Exhibition Review: Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK

Last week I visited the British Library’s current major exhibition: Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK. The exhibition focuses on comic books and graphic novels from UK writers and artists and examines the way it has grown as an art form; looking at its history and the various ways in which comics have been co-opted by different groups through the years. It was a fascinating and vibrant look at the British comic scene that had something for everyone: I don’t know much at all and went with my brother, a seasoned expert. Both of us found the exhibition enjoyable and informative, with plenty to explore.

The exhibition itself is divided into thematic sections: To See Ourselves, Mischief and Mayhem, Politics: Power and the People, Let’s Talk About Sex, Hero With A Thousand Faces and Breakdowns: The Outer Limits of Comics. There is also a series of events going on, with talks and panels discussing the work featured in the exhibition and the British comic book scene in general. Sadly, none were happening the day we visited, but a list of events can be found here.

There were creepy mannequins with the ‘V’ mask on ALL over the exhibition. With the dark, shadowy lighting scheme employed, it felt like we were constantly being crept up on. I hate mannequins anyway (why are they? WHY?), so I wasn’t too enamoured of that aspect of the exhibit and honestly, I’m not really sure what purpose they served, other than as creepy signposts to the next section.

Despite it being mostly centred on British authors, there was still an international feel to the exhibition, as the works examined cut across varying time periods and countries to examine political and social unrest.

Most interesting was the examination of violence and humour in graphic novels. I was interested to learn that there is an abundance of both; sly, political jokes littering the pages of almost everything we looked at. Alongside, in contrast, gory, graphic depictions of various acts of violence were also splattered over everything. I have to admit to being a bit taken aback by the volume of content that was like this. My bro shrugged it off, but there’s something very affecting and visceral about seeing someone’s visual interpretation of something, as opposed to reading a description.

That really, was one of the key things I took away from the exhibition. Telling a story using images as much as words (or more so, in many cases) is both deceptively simple and as complex as a densely packed novel. Scores and scores of writers and artists know the impact an image can have; as a reader – or exhibition goer in this case – you’re not just reading, you’re absorbing a feeling on seeing these stories. If a graphic novel or comic is done well, the story should be coherently and effectively told through the images and words supplied. It should feel intrinsic to the story that they co-exist. My eyes were definitely opened by this exhibition. Where some of the works on display were a little too scary/violent/grotesque for my tastes, there were others that delighted and intrigued me, that I’d never come across before. I was furiously noting down the titles of those that looked good and impressively, entrance to the exhibition came with access to over 150 downloadable e-comics through the British Library’s collection.

This was a fun, absorbing exhibit – definitely worth a visit if you have even a passing interest in comics or graphic novels.

Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK is on until 19th August 2014.