Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK

A comics news article

Your favorite Traveling Nerd is at it again. But this time my journeys find me in the land of bad teeth, fried fish and all that is snooty: sunny and beautiful London. So lift your pinky finger, hold onto your top hat and above all else, GOD SAVE THE QUEEN! This air-worthy nerd took the chance to explore the steeped history of our favorite medium -- comics -- with their rise from penny dreadfuls to award-winning literature, at a display hosted by the British Library.

I stumbled upon this quest of an exhibit like every great adventure is found in the land of King Arthur: I drank way too many warm ales at the local pub. After a couple of drinks I decided it was my mission to see how our forebearers got their nerd on. Little did I expect to find such a rich history of comics through out the ages. A person living in the Colonies and absorbing our rich tights-wearing history of super-heroes would assume that the Americans were the ones to create comics. America F@%$ yeah! Nope, once again I was wrong. Believe me, talk to my girlfriend: my being wrong is a routine occasion.

Claiming to be the largest collection of British comics in the UK, drawing on the British Library’s vast catacombs of comic book art (legally, the Library gets a copy of every book or comic published in the Queen's land) Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK shows the wide range of talent and storied history from British artists and writers from as far back as the 1700s. Running from May 2nd to August 19th, there is plenty of time for my fellow Yankee nerd brethren to manage the ocean jaunt for this display.

As you enter the beautifully-mastered exhibit, you will feel like you’re entering the gritty mind of a comic creator as he takes his surreal ingenious talent and brings us into a word-bubbled and comic-book-paneled strip of entertainment. This is made possible due to the exhibition’s artistic directors being UK comic artist Dave McKean (Batman: Arkham Asylum), comics expert Paul Gravett (1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die) and journalist/author John Harris Dunning (Salem Brownstone). If you happened to catch McKean’s mind-bending Batman comics, this show of UK’s comic history -- through six sections of mischief, mayhem, politics, power, and sex -- will be an award winning journey for you. 

Along the way on this comic history voyage, you are joined by a hooded Occupy Movement mannequin army proudly brandishing Guy Fawkes masks from V for Vendetta. Beyond the mannequins, the exhibit really had an immense collection of incredible finds. There are a scary ventriloquist dummy from the 1890s (used for one of the first cartoon series, called Ally Sloper); illustrated spell books from the 17th century inked by the occultist John Dee; and a whole section called “Let’s Talk about Sex” highlighting UK’s changing attitudes over sex and sexual rights over the years. 

The one true free press during the mid-1900s in London was comics. 

One of my favorite parts of the exhibit was the original panels from the penny dreadful newspapers of the 1700s.  These penny dreadfuls were quite a rage with the lower classes who couldn't afford real newspapers. Within those pages was real history redrawn, such as historical journalistic articles following the search for Jack the Ripper.

The British Library really outdid themselves with their display of original art and panels from throughout the past ages of comics. I loved how they used electric tablets loaded with different graphic novels, videos, and live footage of artists at work as part of their display. I appreciated their embrace of the genre. I also respect their choice to make this both a comic nerd’s wet dream and also a historical lesson on the comics artform. It was a fascinating display of how comics have played a part throughout the ages in everything from political movements to women's suffrage.

Comics Unmasked made your favorite Traveling Nerd's journey to ol’ England well worth it. Look for more of my exploits and travels as the coming year progresses when I trek to Jordan and Israel to find out how the Middle East geeks out!


- Lance Paul

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