“Comics have always had the potential to be a radical medium, because they edge around the mainstream, because they are collaborative, because they play with time and form, and because they’re so much bloody fun.”
“The effect of these pulp paper nightmares is that of a violent stimulant.”
- Sterling North
Noise in the Library
Of course only the most clueless straight would look at the poster to a show called 'Comics Unmasked' (above), and be surprised to see a mask. I mean, get like post-ironical, dude. Check out the nonchalant slouch of the pose, the diffident expression. Above all, check out the alley setting, chosen in contrast to some expansive, panoramic rooftop. 'Comics Unmasked' is a slack way of saying 'Superheroes Got Slack'.
Now for once in my life I may be using so dated an expression as 'slack' deliberately. The image is by Tank Girl creator Jamie Hewlett, and does reflect the Nineties era in which he chiefly found fame. It draws its frisson from presenting superheroes not in the heroic poses we're used to. And yet there's now nothing particularly unusual in this image. It's not impossible to imagine, say, the Black Widow from the Marvel Universe films pulling that pose. It could be taken to suggest comics have been frozen at their seeming moment of triumph, hands reached out for but never quite grasping that elusive mainstream acceptance.
But it also suggests comics have a cumulative history. They're not some cultural equivalent of a social climber desperate to hush up their lowly lineage, but amending their history for their own ends. It's not just that superhero comics, despite everything, could sometimes be cool. It's that what once seemed a firewall between alternative and superhero comics is now a porous border. Superheroes are part of the lexicon, for us to pick up and mould should they seem useful. We don't need to mask anything off.
In fact the word I most seized on in the title wasn't even 'anarchy' but 'comics'. In recent years people have taken to the term 'graphic novel' much in the way they say 'bathroom' when what they really want is a toilet, as a polite euphemism. Milligan and McCarthy's splendid 'Skin' is even applauded for “opposing the gentrification of comics”. Which it did.
But perhaps the most cheering factor of all is the choice of venue. There's an inherent problem with trying to fit comics into art galleries, whose essential purpose is to display original works of art. Even if at times they might venture into posters, they're still dealing with objects designed for public display. Whereas with comics the existence of original art is merely a means to an end (in these digital days often having no physical existence at all), with the finished product that's designed to be read. And things that you read belong in a library. It's a basic point, but an important one.
'Comics Unmasked' reverses this almost to a fault – well, actually to a fault. It was often hard to actually read those comics, given the combination of glass cabinets, low lighting and my middle-aged eyesight. It having already been established we're not looking at original artefacts, they could have done more to blow sections up on walls. (Plus you can often learn as least as much about an artist by seeing their work enlarged as you can by studying the original art.)
But of course they didn't just stick some old comics under glass. The earlier 'Propaganda' exhibition had proven the British Library able and willing to do inventive, irreverent and audacious things with display. And, despite all the jokes about patrician Librarians shushing the punters, it may be the venue feels enabled to take more liberties. After all, you go to a Klee or Matisse exhibition to see Klee or Matisse, and the curators don't want to distract from that too much. They strain to make their efforts almost invisible, like roadies at a concert. 'Propaganda' was almost the reverse, a demonstration of concepts and ideas with works chosen to illustrate them, like walking inside some virtual reality essay. I tend to use the terms 'show' and 'exhibition' interchangeably. But 'Propaganda' was quite definitely a show.
I'd hoped this would follow in the same vein, and in many ways it did. It states early “comics can be a playground for the imagination”, and then does much to provide an adventure playground for the eyes. A giant Moebius strip stretches round the gallery, with projections played upon it (below). You realise this motif is becoming a visual analogue for comics history - twisting, multi-sided, subject to be rewritten, yet stretching through time.
You have of course to see such shows as aimed at newbies and innocent bystanders, rather than us obsessive insiders. And the associated unlearning isn't always easy. It's not just that they can't hope to include all the artists we'd like to see. (A subject which has set sections of the net's comics neighbourhood a-buzzing.) It's that we cannot help but see the gaps and so things inevitably appear to us as scattershot. Of course the premise is in many ways a hopeless one, a case of setting yourself up to fail. Its not like the next British Library show will be on the history or the novel, while the Tate will counter with the history of painting and the British Museum weigh in with the history of history. We pretty much have to just accept the picture will be partial, or else stay home.
Anyway, the show finds nuggets to reward us fans for our attendance, for example the trial 'Dan Dare' strip (1949, above) when he was still the originally intended dog-collared Chaplain, or the Judge Dredd strip 'Battle of the Burger Barons' (1978, below) never reprinted after satirising actual burger chains by name. (They state here through publisher jitters rather than actual legal threats.)
