Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK (2nd May – 19th August 2014)

On the 15th of march (2014) I went out on a research trip to London. My first stop of the day was at the British Library, an I must say it was probably the most rewarding experience of my research quest!

The British Library was busy, as usual, although the exhibition was surprisingly quiet- I think as I came in (with W.U Hstry members Alex and Michael), we must have been about 7 people in the first room at most. It started picking up and the flow of people was fairly constant, which in a sense was probably better as we did not feel rushed and we could take as much time to read and look at the information that we were presented with. We were also supplied by a free exhibition guide, which had a little map and a considerable great deal of information about each key section of the exhibition. As we were greeted by a bunch of mannequins dressed with V for Vendetta masks, as following the Anonimous movement ideals, the general conception of the exhibition was clear. According to the leaflet itself: “Comics unmasked challenges preconception and prejudices by revealing the daring of British comics writers and artists, who are among the most successful and influential in the world”. With this in mind, we followed the path of the venue, which I shall recall in the following lines.

There were six main sections in which the exhibition was divided: Mischief and Mayhem and To See Ourselves, are the first two. They include a general overview of the origin of British comic books and how they have been developing through time up to the later decades of the 20th century. There were display cases with open comic books which had little explanatory panels underneath or nearby them. They were enough to give details of the piece and it’s context, but not terribly long pieces so you would not have the chance to get incredibly bored and dragged by the reading required. It was precise, and clear, and this carries on through the exhibition in general. The way the comics were displayed, also allowed the visitor to get an idea of comic context and similarities between those displayed within the same cases and who they related to the others. A detail I quite enjoyed and thought was delightful was the section in the center of the room (which also replicated elsewhere in the exhibition) with some seats and tablets that had access to some of the comics shown and mentioned in the exhibition. The machines had a directory of different volumes and some contextual text about the number you were reading as well. It was great to be able to interact with the artefacts explored in such a close and real way!

The following two sections talked about what I consider to be two main topics in not only British comic books, but comics in general, which are politics and sex. In Politics: Power and People, there was great emphasis directed towards the figure of Alan Moore, which is only logical considering how important and influential his work is. This showed the visitor how comics could be used as political propaganda but also to put through protest movements and ideas. Moving to Let’s Talk about Sex, this area reflected the serious changes that the rise of feminism had in Britain and its culture and how this reflected in comic books too. It goes further than just explaining the themes of nudity and sexual behaviour in the pages of illustrated magazines and sequential art, but it also conveyed ideas of gender roles and the agency of different members of society by the pictures and words flowing in the comics. Right after this fourth venue, there was a little transition area where the visitors were encouraged to sit down and draw some comics! There was a table with paper and materials to draw as well as a pin-board where to put the finished pieces- Even though I cannot draw myself, I thought it was a very good idea to include something like that, considering the highly inspirational value of the exhibition. I think it also helped the visitors to put things in context and realise that it all comes to someone sitting down with pen and paper and expressing their ideas, just like someone writing a book, or two people having a conversation together: it did not look alien at all, but rather inviting!

The fifth section, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, submerges the visitor in the idea of hero and superhero comic books. They also explore the literary topos of chivalry, heroism and epic-ism. But all this is done from a sociopolitical context, providing the individual with an understanding of how social tensions and fears transmuted into “Supermans” and “Batmans”. At this stage, the exhibition improved the visual aspect by including a television playing the movie Kick-Ass- adaptation of Scottish comic author Mark Millar’s work. This completed the picture of how the visual world of comic books is effectively everywhere, and how it has evolved and expanded particularly in the last decades.

The final section was a great wrap up exercise. Breakdowns: the Outer Limits of Comics just managed to put everything in perspective. It included one which is probably the most recent comic in the exhibition-dating from early 2014. It did not have any text (at least not in the page showing) and it was designed in black and white A3 format. It was full of symbolism and metaphors: words were simply unnecessary. This section furthered the ideas provoked earlier by these comics that breach their limits and jump into the screens. Moreover, one of the displays in this section explained the relationship between video games and comics with examples such as Arhkam Asylum and Arkham City: the virtual worlds of Batman and his adventures in Gotham. What’s more, there was a huge projector screen in the middle of the room showing videos of Gorillaz. Why Gorillaz you may ask yourselves? Well, because the author of Tank Girl, one of the most renown British comic books of the late 20th Century, happens to be- along side Damon Albarn- the creator of this band and audio-visual project- The name of the man, and genius,  is Jamie Hewlett, for your information.


Apart from that, all I can say is that I really enjoyed it. It was great content for the amount paid- and the gift shop was very well stocked! There are also certain days where events related to the exhibition are taking place in conjunction with the whole thing, so it is really really worth while…In my most humble opinion. If you have some spare time and think the subject would be interesting, do stop by!


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