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Curators unmasked at British Library’s major new comics exhibition

May 13, 2014 in Events, General, News

Mannequins with V For Vendetta masks, which have become a symbol of protest, at Comics Unmasked

V For Vendetta masks at the Comics Unmasked exhibition. The masks have become a symbol for protest globally

Kasia Kowalska reports from Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK

“Have we blown your mind?” asked Paul Gravett, the UK’s leading comics expert, at the launch of Comics Unmasked. Together with Adrian Edwards of the British Library and the comics writer John Harris Dunning, he has curated the biggest exhibition of comics in the UK to date.

The simple answer to his question is: Yes.

The exhibition, which features more than 200 exhibits and took two years to prepare, is unapologetic about its ambitions. “There’s a lot of controversial, potentially alarming content here, deliberately to push the boundaries,” said Gravett.

It is organised thematically into six areas, including different sections on sex and politics. Dunning, writer of the comic Salem Brownstone, explained why: “We approached things like politics, sexuality, altered states, social issues, to really highlight the fact comics are a medium that can convey very powerful messages.”

John Harris Dunning and Paul Gravett at the Comics Unmasked opening

John Harris Dunning and Paul Gravett, co-curators of the British Library’s Comics Unmasked exhibition, at the opening

Every section explores these themes through the often troubled history of comics, including looking at the anti-comics movement that led to the formation of the Comics Code in 1950s America. A similar panic happened in the UK.

“The very first exhibition of comics in the UK was an exhibition against comics,” Gravett said. “It was meant to alarm and horrify the opinion formers and parents. Ironically, they also toured a film strip around the country. They took it to schools and we’re convinced that a lot of people didn’t know about the comics before that.”

The exhibition aims to give comics their rightful place as a literary genre and to give the authors the recognition they deserve. “The show is put on to give creators the respect that’s due them. Because that’s really something, I don’t think, that has happened enough in this country,” said Dunning.

Some filth from Porcartoonists.org member Hunt Emerson

Click to enlarge this filth from Procartoonists.org member Hunt Emerson

Dave McKean, creator of Batman: Arkham Asylum and the exhibition’s artistic director, is one of the artists whose work has put British comics creators on the map. Dunning said: “What might surprise certain members of the public is that those are American characters but they’re very much owned by British talent. British comic creators are responsible for the current popularity of superheroes.”

The most controversial part of the exhibition — Let’s Talk About Sex — aims to chart the evolution of erotic comic art and candidly explores complex themes of sexuality. Comics are often associated with men, and sometimes with men who refuse to grow up, yet comic art has been the ideal medium for women creators.

Ceasefire by Angela Martin

Ceasefire by Angela Martin

Throughout its history it has been considered subversive and has often fallen under the radar of those occupying and regulating the mainstream of creative writing. It allows for an unbridled freedom of expression and can often blossom unchecked.

“Thematically, what is interesting is that we find quite a lot of female creators”, said Dunning. “One could believe that this is a very male area but we’ve discovered it’s not really the case.”

Lawless Nelly by Jamie Hewlett

Lawless Nelly by Jamie Hewlett features on the Comics Unmasked posters

The show’s cartoon muse is Lawless Nelly, above, created especially for it by Jamie Hewlett (Tank Girl). She has a literary connection, being named after Ellen Lawless Ternan, mistress of Charles Dickens, “a half forgotten but very powerful woman in the background,” according to Roly Keating, chief executive of the British Library.

What also preoccupies the curators is the future of comics. Their intention is to throw the gauntlet down to the next generation.

“That’s the message: make comics, don’t just read them”, said Gravett. “The final frontier is the internet. Interactive hyper-comics, that’s the next form.”

Comics Unmasked presents its subject as a serious, legitimate and relevant genre. It marries the beauty and draughtsmanship of the art form with storytelling and utilises it as a vehicle to deliver a message.

Jonathan Ross, TV presenter and comics fan, said at the opening: “It’s a remarkable experience waiting for you inside. It still amazes me, and shocks me somewhat [that] we don’t yet have a proper literary appreciation of the incredible work that’s been done here, some of which is as sophisticated, more interesting and more bold than you would find in straightforward prose or fiction.”

Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK is at the British Library until 19 August

Photos by Kasia Kowalska and the British Library

The Round-up: A comics special

February 17, 2014 in Events, General, Links, News

Comics are coming to the British Library © Dave Gibbons

Comics are coming to the British Library © Dave Gibbons @ Procartoonists.org

Kasia Kowalska presents a Round-up focusing on comics this week:

The British Library is about to embark on a period of anarchy and rebellion – this summer it will host the largest exhibition of comic art ever held in Britain. Comics Unmasked: Art & Anarchy in the UK will cover comics from Victorian times through to the classics of today. The Forbidden Planet blog and The Guardian have more.

One of the myths the exhibition promises to dispel is that comics are only for boys. This is a sore subject for Noelle Stevenson, the co-writer of the comic Lumberjanes, who got fed up with comic shops that exclude women readers.

But not everyone may be thrilled to hear of the exhibition. The comics writer Alan Moore said recently that it is a “cultural catastrophe” that comic characters from the 20th century have such a high-profle now, and Jonathan Jones wonders should adults even be reading comicsMeanwhile, Vishavjit Singh takes on cultural prejudice in Captain America’s homeland

According to Bryan Talbot, the author of the award-winning Alice in Sunderland, “graphic novels are the only area of book sales which is actually growing”. He talks to the Sunderland Echo about the first Sunderland Comic Con, which will take place in August this year.

October Jones train cartoon

Comic fun on the train © October Jones @ Procartoonists.org

Marvel, too, is responding to this phenomenon by opening up its massive archive of more than 8,000 comic characters to independent developers. Marvel comics turned out to be a sure source of inspiration, above,  to the illustrator Joe Butcher – pen name October Jones – on his train journey in Birmingham.

Finally, fans of the art form get to have their say on the best of the crop in this year’s British Comics Awards, as the nominations are now open.