It was perhaps less a lure to the average comics fan, and hear me out on this one, but I was also interested to see for the first time 'Bulldog' (1981). Given this was published by the far-right National Front to lure in young members, you may understand my earlier reluctance to hand over cash for a copy. And it looks pretty much what you'd expect. In many ways the far right have no identity of their own, but are just a bizarre looking-glass-world inversion of the left - no matter how absurd a place that takes them to. It includes a graphic of a cop searching a white kid, a copycat image of one originally used by the Motherfuckers, above the sentence “the police have declared war on the white youth of Britain”. Course they have mate...
Perhaps most enticing of all, the show knows when not to confine itself to comics. In something I'd never heard before, we're told the hard-drinking wastrel Ally Sloper was not just one of the first comic characters but first comics brands, also appearing on stage, screen and here as a somewhat disturbing ventriloquist puppet (below). There's similar examples from later eras.
Black-hearted Brigands Abroad (Reclaiming the Colonies)
A whole room is given to heroes, and it’s interesting how this inevitably slips into the story of the British invasion of America. (Characterised as “extraordinary” and “radical”.) And of course there’s a Stan-Lee-style prize for spotting what links the two. Our mark was made on the most hero-centric genre of all, superheroes, precisely because heroes were what we didn’t deal in. What we had that was saleable was what the show describes as “a heritage of rebelliousness”, a rich history of anti-heroes, even when they weren’t out-and-out black-hearted brigands. (The show includes, for example, a Dick Turpin comic from 1948 next to a penny dreadful featuring him from eighty years earlier.) For the American superhero publishers, we were sexy because we were bad. Centuries after the colonial era, we were still offloading our trouble-makers abroad.
But then, at least up until the arrival of the infamous Comics Code Authority, weren't American comics gaudier and wilder, with all the salacious crime and horror titles? Or even after then. Didn't Marvel essentially invent flawed and anti-heroes, such as the Hulk or the Thing? Didn't underground comics export from America to Britain?
To which the short answer is yes. But remember the stories of the Beatles first arriving in America, the source of the music which had so inspired them, and finding the place strangely straight-laced. And that music had been made in America. But it was made by currents which didn't make it to the surface of society, which either never had or which had by that point been buried again. It took someone from elsewhere to take up that music and return it to America before the home-grown variants could arise. And the British comics invasion worked much like that, re-introducing stuff which seemed obvious to us but at home had been forgotten. Alan Moore, such a spearhead of that invasion, later commented “I couldn't have done that if I hadn't been a traditionalist”.
Talking About Sex
If you want something to truly date the Sixties/ Seventies underground, and don't really want to bring up their infamous uncritical support for the Viet Cong, your best choice is their sexual politics. Or lack of them. A telling example is John Kent's 'Varoomshka' (1972, above), it's cover-girl heroine obligingly disrobing while she cries cheerily “this strip is purely political”. Politicians of the day look on in shock and disgust.
Of course we see such an image with hindsight. But its almost absurdly easy to see the chain between it and Conrad Frost's 'The Life of George and Lynn', (scathingly dubbed 'The Perpetually Naked Middle Class Bastards' by Brendan McCarthy), which debuted in 'The Sun' a mere five years later. (A task made easier by them both being in the same show, of course.) Perhaps the only difference between Varoomshka's “purely political” gesture and the cover of last week's 'Zoo' magazine is that one is a drawing and the other a photo.
And yet if you're interested in cultural or sub-cultural history, this is just what makes porn such a useful barometer. As the show says “there is something about the lens of desire that is particularly revealing about a culture”. Its precisely because sex and sexuality are defined as something natural and unmediated, that leads to its cultural content rises to the surface more openly. After all, what is there to be guarded about? It's all just innate and biological, isn't it? And this is strongest in Sixties/Seventies subculture, which often blithely assumed we could revert to some 'true' nature outside the norms of society. This hopeless simplemindedness is more flagrantly on show than Varoomshka's nipples.
Then again, at the other end of the scale... Underground and alternative comics worked better as negative and disrupting forces, upending popular assumptions - and sexuality may be no exception. 'Sourcream' (1979) was a women's comic who depicted sexual matters in a simple, de-eroticised child-like style which matched their frankness of content. A strip like 'Which Contraceptive?' could scarcely be any more demystifying. (Matching many punk songs of the era, such as the Snivelling Shits' 'I Can't Come' or the Dead Kennedy's 'Too Drunk to Fuck'.)
However, let's back up a little. That distinction between picture and photo that separates 'Varomooshka' from 'Zoo', is it actually so trivial? The prevalent trend in pornography has been towards photography, with perhaps only technological limitations ever holding it back. But I've never been sure why people are always so keen for porn to be 'real' when it's a genre that couldn't be any more about fantasy. Doesn't it work better when combining sensual thrill with aesthetic buzz, like a cocktail drug? Take Ron Embletons 'Oh, Wicked Wanda' (1983, below), with what the show describes as “colours so lavish and sensual that you could almost taste them”. (Disclaimers: Whether this strip would have progressive sexual politics is of course another thing. It was published by 'Penthouse', after all. Also, to spare the blushes of gentle readers, I have also chosen a more family-friendly sample than the one from the show.)
