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Beware the Creeper!

Iain's life as a psychotic crimefighter

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Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK

Parallel to Loncon is an exhibition of British comics at The British Library, covering everything from the Victorian Illustrated London News through Oz Magazine to the works of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. Well, covering almost everything. I thought there were some suprising omissions.

There is some great stuff in there - an Ally Sloper ventriloquist doll, Karl Urban's Judge Dredd helmet, the Rupert the Bear issue of Oz magazine (and you can see why it spurred an obscenity trial), pages from the original script of Watchmen with Dave Gibbons' highlighting as well as a page of a Sandman script from Neil Gaiman that is so conversational it reads like a letter with directions for drawing a comic sprinkled apologetically through it.

The intent of the exhibition is made clear through the sporadic clusters of mannequins in street wear clad with the ubiquitous Guy Fawkes masks from 'V for Vendetta'. They menacingly punctuate the exhibits, as if daring punters to say out loud "but comics are only for kids, surely." I was wondering if they were being slowly replaced by disaffected youth in preparation for a Tory function at the end of the exhibition, where they will suddenly spring to life and tear the chinless ruling class oiks limb for limb. One can dream, surely.

Whilst the exhibition appeared comprehensive, I felt there were some odd omissions.

- Battle, a seminal war comic, was entirely absent despite publishing one of the major touchstones of British comics 'Charley's War' written by comics god Pat Mills (who is otherwise adequately represented - Yay Marshal Law!)

- Commando and Starblazer. Commando comics (small digest sized things) seemed everywhere - I even found some in Fiji, and yet there were none in the exhibition. Same with Starblazer which published the first works of Grant Morrison (like Pat Mills, also otherwise represented though maybe overrepresented in Morrison's case.)

- Girls comics. There was one copy of Misty on display, but no Jinty or the others which was strange because they were a genre of comic fairly unique to Britain. Pat Mills tells a great story about them in the documentary Comics Britannia. They were written by the disaffected punks who would go on to create Action and 2000AD and were fairly subversive at the time. There's a cursory display of feminist comics, but little about the comics they were reacting too.

- Same with the humour comics. There was an issue of Whoopee and another one of Viz, but none of Whizzer and Chips, Cor, the Dandy etc and no mention of Oink, a forerunner of Viz but from the same publisher as Whoopee. AND NO LEO BAXENDALE! MY HEART BLEEDS!

- One mention of Archie (and ACEEEED! Archie from Morrison's Zenith) but no mention of Captain Hurricane, Adam Eterno, The Spellbinder, The Spider, The Steel Claw, Kelly's Eye and the other British pseudo-superheroes. I would have thought The Spider would have at least rated a mention as he was the first major British anti-hero - starting as an out and out villian and becoming a barely reformed British agent at the end but the exhibition would lead you to believe that Judge Dredd was the first British comics anti-hero.

- No Toxic magazine - Pat Mills self-published adventure comic to support creator's rights (in fact there was nothing about creator's rights at all in the exhibition which is contextually important if you're emphasising the political nature of comics.)

- and finally NO MENTION OF MARVEL UK!?!? NONE?!?! This (aside from 2000AD) was where many currently popular UK writers and artists in mainstream superhero comics got their start. And Alan Moore (no CAPTAIN BRITAIN?!?). The one Warren Ellis comic, for example, is The Authority - and that is only mentioned because of the Apollo/Midnighter subversion of the Superman/Batman relationship. For heaven's sake the number one comics film in the box office at the moment was based on a comic created by British writers (Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning.) There's a tiresome amount of stuff in the exhibition about Alan Moore and Grant Morrison's work for DC (and that Morrison - a Scot - had charted the course of Batman and Superman) but nothing about the British writers who influenced the current crop of Marvel films.

Sorry. Just had to get that off my chest. I don't even consider myself an expert on British comics yet I was surprised by the gaps in the exhibition (and therefore the missing influences behind some of the work they do show.) I have the sense the curators were playing favourites rather than try to tell a coherent story about the development of comics of adults or whatever it was they were trying to achieve.

Don't get me wrong - if you are interested in any facet of comics at all it's well worth seeing. But don't expect it to be comprehensive.

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Many of those do seem like odd omissions to me. You'd think they'd have gotten a modern comics historian involved...

It makes me wonder if a lot of that material has between covered in prior exhibitions. The weird thing is that you'd come out of the exhibition with an idea of the diversity of underground and independent comics but little understanding of the diversity of mainstream UK comics. murasaki_1966 had the impression the curators' had an axe to grind.

They did. Paul Gravett was one of the main curators, so any omissions are out of deliberate taste, rather than library curators being ignorant.

Real minor nitpick here, but Oink wasn't a forerunner of Viz -- Viz started publication in the late 70s, about seven years before Oink...

Not a minor nitpick at all - thanks for the correction. I thought Oink pre-existed Viz because (living in Australia) Oink was available and Viz wasn't - at the time. It makes more sense that Oink was influenced by Viz rather than the other way round.

This is really weird.

Does this exhibition really not mention those comics that are considered to be the mainstay of my generation in the 50s? No Dandy, Beano, Bunty, Judy, School Friend etc?

Not everything has to be subversive. There was some fantastically good artwork in things like Commando and School Friend to name but two.

With the concentration on the recent material, I wonder if it is also missing the media-based comics starting with Radio Fun in the 30s and coming to an end (I think, though I am no expert on British comics) with TV Tornado.

Shakes head.

You're right - there was very little in the media based comics. No TV21 for example with the amazing Frank Hampton Thunderbirds artwork.

God, that artwork. I seem to remember from my very dim and distant youth that he once rew a Journey into Space strip for TV Express or possibly TV Fun or maybe that was someone with a similar 'feel'.

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