As exhibitions go, this one is a little bit like setting foot inside a teenager’s bedroom. It’s dimly lit, a little bit eerie, there are iPads and various other pieces of technology dotted around at regular intervals, and it’s not hard to feel as though you’re somehow intruding. Oh, and of course, there are comic books everywhere.
All around, huge glass display cases reveal comic books old and new, charting the cultural and social development of this often controversial art form, in sections including Mischief and Mayhem, Women, Sex, Politics, Satire, Diversity, Altered States, Heroes and Villains.
From Neil Gaiman’s Sandman (1989) and Alan Moore’s dystopian thriller-turned-Hollywood-hit V for Vendetta (1982), to Posy Simmonds Tamara Drewe (2007), ‘Comics Unmasked’ showcases some of the biggest and best-known names in the comic book world.
Beginning with Mr Punch, the original anarchist of Victorian entertainment, the viewer is taken on a self-guided tour of comics through the ages.
From Hell (1999), Alan Moore’s 600-page autopsy of Jack the Ripper’s London is gruesome, sensationalist and utterly compelling, and is rivalled only by an equally eye-watering edition of The Illustrated Police News taken from 1888.
There’s Garth Enis’ Preacher (1995), a murderous Texan minister with a vendetta against God, The Zoom! a comic by 13-year-old Zoom Rockman who started working on graphic novels before he even hit double figures, and Torrid, a piece 1970’s erotica renowned for its unique painterly artwork and depictions of graphic sex.
For many fans, comics are more than just a hobby: they’re a way of interpreting the social world, and although their messages are sometimes hidden behind comedy, violence or action-packed stunts, their potential to influence is no less powerful.
More often than not, even the darkest and strangest of narratives can be relatable, and the recent emergence of autobiographical and non-fiction comics has further widened their accessibility.
Libyan graphic novelist Asia Alfasi’s 2008 debut Beginnings, uses the popular Japanese Manga format to document her experiences as a young female Muslim growing up in Britain, and Katie Green’s Lighter Than My Shadow (2013) gives poignant insight into her lifelong struggle with anorexia. Depicting the disease as a swarm of negativity, the drab colour scheme, economical language and vivid imagery creates highly moving snapshot of life with a harrowing and alienating illness.
When it comes to superheroes, ‘Comics Unmasked’ certainly doesn’t disappoint, as Superman and his pals at Marvel and DC are well and truly out in force. But this exhibition is much more than a shrine to superheroes and comic book legends: it’s an insight into often neglected art-form that has the power to alter the course of history.
‘Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK’ is at the British Library until August 19th 2014.