British Library to host biggest-ever UK comics exhibition

The British Library has announced a summer show which is being billed as ‘the biggest exhibition of British comics ever’.

The Trials of Nasty Tales, 1973 cover art by Dave Gibbons
The Trials of Nasty Tales, 1973 cover art by Dave Gibbons

Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK will unearth highlights from the British Library’s apparently bottomless archive, which is understood to contain almost the entire output of the UK comics industry.

It is being designed by Dave McKean, a comic book artist, illustrator, photographer, graphic designer, film maker and musician.

UK-born McKean illustrated the Batman novel Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth in 1989 and has had success on both sides of the Atlantic.

Misty, a well known female comic book of 1978 which told supernatural and horror stories
Misty, a well known female comic book of 1978 which told supernatural and horror stories

The exhibition is being co-curated by John Dunning who has worked with Paul Gravett and takes in everything from newly discovered Victorian comics to V for Vendetta and Batman.

It could have easily become a dumping ground for the vast British Library resource, but has instead been painstakingly put together with several routes through depending on what type of visitor you are.

The showstopper is likely to be the unearthing of The Trials of Nasty Tales, ‘an underground work’ according to the Library, created by Dave Gibbons of Watchmen fame, which documents the trials of the Nasty Tales, a 1970s comic series which saw its makers prosecuted for publishing what was seen to be obscene content.

Dunning says of the exhibition, ‘It’s the ultimate visual candy store’ for people who are into comics, for those who write and design them and equally ‘people who’ve never seen or read comics before’.

Rouge et Noir from Miss Pettifer's diary in the London Illustrated News
Rouge et Noir from Miss Pettifer’s diary in the London Illustrated News

At its heart the exhibition is ‘very much about rebellion’ says Dunning who adds that the exhibition shows how British comics have a history of ‘challenging the status quo, through gender, politics and sex’.

Early pauper’s bibles show comic style, as do handwritten spell-books by occultist/mathematician John Dee, according to Dunning, who says The Glasgow Looking Glass of 1825 ‘is arguably the first real comic.’

He is also at pains to say that these examples and the exhibition as a whole make the distinction of comics being ‘sequential narratives, not cartoons’.

Looking beyond the page there is a section on the production of comics which takes a more forensic look at the sketch stage and the forming characters and scripts, while the rise of web and digital comics is also spotlighted. 

Original artwork from Batman and Robin by Frank Quitely
Original artwork from Batman and Robin by Frank Quitely

Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in The UK runs from 2 May – 19 August at the British Library, 96 Euston Road, NW1 2 D. For more information visit http://www.bl.uk/whatson/exhibitions/comics-unmasked/

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