British Library to Stage Comic Exhibition
In high school, I joined the crusade of fanboys who demanded that comic books be taken seriously. My senior paper described the deft combinations of art and literature that made writers like Will Eisner and the Brothers Hernandez modern day Shakespeares. I demanded the use of the term “graphic novels.” I preached the “comics as literature” gospel as well as Scott McCloud. My parents and teachers, predictably and justifiably, made fun of me. As I moved on to college, comics slowly began to appear on library shelves, something I’d never seen growing up.
The crusade was naive on my part. Today, a huge section of the comics industry has been co-opted by academics, librarians, and, worst of all, publishing houses. The academics were probably fanboys like me but hard-working enough to get their papers published once they became adjunct professors of communications, and they are now writing a new history of comics.
The industry has never been healthier, but there is a cost. Many new comics or “graphic novels” that we see on library shelves rehash popular scholastic content: history narratives, science-made-fun, and posterized dry literature. The most popular titles that end up in libraries and Christmas packages are neither creative nor innovative. It’s as if the publishers, who co-opted comics, shoot comics out just to appease the library industrial complex. That makes it a mixed bag: there are more comics around, but they aren’t that great.
Enter the ultimate co-opter: the British Library. Home of innumerable stolen treasures from the greatest civilizations, the British Library is now preparing to steal England’s comics history.
They’re starting with “Misty,” the supernatural adventure comic, a collage of Gothic stories about ghosts, monsters, and teenage girls discovering demons in their grandparents’ attics. It’s apparently a cult classic in Ye Ol’ Britain that has been forgotten about by all but a few hardcore fanatics until a stuffy academic recently decided it should be filed under “worthy.” The British Library is suddenly jumping on the bandwagon driven by publishing house horses and turning it into so-called “high art.” The people who enjoyed “Misty” during its six year run between ’78 and ’84 are watching academics and librarians run wild with theories as to why people liked it. The fans, of course, are left in the dark.
Another comic that will be exhibited is “2000 AD,” which was readily available to Yankee colonists during the ’80s and ’90s. The comic gave birth to such characters as Judge Dredd, an extrajudicial judicial branch member who wears an NFL helmet, and Robo-Hunter, an extrajudicial executive branch member who smokes cigars alongside his robot companions, Hoagie and Stogey, who at one point uncover an insidious extraterrestrial plot to obstruct Britain’s robotic World Cup team. I’m not kidding.
Perhaps an even bigger focus of the exhibition will be Britain’s history with political and social comics, which dates back to the mid-1800s. The comic “Punch” is oft cited by high school fanboys like me as an example of why comics should be looked at as serious literature. “Punch” discussed the many problems that faced members of high society in London, such as unpoached eggs, problems with striking coal miners, and the difficulty finding good estate help. Again, not kidding.
While the British Library was getting diplomats to ransack foreign capitals for copies of antique Korans, original poems, and hand-drawn maps, comics readers were busy collecting magazines back home, saving them for a rainy day. That rainy day has arrived. The publishers, librarians, and museum officials from whom we demanded so much respect in years past have now taken comics from our hands. They are writing their own revisions of this art form’s history.
The crusade, which began as innocent children marching off to Palestine with genocidal visions, has been taken over by the Vatican.
- British Library Staging Exhibition of Comics in “Overdue” Celebration of Genre, The Guardian, January 22, 2014
- Comics Unmasked, British Library Exhibition Page