Begin with the exterior of the British Library, establishing location. People outside, sunny day. Billboards advertising the Library’s new exhibition on comics and graphic novels stand outside. Don’t bother showing the intrepid blogger buying tickets or anything because that’s boring, just go straight to the entrance of the exhibition.
It begins with some quotes about comics, both hagiographic and condemnatory, designed to show the polarising nature of comics and give an overview of the divisive cultural impact to be outlined.
Or to try and convince people the artform is relevant. It’s an uphill struggle.
A mirrored archway and a neat line-up of cut-out images make for a comic introduction with a sense of three dimensions rendered from two. Get it? Like comics. Throw in some creepy mannequins dressed up as members of Anonymous for reasons that you don’t need to explain until we get to the politics section.
Begin with Mr Punch.
A curved walk through history.
Someone has clearly gone to some trouble with regards to ensuring a good review from the noisier sections of Tumblr, determined to make note of the prejudice and gaps in representation in the earlier history of comics, incorporating the cross-media appeal of comics characters as early as the 1880s along with product endorsement and music hall songs… confronting at least ugly prejudice in small glass cases.
At this point our story is remarkable in content but not presentation.
Guy Fawkes-masked mannequins loom out of the semi-darkness and the font becomes enormous. We’re about to be introduced to the political overspill of comics’ influence, and their reflection of social issues, and place at the forefront of satire. This is good because I recently watched Dr Lucy Worsley talking to Michael Rosen about the history of satirical free comment in Britain and was able to give a whispered lecture to the Resident Australian about how our noble and ancient tradition of freedom of the press to criticise their “social betters” came about by an accident of poor parliamentary scheduling and inability to go back on a mistake without looking silly, i.e. the most British way of achieving it possible.
So many creepy masked mannequins.
Does this page deal with both satire and propaganda? Yes. Does it show politicised responses to changing social situations both from the far right and the far left? Yes. Does it have a slight left bias? Probably yes but I’m a disgusting woolly-jumper-wearing liberal socialist hippy c**t so this merely affirms my sense that I am right. Does it thankfully break out of the traditional ghetto of politicised comics in order to talk about not only fascism and anti-fascism during the 1980s but also pro- and anti-suffrage comics, historical perspectives on past movements, and raw and sad satire on the slow struggle of queer rights/gay liberation in the 20th century? Yes.
Was I more excited about the fact there is a page of original artwork from V for Vendetta?
This page is also the time to show that the thought process behind the layout of this exhibition has been impeccable. I wouldn’t talk about the flow of visitors through a space under ordinary circumstances, but this was good enough to merit notice: at no point was I forced to back up or head in a contrary direction in order to see all of the exhibits. No one got in anyone’s way except by lingering too long, and most people didn’t linger too long.
Of course I would expect an exhibition about comics to be sensitive to being readable and easy to move through, because that’s at the nuts and bolts level of successful comics. I am just used to being disappointed in my expectations. Especially where mainstream interest in sequential art comes in.
Another example of clever design. This bulge contains the process of comics, and it is at the core of the exhibition, the way the process is at the core of comics: there is a drawing table, and it is occupied by some fresh sketches and the materials to make more. There is a large video screen. There is a wall covered in the process sketches, scripts, thumbnails, pencils, inks, and ideas of several teams of creators, who collaborate in different ways and to different degrees to produce startlingly different works.
Kieron Gillen’s script, incidentally, reads the way he talks, only a lot slower and less sidetracked.
The genius of this page is not immediately apparent, but it offers escapes to each section of the exhibition more or less directly: the creator’s mind must be able to travel where it pleases.
Racy. This sexy page is sealed away in a side-stream, a veiled bubble of hidden desires gently segregated from the main, which both represents its position in comics (since I suppose they couldn’t have dug an extra underground to be more explicit about it) and gives people an easy out if they decide they don’t want to look at sex in comics/it isn’t appropriate for their age group.
Which again, is good exhibition design. One goes in a loop: in past Aubrey Beardsley and early erotic comics including a hilarious work satirically advocating “rights for sodomites” from the French Revolution which apparently became (this is the funny part) pornographically popular in Britain. “Ooh, bumming,” said late 18th-Century Britain. “Political content? Nah mate, that’s three men doing some botty-spearing. Nothin’ political there.”
The sex bubble contains a variety of approaches to sex in comics, from the sardonic (Steven Bell’s middle class orgy) to the personal (sad stories of masturbation) to the deliberately provocative (the Oz obscenity trial) and, justly and fairly, the pornographic. As is the case in almost any discussion of sexuality as part of a larger debate, when “gay sex” comes up it’s exclusively male, but otherwise a fascinating view onto a subject usually treated as not fit for discussion.
Side note: Obviously this is an area I am interested in, having hauled myself through museums of erotica both in Amsterdam and Paris, and it’s always interesting to see what’s going on stylistically in people’s sex: Peter van Straaten’s Lust has been on my shelf for nearly 7 years with its newspaper cartoon/book illustration feel bringing a sense of nostalgia and whimsy to orgies and covert sex, while works on display at the British Library are more rooted in the aesthetic of the 60s underground, and a style which looks quite specifically British.
Back on the agenda, we head from the initial curve of history, politics, and sex through to the straight-and-narrow: the gallery becomes a long oblong, and we’re discussing heroism. Another great mirror between content and form, because that’s what successful comics are.
Here you have the choice of moving straight down a large glass case or examining displays hidden in a children’s nursery/playroom/classroom/artist’s studio, which is a change from the swift, directed readability of before. I could say something trite about “examining both sides of the issue” but I don’t recall the content being laid out that way.
Amid collectable statuettes and Karl Urban’s Judge Dredd helmet, the history of British comics heroes (Dan Dare, Judge Dredd, the preference for anti-heroes beginning with The Ride To York) is briefly contrasted against the American yearning for untouchable supermen (there’s even a tentative explanation raised for the USA preference for the mighty and unassailable – these fantasies were born of the Depression and the sufferings therein), and while the difference in the heroic character cycle (British comics heroes blossom and die, American ones are eternally recycled) is illuminated and subverted with the reincarnation of Archie the robot as an acid raver, there’s also a lengthy piece celebrating the British Invasion: the influx of British writers into American comics which is unfortunately probably to blame for the grimdark obsession people keep complaining about, what with UK writers’s apparent preference for the mortal and fallible.
It’s also probably responsible for the number of comics in the mainstream which got weird about chaos magic, and that’s where the exhibition is headed next:
Appropriately for a page entitled the breakdown of comics, this is where the tidy structure of case by case, panel by panel reading goes instead into chaos. The surprising number of practising magus in a certain generation of comics writers, and the ways in which people have explored both the limits of the comics format and the limits of the known and imagined universe within comics are on display, backed against the walls, dangling in the centre of the room in glass pillars. William Burroughs of course makes an appearance: there’s a haunted house to stick your head into, there’s a huge screen showcasing something Hewlett-related that I was too tired hang around and watch.
An afternote, here: there are two computers which are apparently allow one to browse more comics, just as there were a dizzying proliferation of tablets on stalks throughout allowing one to do the background reading there and then, leafing through this comic or that comic (Judge Dredd: America is one title I recall). I did not make my acquaintance with the last computers because some French tourists had commandeered the seats in order to have a conversation. Nothing’s perfect, I guess.