Comics Unmasked at the British Library


This week was my birthday (21 again!) and to celebrate my friend took me to the British Library's latest exhibition - Comics Unmasked. Here's the description from the British Library website:

Comics Unmasked is the UK’s largest ever exhibition of mainstream and underground comics, showcasing works that uncompromisingly address politics, gender, violence, sexuality and altered states. It explores the full anarchic range of the medium with works that challenge categorisation, preconceptions and the status quo, alongside original scripts, preparatory sketches and final artwork that demystify the creative process.

Enter the subversive and revelatory world of comics, from the earliest pioneers to today’s digital innovators.


I was early so had a wander round beforehand and took a few pictures of the library. I used to work in the Last Word cafe, so it's always nice going back and seeing what's changed. Above is the courtyard out the front and below are two of the big promotional posters in the foyer.


When you book, you are given a set time to arrive, so that it doesn't get too crowded. We had the 6.30pm slot and it was pretty busy. Often we had to queue and shuffle along in a line to get to see anything. I think going during the day when it is quieter would make it much more enjoyable.

The exhibition itself was very dark and everything was behind glass, so it was very difficult to take photos. Flash photography is also prohibited. The winding route, lined with creepy V for Vendetta masked mannequins, was divided into several sections, mentioned above: Gender, politics, violence, sexuality and altered states.

If you go expecting lots of Spiderman and Wonder Woman, then you will be sorely disappointed. The comics on display range from some of the earliest examples in newspapers and public information leaflets to modern day graphic novels. One of my favourites was a old London newspaper which reported the Jack the Ripper killings using annotated cartoons. There were also well known characters such as Andy Capp, Punch and Judy, Judge Dredd and Tank Girl.

The below image shows a suffragette propaganda poster, explaining why women should get the vote. I thought it was funny that the poor "unfit for service" guy got lumped in with the convicts and drunkards. It's not his fault he broke his leg!


As well as published comics, there were also displays of some original artwork. I much preferred these, as you can see all the brush strokes, Tippex-blobs and taped on bits of paper where the artists have made changes.

There were also tables filled with paper and drawing implements for you to have a go at drawing something yourself. Amongst the doodles were some really amazing pieces of art, particularly this blue lady below.


The exhibition also had an iPad app which you could download to get a better look at some of the comics, as well as more info about the creators and the subject matter. Unfortunately I don't have an iPad and there was no Android version, but there were iPads at various intervals on the route, so I still got to see some of the stuff that's not in the exhibition itself.

And let's not forget the gift shop :) I was tempted by a set of temporary tattoos, but decided on a postcard for 60p to pin up on the pinboard in my room as a memento of my evening.

A lot of the newer and more well-know comics and graphic novels featured in the exhibition were also for sale, such as Tank Girl, V for Vendetta and Watchmen.


They even had beer!


Overall, it was a really interesting exhibition, although the amount of people inside made it hard to view everything without feeling rushed. If you really want to read and study all the comics I would suggest going at a quieter time.

As I haven't really done it any justice, here's the British Library's introductory video to tell you a bit more about what is on display:

Comics Unmasked is on until Tuesday the 19th August, so you've still got time if you want to check it out. Ticket prices vary, but adult tickets are £9.50 and students get in for just £5. Children go free, but a lot of the comics on display contain violent and sexual images, so it isn't really all that suitable for children.

LondonKate1 Comment