Hugh Armitage takes at a look at the Comics Unmasked exhibition at the British Library and how the British comic has always been about the outsider.
Comics Unmasked, Jamie Hewlett (Click images to enlarge)
British comics have always been a bit queer.
That is not to say that in the history of comics in this country – which stretches back to the Glasgow Looking Glass in 1825, at least – has focused solely or chiefly on LGBT characters, or to imply some grand scheme of gay subtext running through 76 years of The Beano.
Those would be pretty outlandish claims, or would at least involve some complicated and persuasive arguments. But what British comics have demonstrated from an early age is representation of The Other – the minority, the underdog, the queer. This is something that the British Library’s current exhibition, Comics Unmasked, repeatedly demonstrates.
The exhibition is not without its flaws, and has been accused of failing to represent the enormous breadth of UK comics, particularly in terms of the current, booming scene. But even if it is not enormous enough, it still represents a vast array of comics and queer and gay themes of all sorts. And for comics fans, who were for a long time another sort of outsider, it is gratifying to see the sustained interest that curators Paul Gravett, John Harris Dunning and Adrian Edwards have been able to attract.
Mr Punch, Raven Hill / The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr Punch, Neil Gaiman, Dave McKean
The exhibition (which was designed by the unstoppable Dave McKean) with a section dedicated to the crossover of comics with those seaside perennials Punch and Judy. The figure of Mr Punch is so familiar it is easy to forget how much of a symbol of antiestablishment he is, beating to death first his wife, then a policeman, and, finally, the devil himself.
The first open section of Comics Unmasked is somewhat jarring, with several examples of American comics, even if they do feature the works of acclaimed UK creators including Alan Moore, Kevin O’Neill and Garth Ennis.
Slightly further in however, you will stumble across the harrowing 100 Months by John Hicklenton. The day after completing his graphic novel, an account of the agonising exploration of his battle with multiple sclerosis, the artist took himself off to Dignitas in Switzerland.
100 Months, Jonathan Hicklenton / The Spiral Cage, Al Davidson
People with disabilities and terminal illnesses – another group treated as outsiders – is also represented here with examples such as Al Davidson’s autobiographical account of living with spina bifida, The Spiral Cage.
The second main section of Comics Unmasked deals explicitly with representation in British comics, from the poor and working classes – championed in the Victorian era by Ally Sloper – to ethnic minorities in Pat Mills’ Third World War and comics about and by women (who are not actually a minority, believe it or not).
This section includes John Smith and Sean Phillips’ Straitgate, a surreal and disturbing contribution to the Crisis anthology in 1990. It centres around a troubled young, reaching out for help which fails to come through in time. The implication throughout is that he is struggling to come to terms with his sexuality.
It also includes a page from Grant Morrison’s Invisibles, a celebration of counterculture and nonconformity. It featured among its main cast Lord Fanny, a Brazilian trans shaman who was one of the series most memorable and likeable characters.
Inevitably, gay and queer themes become more overt moving into the politics and sex sections. The focus is, again inevitably, frequently on the AIDS crisis, although an interesting difference between the mainstream media’s approach and that of many cartoonists emerges. The John Hurt-voiced television advert managed was deadly serious, but puritanical to the point that the imagery could hardly be less representative of the crisis at hand.
Strip AIDS / AARGH!
In comics, creators proved less afraid to shy away from both humour and stark reality when it came to the epidemic. Strip Aids attracted the attention of creators from both sides of the pond, including Moore, Melinda Gebbie, Hunt Emerson and Daniel Clowes for an anthology that attempts to relate the facts with humour and honesty, an approach captured in the short strips by David Shenton on display in the exhibition.
Another popular subject was Section 28 and other laws restricting ‘homosexual activity’, and cartoonists approach these in a similar style. In their 1977 strip It Don’t Come Easy, Eric Presland and Julian Howell make a joke out of the many precautions gay men were forced to take to ensure that their hookups were within the bounds of the law. But it’s not all giggles, evident in Charles Shaar Murray and Floyd Hughes’ menacing contribution to AARGH! (Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia), an anthology which raised funds to fight against Section 28.
And what would a section on sex be without some joyful and apolitical depictions of sex. There is a Rogue strip by cartoonist and former HIM Magazine co-owner Oliver Frey, in which the impossibly sexy and idealised eponymous stud ravages yet another young man. Frey’s work is both erotic and technically beautiful, and in conversation with Rupert Smith at a British Library event last month, he revealed a innocence and almost naivety to the fantasies he depicts which make them all the more charming.
Rogue, Oliver Frey / King, Bill Ward
To the right of Frey’s Rogue sits another HIM Magazine contribution, a King strip by the late, lamented Bill Ward. King promised “a fantasy where all things are possible”, giving the cartoonist space to experiment with his artwork and introduce science fiction and fantasy themes into his sexual encounters. Tragically, much of Ward’s work was lost when his collection was destroyed after his death in 1996.
The curation of the superhero section does not quite grasp Britain’s ambivalence towards the largely American phenomenon – an ambivalence that spawned parodies of the genre like Judge Dredd and Nemesis the Warlock. The exhibition lacks many of Britain’s queer superheroes, such as Smith’s Devlin Waugh, but does feature Warren Ellis’s American comic Authority. The page in question shows Apollo and Midnighter, two lovers who are barely veiled analogues of Superman and Batman. Rumour has it that they were a key driving force behind DC Comics’ acquisition of publisher WildStorm.
A beautifully painted page from Pat Mills and Simon Bisley’s Slaine: The Horned God is also on display – certainly the most erudite assessment of matriachal leadership versus the patriachal status quo in superhero comics.
The Unspeakable Mr Hart, William Burroughs, Malcolm McNeill
The final section focuses on magic and expanding the mind more than any particular queer themes, but does include The Unspeakable Mr Hart by queer icon William S Burroughs and artist Malcolm McNeill, as well as some contributions by occultist Aleister Crowley, who was famously happy to sleep with anyone so long as their name was numerologically significant.
What to make of British comics propensity for the queer? More so than American comics – which sold by the millions in its heyday – in the UK it has remained a largely marginalised medium, reserved for schoolchildren at best and ‘weirdos’ at worst. This underground quality has made it the perfect place for LGBT and other alternative content to thrive.
Trials Of Nasty Tales
It could also be argued that Britain has been very lucky in its success stories, with the likes of Moore, Morrison, Ellis and Mills all eager to explore queer themes in their work. Arguably, that very success has been due to their intelligence, originality and willingness to look beyond the ordinary, everyday heterosocial world that confronts us.
As observed earlier, there are some brilliant creators working today that Comics Unmasked does not even touch upon – queer and otherwise – including Howard Hardiman, Sina Sparrow, Timothy Winchester, Elliot Baggott, Julia Scheele, Dan Berry, Tom Humberstone, Isabel Greenberg, Hannah Berry and many, many more. Anyone interested in what they find at the British Library is encouraged to look beyond at the wealth of comics released every week.
Comics Unmasked is a sprawling, flawed and fascinating exhibition and, whatever its failures, its successes include opening a window on just how queer UK comics are.
The final weekend of the exhibition (August 15-17) will include a talk with Scott Pilgrim creator Bryan Lee O’Malley, a Great War in Comics talk hosted by Pat Mills, a discussion on Sex, Censorship and Sensibility with Comic Book Legal Defense Fund director Charles Brownstein and UK comics industry veteran Tim Pilcher, and more.
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