna Carta

Trip Report: The Gothic Imagination

It’s been a museum-y month! Over the last little while I’ve written up trips to the V&A, the British Museum and the Fitzwilliam Museum. Now it’s time for the British Library! This past weekend I went with my wife to see Terror and Wonder: the Gothic Imagination at the BL.


In one of my many intellectual-odd-job roles, I tutor kids doing GCSE English, and this year I’ve got several doing units on the Gothic genre, so now I feel extra informed. I don’t know that I have as much to say about the content of the exhibit as I have about some of the more historical things I go to, other than that I really enjoyed it. I had reservations about the comics exhibit in May, although on balance I thought it was good, but the contrast here is sharp: the BL nails this one down pretty hard.

Partly I think this may be because literature literature is more the BL’s speed, because the early history of the Gothic is a much more British affair (so the gaping US-shaped hole in the comics exhibit isn’t present) and partly because the resources the BL can bring to bear are so great. For instance, they jump on The Castle of Otranto (250 years old this year) with both feet, with tons of items from Horace Walpole’s home and library, including John Dee’s mirror.


The organisation is chronological, starting with Walpole and ending with Hellraiser, even more recent stuff and a photo exhibit about Whitby. Along the way, there are lots of cool little sub-displays, like showing all seven of the “horrid novels” recommended in Northanger Abbey together, or a thing on folk horror, or a look at the sensational crime reporting that went alongside the shift of Gothic horror to urban environments in the later 19th century. Speaking of incredible resources, this latter topic includes things like the Dear Boss letter:


And I mean these guys have got the lot: there’s a Lovecraft letter in there, just by way of illustrating how important “The Willows” is. There are cartoons, sketches, posters, letters, videos, recordings, paintings, black-letter tomes about the historical Dracula, production art, comics, newspapers — tons of stuff covering not just the literature but its social context.

This video is not in the exhibit, but I jotted down the title, which is a good one.

I mean, a museum exhibit is not a place where you go to get the full in-depth history of something. But one thing it can do really well is show you the juxtapositions, the connections between things, the trends shaping over time. The explanatory stuff didn’t talk about this at all, for instance, but just looking at the cartoons and so on you can see this trend developing of people taking the piss out of Gothic as a genre kind of because it’s so popular with women. You can see the same thing happen with other genres all around us.


So yeah. I liked it so much I’m going back in December. It’s got a lot of good stuff in it and if, like me, you know a bit about the genre but not an enormous amount it’s very informative. I wrote a ton of stuff about it in my notes and then I ran out of the patience to talk about each individual thing.

Anyway, speaking of horror, the Drivethru Halloween Sale is on until October 31st. During that time, you can get my bleak little early medieval horror ebook for a mere £1.25. Tomorrow I will hopefully be talking about pirates. And comic books. Aw yeah, serious historian over here.

Trip Report: The Gothic Imagination

Hey Kids! Comics!



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. poster-orig

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

Hey Kids! Comics!