According to the curators Paul Gravett and John Harris Dunning and artistic director David McKean, the exhibition explores the British Library’s collection of comics and plumbs the depths of private collections, to show the history of British sequential art, as well as its writers and artists. It partially succeeds.
The curators wanted to show the political history of comics, the medium’s ability to subvert, and its role as a medium for analysing class, sexuality and ethnicity, not to mention the many occasions when it has become the subject of political battles.
The exhibition has some very interesting items in it but the curators tried to cover too much in one exhibition. By trying to be both cohesive and comprehensive portrayal and analysis of the political nature of comics and history of British comics, the exhibition, ultimately detracts from both.
Many will recognise the Guy Fawkes mask as a symbol of the Occupy movement, originating in Alan Moore and Dave McKean’s dystopian graphic novel V for Vendetta. The exhibition plays on this to great effect as every corner seems to be hosting its own 4-chan convention. Perhaps this highlights a flaw in the nature of the exhibition; if the intent is to explore the depth and variety of material, why concentrate so much on texts such as this and Watchmen? Moore himself has expressed dissatisfaction that the medium has moved on from what he once memorably described as “a bad mood I was in fifteen years ago.”
Thankfully the curators do look at other comics and graphic novels that either reflected and analysed social and political situations of the time or subtly explored and parodied them through representations of all too familiar dystopian or utopian futures.
The savage (and often unnoticed) satire of 2000AD, especially the seminal Judge Dredd, here glimpsed fighting rival burger chain worshipping communities in a storyline so near the knuckle that publisher IPC allegedly had to run a free advert for Green Giant Corn in order to escape a lawsuit. This history is linked to the massively influential International Times, published from the 60s to early 90s.
Better still, the curators publicise the work of lesser known political comics, such as AARGH! (Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia) which was published as anti Section-28 propaganda. The exhibition also includes a very interesting piece which tells the tale of a police officer who attended the Brixton Riots and examines his conflicting feelings about his role.
Another example of what’s missing - some pages from Grant Morrison’s legendary, long running classic The Invisibles were on display but barely anything was made of the fact that this was a book exploring political, sexual, psychological and gender transformations. For an exhibition that sets out to examine the relationship of comics and politics, much is missing.
Historically comics and graphic novels have been a medium where otherwise marginalised groups have been able to express themselves and represent their lives. Yet it is still a medium that is male-dominated.
The exhibition identifies and gives examples of the history of racist and sexist representation of oppressed groups in comics. For example issue of Heroine, a 70s comic edited by Suzy Varty is shown. However this does little to address the ongoing debate about representation of women in comics, or the battle that women artists and writers still face getting published. And little of the revolutionary and innovative work by women representing themselves through comics is presented.
It’s a little disappointing that the exhibition misses a trick here; mainstream comics aren’t merely male dominated, they’re the product of an industry riddled with misogynistic attitudes, as regularly documented by the excellent Comics Alliance website.
We were excited to see the “Lets talk about sex’section, expecting to see examples and analysis of comics that have explored gender and sexuality from a liberatory and critical angle. However the exhibition focuses much more on the use of comics for erotica written by men for men, largely in the 1970s.
Whilst we do not cheerlead for the prudish anti-sex brigade I feel the concentration on this material marginalised and patronised the ever-expanding number of comics about sex written by women about their own sexuality. In a different section, a copy of Ceasefire magazine, published by the (mainly) women’s publishing group Fanny was ironically shoved in a corner. The same collective published an anthology called Voyeuse: Women view Sex which was not featured. Much of this material is rare but there is at least some to choose from. However the exhibition did feature a copy of Sourcream, a comic published by women from the late 70s that often featured feminist sex education and commentary.
There is an immeasurable wealth of material out there, from some of the first positive representations of working-class people, through the boundary-pushing late 1960s and into the anti-nuclear sentiments of the 1980s.
The last 25 years have seen British comics reach a similar standing to that which they’re held in France and Japan. Comics continue to be a wonderfully amenable medium for analysis of class, gender, sexuality and ethnicity.