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First Look: ‘Comics Unmasked’ at the British Library

2 May 2014

‘Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy at the UK’ at the British Library seeks to raise the profile and status of comics in the UK, revealing how they are made, and what they can be made to say about society. John Harris Dunning, one of the exhibition’s co-curators, tells us more.

Click here for a gallery of highlights from the exhibition

Can you tell us a bit about the exhibition?

The show looks at the history of rebellion in British comics – something we seem to excel in, and have successfully exported internationally. British comics creators have had a huge impact internationally.

What makes this a distinctive show?

This is the first show by a major cultural institute in the UK about comics. It’s significant in that it finally positions comics as a medium alongside literature and the visual arts.

How did you come to curate this exhibition?

I stalked the British Library. I looked around at the cultural credibility that other European countries and the USA accorded comics – very often by British creators – and was determined to win them the same respect for them here. The Library was very receptive to the idea, and the support of British Library curator Adrian Edwards has been invaluable. My co-curator Paul Gravett was an essential part of making the show what it is. He is quite simply one of the most important comics critics currently operating, and is treasure trove of knowledge and ideas. We have a long relationship that stretches back to our creating the ongoing Comica festival at the ICA in 2003.

What is likely to be the highlight of the exhibition?

This will depend on every viewer – there is such a breadth of material covering politics, magic, sex and altered states – and superheroes. There’s something for everyone here. I’m most hoping that people who have never read comics will see this show and start reading them.

And what’s been the most exciting personal discovery for you?

The collection of comics that is housed in the British Library, that stretches back all the way to the early Victorian period and beyond – it’s the biggest in the country and it’s available to the public. It deserves to be studied.

Brand new Jamie Hewlett design for Comics Unmasked at the British Library

Brand new Jamie Hewlett design for Comics Unmasked at the British Library © Jamie Hewlett 2014

More First Looks…

What’s the greatest challenge you’ve faced in preparing this exhibition?

Without wanting to be boring – none. We were overwhelmed by the support we got from the library as well as from the creators – and the press. It feels like there is a huge appetite for this material. I can’t wait to see how audiences react to it.

How are you using the gallery space? What challenges will the hang/installation pose?

Artist, filmmaker and sculptor Dave McKean was the artistic director for this show. He has generously lent the show’s design an air of theatricality that has really brought the material alive in a way I couldn’t have imagined. The team at the British Library are fearless and really got behind his vision.

Which other works would you have liked to have included?

Everything we have left out. Truly, there are a million things that I’d like to have included that we weren’t able to – but this is just the beginning. We are just opening a dialogue and look forward to seeing what happens next…

‘Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy at the UK’ is at the British Library from 2 May–19 August.

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