Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK

5 min readMay 14, 2014

Comics are, and always will be, about mischief, this new exhibition at the British Library begins by telling us. The naughty get chased, caught or not caught, punished. But they are back next week, mischievous as ever. Mr Punch’s hard twinkle and silly willy nose. Child-sized Andy Capp’s shrug and raised fag, over a mum-sized missus given a keen shiner. The eternal ‘dad’ in British comics, 40s Brylcreem, rolled up sleeves and lantern jaw. Slippers for backsides. Menaces, Perils. Penny dreadfuls. The Illustrated Police News. Rippers in Whitechapel. From Hell.

Mischief is unchecked energy. Kick-Ass kids. Islamic manga. Sometimes the adult’s eye works in comics but the child’s eye actually seems more mature because it suits the medium. Life has to be lived forwards but understood backwards, as Kookygourd sayed. The child’s eye is a natural subversive, bending the rules of tale-telling, demanding fresh impact. Although we attempt class (Lord Snooty, Tamara Drewe, society news) the child’s eye doesn’t know anything about top-down dominant narratives.

Everything is about sex apart from sex, span Oscar Wilde. The perversity of comics makes for primitive titilation. Hogarth’s ‘Harlot’s Progress’. 1790s’ ‘Amateurs de Cul’ (Arse Lovers). 60s liberation. Funny, dirty talk. ‘George and Lynn’. ‘Gwendoline’ in peril. The exhibition’s ‘Post-Porn’ section might annoy feminists and pornographers at the same time. An attempt to be fully sexualised and worthwhile works of art. TV isn’t doing this. Novels aren’t. ‘Tornado’ as featured in ‘Oh Boy’ (1949), is a superhero who punches what look like giant, angry penises on a beach. Charles Atlas on adrenochrome. ‘Dune’ gone very wrong. Scripted by a teenage Bob Monkhouse.

Superheroes. Freaks but good freaks, and the weak’s idea of strong. A bedbound invalid’s dream. Comics are dominated by ‘white males’ the catalogue inevitably tuts. Self-starting white males should at least be congratulated for establishing so much that non-white non-males spend their lives wanting a fair part of. Most spunky heroines here were formed by the finepoint Rotring tips of a man-pen. How do they do it? I used to share a house in Hackney with several New Zealand comic artists and assorted sofa-surfers. They talked comics a lot and drew. Fandom is friendly but alienated energy. Superheroes transcend the blind spot of the body below, turn a hormonal brick wall into in-your-face firepower.

Politics next. Suffragette lampoon and National Front guidebooks for young whites. Black power panthers and gangly Irish cancer chancer Nick O’Teen. The exhibition space is infested with jostling mannequins wearing those Guy Fawkes ‘Anonymous’ masks sprung from ‘V for Vendetta’ (Moore/Lloyd, mid-80s). ‘Vendetta’ choose a Vatican fan and Spanish-handled blast fancier as its dandy antihero. Maybe politics is best served scrambled. In ‘Judge Dredd’ John Wagner wanted to create a near-fascist cop that was also an anti-establishment figure. He’s an out-there maverick, because he executes the desperate. Put power in the mirror, and turn it around.

Beyond mischievous, Savoy Books’ ‘Lord Horror’ (1990), was the last item banned under the Obscene Publications Act, and was a work the author fully expected to go to prison for. An ‘if the Nazis had won WWII’ speculative. I recall once speculating how a blond Superman could easily be an ‘Aryanman’, and it wouldn’t take long to transform the Joker into a cackling Jewish stereotype. If the Nazis really had won the war this character would surely be a kids’ favourite today. They’d be watching ‘Aryanman’ in IMAX 3D by now. Backdrop: Britain is run by Irish priests as a reward for neutrality, French collaborateurs, and David Bowie (until his disastrous flirtation with anti-fascism in 1976). Bloated cardinals are wheeled through the fog, from Buckingham Palace to Mayfair, now a ‘liebeslager’ and Magdalene Laundry. “Sure, did ya see th’bit he ponched th’auld Kosher in th’teeth. They fookin shot outta tha screen! Faster, Saxon child!”

Political paradox intrigues me more than any vampire-fanged Thatcher and haughty, yachting Heath. ‘Skin’ (Milligan, McCarthy, 1992) is the story of a skinhead victim of thalidomide, turning his bodily limitations into political ire. Scholars better than I must debate if one’s politics should be built on personal emotion. We all want to be clear-minded and even-handed, but we also need to speak from our own position. Both are useful. ‘Skin’ seems like a bad dream such a scholar once had. ‘I Was a Jap Slave’ revels in racial stereotypes but if you’ve just escaped internment it’s probably fine to let it out. Enid Blyton’s golliwog, the n-word as a laughing muppet, is probably less fine.

Comics as catharsis. Marginal voices. Grayson Perry’s early comics. Heroes with spina bifida. Diaries of anorexia. Bedsitters and ghost worlds. Aging Generation Rent losers turning into human mould inside fiscally fatal flatshares. ‘Mouldperson’, a sentinel watching his buy-to-let landlady having yet another holiday, courtesy of her Facebook page. Hard-slog salaries transform into cocktails puked against a window in Ho Chi Minh City. Over her smug friends’ heads in a river taxi. Pow! Splat! Bank that, Mouldperson! I made that up. But there really is a comic called ‘Arch’, about pensioners in Girdlestone Walk in my neighbourhood. Comics as community.

Whoopee. Dan Dare. Tank Girl. Comics aren’t modernism. They aren’t a voice from the future but a bendy funfair mirror to watch the present. Fantasy, adventure and satire lack the metaphysical uselessness of fine art. If comics absorbed new viewpoints and marginal cultures years ago, what does the future hold?

The final room of this exhibition is an inevitable puzzle. The catalogue claims the demarcation between reality and fantasy will expire (surely it has), and talks of exponentially multiplying possibilities. The ‘page explodes’ we’re told. Graphic novels that are actually music? Characters as smells? If the modernist novel’s endgame is a telephone directory, infinite possibilities could become infinite yawn as they leave any recognisable mischief behind. John Dee (1527-1609) employs an arcane space language we cannot verify as truthful, meaningful or beautiful. Hieroglyphic monads by a hermetic adviser to Queen Elizabeth I. We say ‘cool’ and pass on. Wordless comics, dot games, sequential runes on inner landscapes. Voices from space source or just the unborn brain gurgling in its placenta? Whatever it was, it wasn’t Korky the Cat.

In some ways it might be easier to continue to talk about the future of British comics as girl power, even though it has been girl power for ages, and leave it at that. ‘Misty’ was a cracker.