HOLLYWOOD can't get enough of the comic book superhero. Captain America and Spiderman currently fill the silver screen, and more such films are planned for a decade to come. Viewers could be forgiven for concluding that this is a genre entirely made in America. Yet an engrossing new exhibit at the British Library in London tells a different tale: many of the artists and storytellers behind the capes and bulging muscles are British.
"Comics Unmasked" is the largest show to date of British comic book art, drawing on the library's unparalleled collection as the official depository of all things printed in the United Kingdom. "Five Bat-caves" of material awaited Paul Gravett and John Harris Dunning, the two renowned comic book experts who have lovingly curated this show, assembling several hundred of the most lurid, haunting and subversive examples of the art form.
The names behind such titles as "Watchmen", "V for Vendetta", "Superman", "Tank Girl", and "Batman: Arkham Asylum" are the stuff of comic book legend: Dave McKean, Dave Gibbons, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Jamie Hewlett. All are represented here, through original artwork and special loans. Starting in the 1970s, this "British invasion" of America's Marvel and D.C. Comics brought a particular edginess to the bland all-American hero. The exhibition traces a line between the darker, more emotional storytelling the Brits injected into contemporary comics and graphic novels, and a centuries-long British tradition of rude satire and thumbing noses.
Comics are an ancient form of storytelling, says Dave Gibbons of "Watchmen" fame. Think of the Bayeux tapestry or cave paintings "that essentially warn: 'Watch out for the buffalo!'" The show's oldest exhibit is a 15th-century pauper's Bible in which the Virgin Mary's words appear in a speech balloon; its most recent is "Dotter of Her Father's Eyes," which became the first graphic novel to win the Costa Book Award in 2012. But the tradition of "the anti-hero cocking a snook at the authorities" really started in Victorian Britain with the creation of the character Punch. The trouble-maker's portrait welcomes visitors alongside mannequins in "V-for-Vendetta" masks, which themselves have migrated from a dystopian vision of Margaret Thatcher's Britain to become the face of the international anti-capitalist Occupy movement.
One joy of this exhibition is that no knowledge of comics is required to realise what a flexible, democratic medium it is. In sections devoted to mayhem, self-expression, politics, sex, superheroes and altered states, comics emerge as a cheap and powerful means of expressing personal freedom and social protest. On the political side, these range from the efforts of the Suffragettes, who cranked out comic posters demanding the right to vote, to angry exposés of exploitative producers of thalidomide and AIDS drugs. In the arena of personal expression, rebellion against the status quo expressed itself from the late 1960s onwards in a counter-cultural explosion of violent imagery and graphic sexual content.
Authorities in Britain and America were quick to crack down on such comics as harmful to children. Curators have both documented the social backlash and obscenity trials, and designed the show in such a way that tender eyes are spared the sight of Wicked Wanda, a comic-strip dominatrix, and aliens shaped like giant penises. The red-lit "Sex" section is cleverly constructed so that families can bypass it completely. For the show as a whole, children under 16 will not be admitted without a parent.
Those wanting to dive deeper into the art can peruse 15 full-length comics on iPads scattered throughout, watch films of practising comic book artists, and attend talks by the masters, including newer storytellers like Neil Gaiman and China Mieville. Graphic novels are now all the rage and their roots are in these rooms. After several hours soaking up this history, visitors will leave feeling suitably subversive. The rest is up to them. The final item in the show is an easel with a calendar and a legend lettered by Dave McKean: "Today I start my own comic."