Review: Comics Unmasked

May 12, 2014
  • Rating: ★★★★☆
British Library

For an art form that is seen as quintessentially American, we Brits have a disproportionate influence on the world of comics. Our writers pen the storylines – not to mention draw the physical lines – of some of the hottest properties in graphic story-telling, from Super Man to the X-Men. Scotland in particular has an improbable grasp on the medium that has become an ideas-factory for a generation of movies and video games, with a conveyor-belt of talent from north of the border signing up with US comic powerhouses Marvel and DC.

It wasn’t always so: for decades our publications evolved as largely insular, unmistakeably British alternatives to the musclebound US titles. It was in the 1970s that the introspective, psychedelic and psychological work coming out of the UK began to catch the eye of Marvel and DC. Our creators – notably writers Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman, aided by artists including Dave McKean, Frank Quitely and Dave Gibbons –  helped to revolutionise the superhero genre –that staple of American comics– introducing new depths of fallibility, weakness and doubt to characters who had been known for their indefatigability and stoicism.

The British Library’s Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK is an ambitious attempt to map the evolution, not to mention plight, of British comics and creators, using texts largely drawn from the library’s own collection.

Curators John Harris and Paul Gravett’s approach is in large part a defensive one, opposing the view that comics are somehow intrinsically facile or, worse, actively harmful. You can see why when you consider the 1950s ban on horror comics and the high-profile obscenity trials in the following decades. And while they put across a water-tight case, the stance means some of the exhibits can feel slightly patronising: comics can be political! Comics can be about sex!

Their biggest achievement is showing how starkly our comics reflect the British psyche through the decades – issues of class abound, from the Beano’s Lord Snooty to Moore’s chippy working class occultist John Constantine. Sex lingers between the panels, but the images are rarely sexy; instead they walk a line somewhere between saucy and seedy – a Blackpool postcard version of titillation. Punk imagery abounds from the 70s onwards, as does racial tension, with the Young National Front using comics to try to steal young minds, and the Anti-Nazi League responding with strips of their own.

The examples chosen to illustrate their points strike a neat balance between genre classics – Alan Moore’s V For Vendetta takes pride of place, alongside the Guido Fawkes masks contained therein, now synonymous with middle-class pseudo-anarchists the world over – and remarkable oddities, one of the strangest being a 1949 comic by television presenter Bob Monkhouse, in which the hero saves a scantily-clad beauty from a decidedly phallic-looking alien.

Another highlight is an examination of the influences behind some of the most lauded British comics and their creators, including the inspiration Morrison, Moore and Gaiman all took from both 20th century occultist Aleister Crowley and horror writer HP Lovecraft; from one generation of British eccentrics to another.

Comics Unmasked attempts the impossible: to condense the British Library’s vast and disparate collection  into a single, cohesive exhibition. Nobody would attempt the equivalent with British novels or film – where would you start? But while the selected works – more than 200 in number – don’t begin to scratch the surface, they’re certainly proof that our comics industry is thriving, a hotbed of ideas littered with quirks and gems. Hopefully one day we’ll be able to move on from defending them to viewing them with the same esteem in which we hold our other creative industries.

Q&A with Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons

Artist and writer Dave Gibbons has had a career in comics spanning almost 40 years, working with iconic properties including Batman, Spider-Man, Captain America and Judge Dredd. In that time he’s collaborated with industry legends including Stan Lee and Frank Miller, although he is best known for his work with Alan Moore on the seminal Watchmen series. Here is his take on the British comics scene.

What is the enduring appeal of comics?
There is something primal about them. Scholars will point to pre-historic cave paintings to show there is something ancient about the notion of putting words and pictures together to tell a story. To me, it has always seemed a very natural form of expression. I’ve always thought of comics as being subversive – when I was at school they were frowned upon and that made me value them all the more. I went to a very traditional British school and I have a  vivid memory of comics being dragged out of our desks and burned at break time. That was quite a formative experience for me. Many years later when my own son went to school, the English department found out I drew comics and they got me in to address the whole  year. Comics have gone from being frowned upon to something that’s rightfully seen as a valid part of modern culture. If you go to San Diego in July there are 150,000 geeks and fans at Comic-Con. Things have changed a great deal. Something inside me regrets that comics aren’t still this grubby, private pleasure but nevertheless it’s great that somewhere as prestigious as the British Library would put on an exhibition about them.

What makes the comics we produce distinctly “British”?
There is a streak in the British character that is very dismissive of authority and very sniffy about privilege – I suppose it’s something to do with class. In the US there tends to be an in-built respect for authority, whereas we slightly despise it.

What was it about your generation of British comics writers and artists that made them so successful in the US?
It was a generational thing. My generation in England actually grew up loving comics and wanting to make them our life’s work. Previously people had drawn and written comics to tread water until they became a famous illustrator or painter or novelist and looked at comics as a lowly pursuit to make some money. It was our chosen form of expression, the summit of our ambition. People like Alan Moore and I kicked down the door and wonderfully talented people like Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison were the rear guard.

What does the future hold for the comics industry?
Unlike a movie or an animation, it’s relatively cheap and easy to produce a comic. A single author can do the whole thing themselves through fairly economical means. And with the internet you can distribute to vast audiences for virtually no cost. A lot of people who would maybe not have got their work into print are doing it online, so the readership of comics is expanding.

There was a fear that people would read them on the internet and then not bother to go into shops and buy them. But the opposite has been true – new readers are getting hooked online and end up buying them. Comics also benefit from the fact they can be the blueprint for other media, be it movies or TV shows or games. You only have to look at the success of the Marvel movies – some of the biggest grossing films of all time – to see that the world of comics is continuing to thrive.

To find out more about the British Library’s exhibition go to

First published in City A.M.