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Drawing the battle lines: Comics come to the British Library

Ahead of a new exhibition of British comic books, Nicholas Barber pays tribute to their seditious spirit

Prince Charles famously dismissed the British Library’s current premises as a “dim collection of brick sheds groping for some symbolic significance”, so he’ll be pleased to see that those sheds have recently been brightened up. In advance of the Library’s new exhibition, Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK, its buildings have been festooned with posters by Jamie Hewlett, of Tank Girl/Gorillaz fame.

Central to these posters is a sullen, scruffy-haired superheroine, slouching in a rubbish-strewn alleyway. Sporting an outfit that Wonder Woman might find skimpy, she has a hip flask in one hand and a spiked knuckleduster wrapped around the other, the latter a weapon she might well have used to beat up the Batman-like superhero who lies slumped in the shadows.

The message is clear: this may be the most extensive ever survey of Britain’s rich tradition of words-and-pictures storytelling,  and it may see the art form being welcomed into the nation’s august, if shed-like, Library, but don’t imagine that comic strips have joined the establishment.

 “It could easily have been a serious, reverential exhibition called ‘Graphic Literature’,” says Paul Gravett, the exhibition’s co-curator, “and it could have been really dull. But we wanted to make sure we didn’t lose sight of comics’ subversive side. Comics have a long history of upsetting people, so it would be wrong to try to make them seem respectable.”

Over coffee in the Library café, Gravett talks me through some of that history as laid out in the exhibition. “Britain has always had an appetite for satirical drawings,” he says, citing Hogarth, James Gillray and George Cruikshank, who, when starting out as an artist, did a brisk trade in prints ridiculing the Prince Regent. When the Prince became George IV, he bribed Cruikshank to cut him some slack. “Cruikshank took the money and kept doing the caricatures anyway,” smiles Gravett. Prince Charles should bear that in mind.

From Cruikshank, we move on to Ally Sloper, a fictional cockney chancer whose titular magazine outsold Punch in the mid-1800s. In terms of spin-off merchandise, says Gravett, he was “the Spider-Man of his day”. We touch upon Oz and Nasty Tales, two underground magazines which were put on trial for obscenity in 1971 and 1972, and we zip past the subsequent obscenity trials undergone by Knockabout Comics in 1985 and Lord Horrorin 1991. By the time Gravett has finished his overview, British comics have come to seem synonymous with sex, drugs, extreme violence, political vitriol and ritual magic. 

In short, the exhibition will be a rude awakening for anyone who assumes that the height of the medium’s naughtiness is Minnie the Minx swiping an apple pie from a window ledge.

But it won’t be quite so surprising to anyone who grew up reading British comics, as I did. The 1980s, when I was consuming as many comics as I could get my hands on, still strikes me as a golden age of the art form. Extensively covered in the show, this was when the world’s finest comics writer, Alan Moore, was bringing his formidable erudition to bear on a new monthly comics anthology, Warrior: the masked Parliament-bomber he created for the strip “V For Vendetta” would eventually, via a hit film, provide the Occupy movement with its Guy Fawkes iconography. Moore was doing similarly groundbreaking work in 2000AD, a weekly sci-fi comic started in 1977, which also published early work by Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison and Mark Millar.

New magazines were launched on a regular basis, including Deadline, which showcased Hewlett’s Tank Girl. Meanwhile, the notoriously scatological Viz was rivalling Reader’s Digest and Radio Times by selling over a million copies of every issue. Big-name comedians such as Lenny Henry and Alexei Sayle were commissioned to write strips. And Britain’s top comics personnel, including Moore and Morrison, were being tempted across the Atlantic by Marvel and DC, where their grittiness, irreverence and formal daring revitalised the superhero genre.

The vigour and inventiveness of these comics was apparent to all who overdosed on them at the time. But their subversiveness was just as unmistakable. I still remember seeing a copy of 2000AD on the bottom shelf in John Menzies, and being simultaneously thrilled and intimidated by its front-cover picture: an angry-looking toddler, dressed in a loincloth, firing a high-tech pistol at the reader. As much as I adored the Incredible Hulk imports from America, they contained nothing so daring, or downright bizarre.