Can Comics Be Magic?
There being a room devoted to magic, that's not something I would necessarily have bet money on before entering. When they state “some of Britain's key comics talents are practising magicians” you are tempted to ask if by “some” they actually mean “two”. And the phrase “magic is hugely important in British culture” feels little like one of those statements you make hoping no-one actually calls you on it.
However, the show may be on stronger ground when it states “comics have lent themselves so well to dreamlike and transcendental states”. In fact, in my youth I dimly conceived of British comics existing in some schizo state. At times they'd seem populated entirely by square-jawed chaps winning the war by not showing any emotion, or footballers who strangely didn't seem to share the working class origins of footballers on the telly. But seconds later they seemed to flip, and would suddenly be brimming with enticing strangeness, with characters such as the positively deranged Adam Eterno or the sinister Black Sapper. Yet there never seemed a way of separating them, of getting one without being saddled with the other. It seems explicable enough how they could be so staid. The real question is – how could they simultaneously be so mad?
Perhaps there is something innately strange about the world of comics, rather than it being a mnaifestation of British culture. Think of the old DC Comics, ostensibly the upright goody-goody imprint which got upended by the hipper Marvel. And how downright bonkers they could become, with villains who could control anything or anyone provided it was coloured blue, with robot duplicates which turned out to be robot duplicates of robot duplicates and such like.
Perhaps the show has it upside down. When comics were really strange was before they were made by drug-crazed hippies, Northampton maguses or students of chaos magic but by hacks on scale pay and instant coffee. Take for example the pages by DC Thompson artist Dudley Watkins, who worked on both 'Desperate Dan' and 'Lord Snooty'. Devoutly religious and teetotal, he was still a source of some of the most left-field images and ideas you're ever likely to encounter.
In other words, it all happened when it normally does – when no-one was really watching. The act of observing normalises what is observed, suddenly it feels self-conscious and starts to follow rules. Clearly, speed of production had much to do with it. Surrealist techniques such as stream-of-consciousness were emulated almost by accident, because dream logic and the association of ideas assembled faster than a coherent plotline.
But there's something bigger. In the quote up top, Laurie Penny comments on the way comics “play with time and form” as something which makes them a radical medium. There's an inherent formalism to comics, which lies latent even in the comics which don't actively try to exploit it. The form is there on the paper, inextricably interwoven with the content. Comics are composed of language, while film or theatre merely use it. The naturalistic illusion becomes a bit of a non-starter, so things head in the opposite direction. And that direction is the association of ideas. Surrealism's spark came from juxtapositions. There is nothing very odd about telephones, and nothing particularly unusual about lobsters – yet a lobster telephone becomes a surreal object. And those formal qualities of comics make them inherently juxtapositional, lining up images alongside one another. (Think for example of the way Jeff Keen's paintings combined the two.)
Anarchy Amid the Short Loan?
Let's go back to that image of the Moebius strip. It suggests comics have something of a through line, albeit a bendy and stretchy one. The show takes a take not just on comics history but on what comics are, and its to do with that word 'anarchy' up there in the title. That dummy of Ali Sloper, drunken and indolent, the leery antithesis of Victorian thrift and industry, becomes something of a totem.
Comics are either like 'Action' (above) - cheap, seditious pulps you kept under your schooldesk to stop your teacher confiscating them - or like 'Nasty Tales' (below), underground, inherently antagonistic to the Establishment, more likely to be found in the dock than at an awards ceremony. Comics are gaudy, disreputable and – above all – popular. The point isn't just that you can use comics to explore ideas outside of the political mainstream, but that comics as a medium are antithetical to the dusty shelf.
In a way it's an action replay of British creators being given American heroes precisely so they could mess with them. What's going to interest the British Library is precisely what makes comics unique or different, otherwise they may as well just stick to their books. And this can often be a useful filter. For the longest time comics were full of creators trying desperately to be 'mature', by which they tended to mean aspiring to the smart or sophisticated. But the smartypants stuff only ever worked on comics fans. A comics artist might – to pull an example right out of the blue – enthrall fans by aping the Pre-Raphaelite painters. But he's scarcely likely to pique the interest of a gallery curator, who could just go and book an exhibition of the real thing. Meanwhile, Dudley Watkins has something you won't find elsewhere.
And it's not merely a romanticism. When public information strips try to ape the comics form, they often betray themselves by looking stiff and staid, by lacking the dynamics that bring a comics page to life. They're like teachers trying to utilise playground slang, like vicars trying to rap their sermons. Some of these are on show in this exhibition, sticking out like thumbs.
