Even if prevailing associated with childhood and teens the language of comics possesses a universal power of communication; already exploited by pop-artists in the 1960s it has always been the most appropriate to both represent and transgress rules and conventions of Western society.
The recently opened show, dedicated to comics by the British Library in London, explores particular aspects of this popular art form. Comics Unmasked, Art and Anarchy in the UK is the title of the exhibition which highlights the subversive power of comics. The show, exploring British comic production since the 19th Century, tackles a historical reading of this particular form of art and communication in the UK.
The exhibition, curated by John Harris Dunning and Paul Gravett, explores the revolutionary and subversive attitude conveyed by comic strips, including a large range of subject matters; from politics, sexuality, and several social questions related to class, ethnic minorities and corporate power, to autobiography, documentary and everyday life. The show has the merit of revealing to the audience the often unknown variety and richness of storytelling which comics have offered over the years. In this sense some outstanding examples showcased in the first part of the show are: Class War Comics (by Clifford Harper, 1974), Nemesis the Warlock (by Patt Mills ans Kevin O’Neill, 2007-8), Third World War (by Patt Mills, 1988) and Andy Capp Book (by Reg Smythe, 1958). What emerges from the exhibition is that among popular culture comics represent one of the most successful means to raise awareness on subjects like social taboo.
At the same time, the other aspect that arise is how despite the influence of the American comic scene on British culture, the UK has been offering a countercultural alternative and has produced many examples of provocative protest (whereas the American comics mainly celebrated the American mainstream culture through the representation of the subject as super-man/hero). Several political narratives seem to intertwine; for instance the 1954 campaign against American comics supported by the communist party (the comic Tales from the Crypt was one of those presented as an example to ban) along with political satires such as Hellblazer (by David McKean, 1988) on the reelection of Margaret Thatcher. Unfortunately, only a little is told of comics as political means for the British government; a reference is made in the section Comics in politics, which mentions the commission by the British Foreign Office of an illustrated version of Animal Farm by George Orwell to be used as anti-communist propaganda.
The last sections of the show are instead dedicated to specific subjects showcasing sex comics and the 1980s protagonists of British superhero comics such as: Judge Dredd, Watchman, Tank girl, Halo Jones and Tyranny Rex, often inspired by the American alter egos and science fiction. The exhibition ends with a section dedicated to magic and esoteric subjects in comics.
Certainly it is challenging for an institution like the British Library to launch an event dedicated to a form of art mainly regarded as pop culture. Nevertheless, rather than a marketing strategy to attract a large audience, the exhibition (especially the first half) is an opportunity for both the institution and the visitors to rethink and experience the medium as part of the historical inheritance of the country, and to discover the powerful role of social change that comics have undertaken over the last couple of centuries.
How can a form of art and communication like comics represent and at the same time effectively impact society?