I soon discovered 2000AD’s other strange delights: a hero who was also a cloven-hooved alien; another who was a blue-skinned, genetically engineered super-soldier. Best of all was the comic’s figurehead, Judge Dredd, a rigidly principled crime-fighter, but also a fascist who would execute wrongdoers in the street. You didn’t have to scratch far beneath the surface of these stories to reach their anti-Thatcherite and anti-apartheid sentiments – 2000AD even had a spin-off magazine, Dice Man, which portrayed Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher as psychotic warmongers – or their horizon-broadening references to classic films and obscure rock bands. 2000AD was a counter-cultural education, without ever forgetting to be a children’s adventure comic. And in the interests of transparency, as well as boasting, I should mention that I ended up writing a dozen strips for it myself – though, tragically, Gravett chose not to put any of them in the British Library’s exhibition.

Instead, he has packed in acres of more recent material, but I can’t help feeling that some of the seditious energy has drained from British comics since the 1980s. It’s a feeling that may say as much about me as the comics themselves: most of us like to think that the moment when our own obsession with a particular branch of pop-culture began to wane was the start of its decline. But I do have a few facts on my side. Comics are now taking up less and less space in newsagents: The Dandy closed down in 2012, on its 75th anniversary, and Viz’s sales are one-twentieth of what they were at their peak.

On the other hand, rebranded as “graphic novels” and sold in luxurious hardback editions, comics are being reviewed in broadsheets: one, Bryan and Mary Talbot’s Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes, even won the Costa biography prize in 2012. And then, of course, there’s the British Library’s high-cultural stamp of approval. Hewlett’s insalubrious imagery notwithstanding, could it be that homegrown comics are now too well-respected to corrupt impressionable youngsters the way they once did?

The day after my coffee with Gravett, his co-curator, John Harris Dunning, sends me an email which seems to answer that question: “We are hoping that this show acts as a call to arms,” it says. “I’m concerned that young creators are not seditious enough. In an era of branded content, rebellion is less and less in evidence. We hope to stimulate creative disobedience. All you need to create comics is paper and a pen, or a mouse and a computer, and their reach in the current digital age is almost unlimited.”

Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK’ is at the British Library from 2 May to 19 Aug

Graphic talents Five great british comic-book writers

Alan Moore

Abandoning an office job to pursue a career as writer and illustrator in the late Seventies, Moore made his name with V for Vendetta, Watchmen, The Extraordinary League of Gentlemen and From Hell. An anarchist, pagan and ceremonial magician, he is known to despise movie adaptations of his work, refusing credits and any licensing fees.

Posy Simmonds

Best known for her series Gemma Bovery and Tamara Drewe, published in The Guardian, Simmonds has built her career on taking a satirical skewer to the idiosyncrasies of middle-class life. Tamara Drewe came to wider attention with a live-action film adaptation in 2010 starring Gemma Arterton.

Grant Morrison

The Glaswegian comic-book writer and counter-cultural powerhouse blazed a trail in the 1980s with his 2000AD anti-superhero series “Zenith”, co-created with Steve Yeowell. He then crossed the Atlantic, revitalising DC and Marvel favourites such as Batman and X-Men and winning acclaim for his own creations including The Invisibles.

Neil Gaiman

Legend has it that Gaiman became a comic convert after stumbling across a copy of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing at Victoria Station in 1984. He worked for 2000AD, and went on to create dark fantasies The Sandman and The Books of Magic for DC Comics. He has had an equally high-profile career as a non-graphic novelist, with bestsellers such as The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

Mark Millar

The Scottish author worked for 2000AD in the 1990s, before being signed up by DC and  then Marvel. In 2004, he launched his own imprint, Millarworld, and two of his series, Wanted and Kick-Ass, have subsequently been turned into Hollywood films.

Helen Whittle