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Unmasking Comics in a National Context

Through-out the different areas of content the overriding theme remains the same: a self-affirming and congratulatory image of Britishness and the remarkable contributions of ‘rebellious’ British artists. This is where the waters muddy.

The British library is quite a prestigious venue for any event; it is home to one of the greatest collections of literature and rare historical documents in the world, as well as being home to one of the world largest collections of comics. The recent exhibition Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK offers up what perhaps London institutions are best known for: tired and conservative attempts at iconic juxtaposition, it attempts to make the statement that graphic novels and comics are a rebellious, valid and significant form of British culture…a statement that may seem over-established to many.

While the poster and poster-girl (an original image by Tank Girl’s Jamie Hewlett) and the setting may raise tired old eyebrows, the collection within is thoroughly engaging. There is an impressive amount of well researched content, as one would expect of an exhibition in such an established institution. The comics on display are arranged in terms of topic and chronology; ranging from race, politics, gender, sexuality and social issues. Through-out the different areas of content the overriding theme remains the same: a self-affirming and congratulatory image of Britishness and the remarkable contributions of ‘rebellious’ British artists. This is where the waters muddy.

Undoubtedly there are many wonderful contributions of British artists and comic writers; however there is a marked disavowal of the political flip-side of comics and graphic novels. Comics have been used extensively to promote misogynistic and intolerant agendas and narratives, as have other media forms. There is a clear rebalancing on the part of the curators to present comics as a largely transgressive form, down-playing extreme right and masculinist view-points which frequent the comic form. There is an undeniable jingoism to the frequency with which the ‘Britishness’ of the exhibit is referred; unsurprising perhaps as the show is itself a celebration of the form within a national context.

Perhaps I find this so disquieting specifically because comics have such an impressive capacity to sway and influence opinion. Comics Unmasked rightly addresses issues of over-censorship in the course of the medium’s history, but this narrative glides over the issues often quoted by the effects-debate; that comics, just as any other media, are capable of producing negative effect as much as positive. While I do not want to open up the can of reactionary and polemic worms that is the effects-debate, I do think it is important to clarify the idea of ‘effect’ with reference to the subtle and powerful exhibition of WW1 propaganda at London’s Cartoon Museum.

The current collection at London’s understated Cartoon Museum offers a significantly more sobering exhibition of British comic art and cartoons. Never Again! World War I in Cartoon and Comic Art offers up a well researched and clearly narrated progression through the First World War using comics, cartoons and postcards. The images range from the jingoistic to the humanistic, demonstrating a broad spectrum of opinions and view-points through-out the conflict. The famous magazine cover featuring Lord Kitchener is on display along with the bleak mini-comics authored by men in the trenches. There are cartoon accounts of the causes of the war from several national perspectives, and attention paid to the remarkable affects that visual media can have for both war and peace. The dramatic and caricatured nature of cartoon and comic art offers us dramatic insights into the emotions and opinions of a time marked not by singular jingoistic resolve to be the best that British can be, but rather the confusion and strife that dominated one of the darkest periods in Britain’s social history.

Exhibiting creative works from a national perspective is precarious work, specifically because of the amazing ability of cartoon and caricature to influence and affect people. Attention must be paid to the impact of media forms within a national perspective, and perhaps the process of this impact should be in the foreground of any exhibition of art within a nationalist context.

Written by Siegfried Monsoon, 2014-09-23