Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK

Warning: Explicit content

In November 1995, The Invisibles was on the verge of cancellation. This strange, multi-layered comic by Scottish writer Grant Morrison featured a group of ontological terrorists fighting shadowy insect agents of control. And yet even with this premise, sales were slowing. So Morrison, a practicing magician, took to the letters page urging his readers to take part in mass, simultaneous masturbation. This act of sex magic, as he called it, would keep the series alive.

And so it proved. Many years later, it neared the end of its run with a storyline involving Princess Diana mating with an otherworldy entity, set in Westminster Abbey with the Queen herself in attendance.

Flash forward to 2012, and Morrison was on the Queen's honours list for 'services to literature'. Evidently her royal highness has a more varied and self-deprecating reading taste than we had imagined.

Few events do a better job of demonstrating mainstream Britain's baffled relationship with comics, which is now the subject of a major exhibition at the British library: Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK.

Britain played a leading role in creating the modern form of the comic. The current super hero boom in cinemas would simply not have happened without the injection of cynicism, rebelliousness and creative bravery which the so-called British Invasion brought to the genre in the late eighties. And throughout the last century, British comics have offered a constant source of anti-establishment anger and wit, mostly without the interest, or even awareness, of mainstream society.

One of the reasons why comics are such a natural home for radical politics is that they can be produced for very little investment. In the words of celebrated indie writer Harvey Pekar: "Comics are just words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures." The ease with which they could be produced offered those with little money or training a cheap, quick vehicle to express their ideas.

In the Victorian era, when idleness was considered the worst of all vices, the most popular comic figure was the wonderfully named Ally Sloper. He first appeared in an early comic strip for the magazine Judy in 1867. The British Library exhibition features a fragile, unsettling ventriloquist dummy of him from the period. Sloper was a scheming layabout, of a type which later informed characters like Del Boy and even, to a certain extent, Dennis the Menace. But his laziness and canniness were celebrated, not condemned.

The exhibition also features notebooks by the 19th century occultist, bisexual writer Aleister Crowley, who also had a penchant for mountaineering and hallucinatory drugs. It is quite a coup for people who care about such things. He was, in all likelihood, an inveterate liar, but he convinced many of those around him of his authenticity, even when receiving communication from a supernatural entity named Aiwass. This dark figure, branded "the wickedest man in the world" by the press of the time, still exerts a uniquely powerful hold on many British comic writers and artists today.

This commitment to occultism and magic would later inform British approaches to super heroes. Almost every British super hero, including Captain Britain himself, is dependent on magic for their powers, unlike in the US, where science is usually behind the inciting incident in their origin story. This trend is testament to a recurring fascination among comic writers on this side of the Atlantic with ancient, pre-Roman Britain.

In 1954 the National Union of Teachers had put on Britain's first exhibition of comics – not to celebrate, but to condemn them. Officials were intent on warning parents and teachers of the danger these books posed to young minds. MPs were sent examples of the worst material, mostly from horror comics, which for a long time were entirely uncensored and actually remain quite shocking. The Communist party was a driving force behind the campaign, considering the items to be examples of American cultural imperialism. The Archbishop of Canterbury also backed it, presumably for more spiritual reasons. Either way, touring groups of child safety advocates made their way into schools to warn of the dangers of comics, only to give many children their first taste.

In June 1971 the editors of Oz magazine went on trial at the Old Bailey for, among other things, conspiring to "corrupt the morals of young children and other young persons" by producing an "obscene article". They had imposed images of Rupert the bear on a strip by Robert Crumb, a witty, highly regarded writer whose work focuses mostly on an impression of himself as a frenzied sex pest. The exhibition has copy of the strip on show, and it remains impish and amusing, if wilfully childish – which is precisely what it intended to be.

Later that decade, Britain's greatest comic figure, Judge Dredd, was created. Dredd has always been a mercurial, contradictory and intensely political character. His remarkable, excessive design is the product of Spaniard Carlos Ezquerra, and one can see the influence of Franco behind the outfit, with its giant impractical shoulder pads and grim visor.  John Wagner, who is mainly responsible for creating the character, has a dark, jaded, mocking sense of humour typical of British comic writers, although his influence at this point is so pervasive one wonders whether this might partly be the result of general subconscious mimicry. The character was also informed by then-2000AD editor Pat Mills, whose work reflects a radical, angry view of England, one heavily informed by the English Civil War and the trenches. His extraordinary output over the last forty years amounts to a People's History of Britain, with added dragons and spaceships.

