How comics reflect a very British psyche

Steve Dinneen
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British Library | By Steve Dinneen
Four Stars

FOR AN art form that is seen as quintessentially American, we Brits have a disproportionately large influence on the world of comics. It wasn’t always so: for decades our publications evolved as largely insular, unmistakeably British alternatives to the musclebound US titles. But in the 1970s and 80s the introspective, psychedelic and psychological work being printed in the UK began to catch the eye of US comic powerhouses 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 where once there had been 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.