Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK

British Library
2 May – 8 August 2014

I was greeted at the door by some analogue graphics and menacing V masked mannequins – I knew already that I’d enjoy this exhibition of the British comic writers and artists.

The masked mannequins were a theme throughout the exhibition. They were very creepy and I kept checking that they were plastic and weren’t about to jump out at me. They wore the V mask, as I would later find out in the displays, a masked used by agitator V, a modern day Guy Fawkes who burnt down parliament during the Thatcher years in response to her commercial policies.

Guided through the rooms by a massive overhead comic stripped with projected scenes, this exhibition covered: mischief and mayhem; representation; politics; the hero; sex; and the outer limits of comics.

The things that stood out to me were:

  • The response to them in the 1970s, with The Sun newspaper stirring up concerns over juvenile crime at writing headlines such as ‘Comic Strip Hooligans’.
  • Comics date back as far as the 15th century and a beautiful example of the bible turned into a comic was on display (Biblia Pauperum, 1470)
  • They force readers to examine social values
  • They can distort characters: well observed or stereotypical and nurturing of prejudice
  • They were produced mainly by white males, so pushed their agenda and views of the world. However, a wide variety of work was on display and I particularly enjoyed some work about the suffragettes, although it was only in 2013 that the first full graphic novel about them was produced.
  • They are a powerful communication tool that can talk directly to the people. It can be used to subvert the status quo, lobby, protest, and instigate change.
  • Andy Capp artist Reg Smytheย is Britain’s highest paid comic artist, due to the number of syndications and merchandising offers.
  • That the British love an anti-hero – the petty and not so petty criminal.

I’m not feeling the need to go out and make a comic after the exhibition, but I’m certainly interested in reading many of the comics and graphic novels on display a little more closely. I particularly liked the autobiographical ones.


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