Comics Unmasked At The British Library

The British comic industry has a long history, and the British Library has decided that it’s high time it got its dues with a major exhibition. As is always the case with the British Library, this is an exhibition chock full of information that can be a bit much to take in on one visit. Topics range from superheroes to sex.

The curation has really embraced the comic book world and the exhibition is filled with bright colours and creepy mannequins wearing masks from ‘V for Vendetta’ — one of the most celebrated graphic novels. The addition of tablets pre-loaded with comics is a nice touch.

It opens with quotes from people both complimenting and disparaging comics. As well as showing us the cultural influence of comics, this show doesn’t dodge any of the difficult questions. It explores, for example, how racism featured in comics in the 1950s, with an edition of the Andy Capp comic strip, which saw domestic violence as a source of light humour.

It even informs us that comics were once the video games of their day, with parents assuming they were innocent and targeted only at children and then reacting with outrage once they discovered that they often covered adult themes. Although this show does cover the derogatory way that women are often portrayed in comics, this area could have benefited from a stronger focus especially as this is a particularly prescient issue in all forms of media today.

The final space is converted into an artist’s studio, with works in progress and preparatory drawings pinned to the wall. It’s a nice touch but lacking in the bite of the earlier sections.

This is a truly informative exhibition that will prove fascinating even to the the comic novices, though there’s enough here to keep the aficionados engaged as well. The fact that it doesn’t shy away from controversies makes it a much stronger, more well-rounded and enjoyable show.

Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK  is on at the British Library until 19 August. Tickets are £9.50 for adults, concessions available.

Also still on at the British Library is the interactive Beautiful Science.

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