Storytelling through a sequence of images has a history dating back to cave paintings, through illustrated newspapers right to modern comics.
Detractors of comics say that they are outdated or just for children. But a big and broad exhibition at the British Library seeks to challenge this idea. It showcases some rare and interesting examples that take on the notion that comics begin and end with the likes of the Beano and the Dandy.
The exhibition approaches comics from the angle that they are largely subversive and a challenge to authority, whether in a good way or a bad way.
It presents examples of how comics have inspired real world resistance. In every nook and cranny are mannequins wearing the iconic Guy Fawkes mask from Alan Moore’s dystopian V for Vendetta graphic novel, now ubiquitous on many protests.
It is the politics section of the exhibition which presents the real power of the comic as a cultural product.
One of the first publications on display is Riot, a comic from 1981 which deals with the conflicted narrative of a police officer during the Brixton riots. It runs through his experiences of the police’s brutality and racism. Finally, disgusted with what he sees, he refuses to give evidence against a looter.
A rarity on show is Action Pact, a 1979 publication by unknown authors which arose out of the anti-fascist movement around the Anti Nazi League.
It tells the story of two school friends with super powers who fight the lies of a baddie dressed like the Ku Klux Klan. It was circulated in schools to help popularise anti-fascist views and equip children with arguments in the playground.
Not all comics present righteous challenges to dominant ideas however. Also on display is wife-beating alcoholic Andy Capp, a comic strip which still exists albeit in a heavily toned down form. It stands in a tradition of anti-working class and reactionary characters that also go right back to the 19th century.
There is also the first ever comic strip to have been written and illustrated by women. Enid Blyton wrote and Dorothy M Wheeler drew Mandy, Mops and Cubby, which was printed in the Evening Standard newspaper in 1951.
In it a black boy voices his desire to have a white face, and asks a painter if he would whitewash him so he can “look beautiful”.
This and many other exhibits bring home that neither comics nor any other medium is inherently progressive or subversive. But there’s still a rich tradition of comics that are—one that continues to this day.