Comics have seized center stage at the venerable British Library in London this summer in an exhibition celebrating the history of British comics and the work of British creators. Subtitled, 'Art and Anarchy in the UK', the Comics Unmasked exhibition places an emphasis on protest, outsider culture, and anti-authoritarian voices.

Curated by Adrian Edwards, Paul Gravett, and John Harris Dunning, Comics Unmasked draws heavily on the British Library's own collection to establish and define Britain's relationship to the comics art form -- stirring up nostalgia, scandal, and some surprising discoveries along the way.


George Cruikshank. Image courtesy of the British Library.


To anyone who has never visited, the British Library probably sounds like it ought to be a fusty, old-fashioned space. In fact it occupies sleek modern premises close to King's Cross Station, and the Comics Unmasked exhibition is the current tenant of its premier exhibition space. Lights are kept low to preserve the books as visitors wend their way between glass cabinets, forever watched over by massed mannequins in V For Vendetta Guy Fawkes masks,

The first cabinet that visitors come to contains copies of the 19th century illustrated satirical magazine Punch, and a copy of Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean's Vertigo comic Mr. Punch. Both publications are named for the same trickster character from Victorian seaside puppet shows, and between these Punches and the many Guy Fawkes, a clear tone is established. In Britain, comics have traditionally been used as to subvert, challenge, and heckle the establishment, from the 19th political cartoons of George Cruikshank to the violent anti-corporate message of Peter Milligan and Brendan McCarthy's Skin.

The claim to British comics' anti-authoritarian edge is borne out by some interesting choices. Kids' comics heroes like schoolgirls Beryl the Peril and Minnie the Minx stand as obvious examples of youthful rebel spirit, but they're joined in a nearby display by two strips from Pat Mills' violent and short-lived 1976 anthology series Action. 'Kids Rule O.K.' is a story about child gangs in a world with few adults, while 'Hook Jaw' is an unlikely environmentalist parable about a killer shark who takes on polluters. Even the sharks in British comics are trying to bring down the man.


Mike White. Image courtesy of the British Library.


Other cabinets explore counter-cultural themes through examinations of class and status, diversity, and challenges to religious imagery -- with Alan Moore's work on Green Lantern and Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon's work on Preacher cited as particularly strong examples of the latter. Social subversion through gore is also a recurring motif, one that the exhibition traces back at least as far as the sensationalistic illustrated newspapers that arose around the time of the Jack the Ripper killings.

Naturally much of the work has a leftie, liberal bent. The right wing National Front gets a look in too with their youth-targeted fascist publication Bulldog -- but right next to a copy of a Marvelman comic in which the hero fights the Ku Klux Klan.

Sex has its place in the exhibition as well -- respectably set aside in its own corner of the floor with a little notice to warn the faint of disposition. Alongside work by William Hogarth, Aubrey Beardsley and Melinda Gebbie, this is where visitors will discover the exquisitely colorful work of Ron Embleton, whose Oh Wicked Wanda in Penthouse magazine was Britain's answer to Little Annie Fanny; or the delightfully sordid gay erotica of Swiss-born Dan Dare artist Oli Frey. The exhibition's little sex tent also explores the use of sex to push back against Britain's onerous censorship laws.


Police News. Image courtesy of the British Library.


Emerging from the sex tent, one may be as unlucky as I was to be immediately confronted with a giant close-up of Kieron Gillen scratching his nose on a floor-to-ceiling screen. A looping video plays behind a mock-up of a comic artist's desk, showing various creators at work. Another table presents a mock-up of a writer's desk.

This is the gateway to the comics mainstream, aka superhero fiction -- which is of course not at all mainstream in UK comics, but still an important part of the story. Here the exhibition neatly divides across opposite walls. On one side it's an examination of Britain's punkish and/or satirical superhero (and pseudo-superhero) figures -- Tank Girl, Judge Dredd, Zenith, Marvelman -- while the other wall explores how UK creators have broken down and rebuilt American icons in works like Watchmen, All Star Superman, and The Authority.

The final room of the exhibition looks at the place of magic in British comics, but with a rather broad and unsatisfying remit that files Promethea alongside dream narratives, hippie psychedelia, Rogan Gosh, and Arkham Asylum. It's the one part of the exhibition that doesn't make a very compelling case, though it's also the part where one can study a John Dee text while a tape plays Aleister Crowley chanting in Enochian, so one might be forgiven for losing some time and staggering confusedly out into the gift shop.

Comics Unmasked offers a truly impressive representation of the diversity of British comics, and makes a strong case for the medium's role as a heckling Mr. Punch bristling against the British establishment. Part and parcel of that message is the idea that subversion is not just about well-targeted take-downs of hypocrisy, but also about sex, vulgarity and violence that pricks holes in propriety. Obscenity is a political act and violence can be a protest gesture when comics is the medium.

Unfortunately the gift shop is full of "ka-pow"-themed merchandise; a sad reminder that no matter how far one wades into the puckish undercurrents of the British comics scene, we will always comes back to ka-pow in the end.


Comics Unmasked runs until August 19 at the British Library. Tickets cost £9.50, with discounts for students, seniors, and the disabled. Under-18s are admitted free. Visitors are advised to book in advance during peak hours. IPad users can download a free 150-page anthology in support of the exhibition via the Sequential app. 


Comics Unmasked promotional art by Jamie Hewlitt.
Comics Unmasked promotional art by Jamie Hewlitt.