But on the other hand its scarcely an eternal truth. As the saying goes, everyone loves you when you're dead. It only takes for someone to pop their clogs and all their positive features – until so recently taken for granted – start to stand out. And, from the Victorians who sought to collect and catalogue the folk culture their world was destroying, does anything get celebrated more than a dying culture? The answer is yes. A dead culture does.
And there's nothing more dead than the notion of a broad popular culture existing in perfect opposition to power. Except perhaps the idea of comics as a popular, accessible medium. Those massed mannequins in the 'V' masks with throng the show (below), they're not here for a celebration. They're here for a wake.
And a perfect illustration of the way comics just aren't cheap, cheery and popular any more could be found by sampling the wares at the Comiket independent comics fair organised in conjunction with this very show. Comics are now a craft industry, a personal statement, a labour of love. Let's be clear - there's absolutely nothing wrong with any of that. I was an active part of that scene for many years, and enjoyed being so. Its appeal lies in the way its so unlike the corporatised, commodified world we inhabit the rest of the time. It's a scene where people do the things they want when they want to, and if anyone else likes any of it that's a plus. But it's quite a different appeal to a comics at war with a narrowly defined Establishment. It's more like a pocket universe where things are nicer.
At points the show tries to pin these new comics to the same big Moebius strip, like they're the latest twist in this one long line. It uses the term “every day life in comics” but let's call them Real Life stories (a catch-all term to incorporate biography, autobiography, virtual autobiography where the author has a comics avatar with a different name, metafictional autobiography, and all the rest). These are at absolute odds with the broad sweeps by which the archetypal comics of old were drawn. It never mattered much if, say, musclebound-gent-in-loincloth Morgan the Mighty bore a suspicious resemblance to Tarzan. The point was that the gentleman savage was just the sort of character you expected to turn up in a comic. There was no formal relationship between the black-clad anti-hero the Black Sapper and the black-clad anti-hero Dick Turpin, but they seemed cousins somehow – branches from the same twisted tree.
Real Life stories, conversely, prize uniqueness by their very nature. Implicit in Real Life's commonly seem phrase “this happened to me” is “it didn't to you”. It's not just that these comics are less political, even though they often are. If you look at some of the contemporary political comics artists, such as Edd Baldry or Isy Morgenmuffel (neither represented in the exhibition) they write about their political activism, but only as a feature in their lives – among going on holiday and watching DVD box sets. Which is a quite different approach to, for example, the World War Three collective. Who operated as... well, as a collective, with a loose but definite house style.
There's a disconnect, a growing divergence between appearance and content. Just as comics have become more individualised, more 'arty' they've also become more associated in the public mind with the crowd, with all that is bawdy and rambunctious. Notably the recent Tate exhibition 'Rude Britannia', while not a dedicated comics exhibition, assumed comics quite naturally belonged under its populist header.
Because of course its not just a type of comics that's dying off. We now celebrate the virtual crowd precisely because any real crowd is so quickly kettled by police, so soon demonised on the evening news. If an actual gang of masked hoodies gathered outside the front of the British Library, they'd probably be served a disposal order. So the 'V'-mask figures in the show come to be as much figures of fantasy as schoolkids in shorts and stripy jumpers. The less the signified, the greater the need for the signifier.
Overall, two words out of three in the title are well-placed – even if 'anarchy' isn't really earned. Which perhaps isn't bad odds. Could things have been done differently? Of course! Could they have been done better? Possibly. Perhaps a chronological structure, highlighting how comics have changed over the years, might have both emphasised what a durable medium they are and – perhaps more importantly - mitigated against any tendency to universalise. Plus, as the British Library like to go to town on set design, they would have scope to give each area its own identifying style. To pursue the painting analogy, a catch-all exhibition of painting would be more likely to show how Impressionism led to Post-Impressionism then Fauvism, rather that sticking all the still lifes in one room and the sea scenes in another.
But of course, as said, a single one-stop show isn't going to get the span of it. It could be said what we really need we do sort of have. The London Cartoon Museum, with its varied permanent collection and rotating special exhibitions, is by its nature not stuck with trying to sum comics up in one shot. If its a somewhat 'Blue Peter'-ish venue, that's in equal parts charming and frustrating. It may just be looking a gift horse in the mouth to say but, if it was bigger, we could import some of those classic continental comics exhibitions.
Coming soon: Okay, I did rashly promise I'd catch up on all my exhibition reviews. But it then occurred to me there might be more than the standard two or three people who'd be interested in what I had to say about this one. At least I kept to time-honoured tradition, and didn't get a chance to post this till the show was over. Should an unexpected tranche of time come my way, I may follow up with something on the Tate's 'British Folk Art' show. The two make up a pair, at least in my mind...