Diceman No5, by Pat Mills and Hunt Emerson (c) REBELLION AS All Rights Reserved
By MICHAEL CAINES
Not that I have ever considered myself an expert on the subject, but there is much on display at Comics Unmasked at the British Library that I haven't seen before, and some things I haven't even heard of – so in one sense, for me, the exhibition lives up to its name. But in another sense, it's no great surprise to read in the exhibition guide that comics are "much more than the stuff of childhood and nostalgia" ("No subject is off limits"). Mr Punch and Dan Dare are here, but so are Posy Simmonds's Tamara Drewe, Judge Dredd's helmet from the recent film adaptation (i.e. the good one, not the Sylvester Stallone version) and plenty of Alan Moore – the stuff of adulthood.
In fact, parents take note: this is an exhibition that comes with a content advisory notice, because of the potentially "offensive or disturbing" imagery, and visitors under sixteen have to be accompanied by an adult. The separate "Let's Talk About Sex" section can be bypassed if necessary – which is as near as the BL will ever get to mimicking certain sodden streets in Soho, I guess – although it is not so easy to skip the sections that feature bloodied bodies, vampiric gorgings and, if you swipe the right tablet screen (of which there are many, in fixed positions, scattered throughout the exhibition space), various Jack the Ripper scenes out of Moore's From Hell.
I arrived at the press view yesterday just in time to hear the curators talking about their hope that people who weren't already aficionados would go and see Comics Unmasked, which runs from today until August 19, and leave it with an increased respect for the artistry involved. In most rooms, although some display cases are too dimly lit for you to inspect the art closely (or read the speech bubbles), there is more than one reason to think that their wish might come true.
The range of inventive, esoteric approaches ought to impress people at least. Here are nineteenth-century precursors to the twentieth-century industry, in a George Cruikshank satirical print and the Illustrated Police News, as well as this page from the Northern Looking Glass (originally the Glasgow Looking Glass), published in the 1820s and identified here as the first-ever comic:
(c) British Library Board
Here also – in a section thickly populated with mannequins wearing the Guy Fawkes masks adopted from Moore's V for Vendetta by the Occupy movement and the Anonymous hacktivists – are politically motivated works such as the (mis)informative pages courtesy of the far-right political party the National Front, designed to make the self-respecting white youth aware of his rights, should he happen to be stopped by the police. Here are verbatim, illustrated reports from the residents of Archway in London; lurid superheroics gone wrong (in Kick-Ass, an American comic-book series co-created by the Scottish Mark Millar); and a massive, monochrome book, in which a series of minute panels, like the windows of a tower block, face a single massive panel, wordlessly contrasting tiny scenes from a circus with a single, bandaged-wrapped woman alone on a bus. The biopic trend in graphic novels is reflected in the glimpse below into the house of Joyce ("Jaysus", indeed; if only it was written it in the style of Finnegans Wake instead – although admittedly Dotter of Her Father's Eyes isn't entirely about Lucia):
Dotter of her Father's Eyes, 2012, by Mary Talbot, Bryan Talbot (c) Mary and Bryan Talbot
All that's missing here, then (as far as I could see), is Brian Braddock, aka Marvel's Captain Britain (created by another British-born artist, Chris Claremont): a physics student and product of Fettes (and Essex) who turns out to be destined to protect and . . . etc. You get the picture.