At his worst, in the hands of authors who find it hard to think outside the super hero box, Dredd is an outright hero, although this is vanishingly rare. Often he is a satire, a joke on authoritarianism which savages left and right. Early strips seem to predict the extremes of the current public health debate, with judges treating sugar as seriously as cocaine or herding citizens into 'smokatoriums' for their cigarettes. As one 2000AD writer later pointed out, even this was more liberal than the smoking ban, which banned it in all public buildings. The more serious material takes aim at dictatorships and authoritarian government, like a zany pop culture representation of Orwell's prediction of a "boot stamping on a human face – forever". Most Dredd strips deploy both heroism and satire, to strangely intuitive effect.

The character's real strength is not so much in the variety of meanings he can represent, but the variety of roles he can play. Sometimes he is hero, sometimes villain, sometimes a bit part in a larger tapestry. This implies a level of moral flexibility to 2000AD strips which simply was not available in American comics, with their square-jawed, American-way sensibilities.

I first read 2000AD, often quite literally with a torch under the blanket, at the age of about eight. The strip I chiefly remember was Slaine: The Horned God, a story about a Celtic barbarian uniting the tribes of the earth goddess against a villain rather wonderfully called Slough Feg. I remember that the presence of a female deity – and one which could not be trusted – was confusing to me. It implanted ideas about an ancient pre-Roman Britain which was entirely at odds to the 'Christian nation' narrative they were selling at school. I remember the ridiculously evocative, game-changing art by Simon Bisley. But most importantly, I remember finding it distinctly amoral. The protagonist was not a villain, but he was not exactly a good guy either. The story seemed to reflect the morality of the period in which it was set, rather than that of the author. But for a child raised on a diet of moralising cartoons like Thundercats and He-Man, it was an alarming experience. The comic felt positively dangerous, something you could not believe your parents would allow you to have. But then, they only allowed it for the same reason Morrison was on the Queen's honours list: they had no idea what was in it. Comics could get in under the radar. Parents would assume they were safe, if they thought about them at all. And quietly, diligently, these small machines of paper and ink would set to work corrupting young minds.

Between 1982 and 1985, Alan Moore and David Lloyd started publishing V for Vendetta, the story of a masked Guy Fawkes-type terrorist conducting a bombing campaign into a future fascist London – based on Moore's assessment of what it would be like if Margaret Thatcher stayed in charge for another 20 years. The piece was revolutionary for its artistic sensibility and Moore's then-remarkable discipline in refraining from using captions, sound effects and thought balloons. The exclusion of thought balloons regrettably became industry standard, robbing comics, for no good reason, of something they alone could do. A 2005 film would focus on the fact that V, who – like Dredd, his opposite – is never seen without his mask, was a terrorist and used it to chime with the 'war on terror' narrative of the day. But the comic is a different beast. It is a full-blooded anarchist text. It wears its politics on its sleeve and yet it does so with a gorgeous lyrical sensibility. "Away with our explosives, then," V says at one point. "Away with our Destroyers! They have no place within our better world. But let us raise a toast to all our bombers, all our bastards, most unlovely and most unforgivable, let's drink their health, then meet with them no more."

Years later, Moore and Lloyd would find that the re-imagined Guy Fawkes mask they invented for the character would be worn by young people across the world in the Occupy movement. It is now ubiquitous – a symbol of rebellion and protest. If one was to spend an hour watching Al-Jazeera on any given day, the chances are one would see it at least once, on the streets of London, or New York, or Buenos Aires, or Madrid. Like Mills, Moore had mined the English tradition for radical symbolism. His creation then rose from the comic page, inevitably via Hollywood, to create a meme which dominates protest movements today. Dummies with the V masks litter the exhibition site, a testament to the abiding influence which comics exert on popular and political culture, without many people realising it is even happening.

The Northampton-based writer then sparked the British invasion of American super hero comics with Watchmen, which has some of its original art by Dave Gibbons featured at the exhibition. Gibbon's art appears clean and simple, but in storytelling terms it is very dense. Not one line is wasted. Moore's approach was to take variations on old Charlton characters and re-imagine them as real people. He asked himself what super heroes would be like if they existed in real life. His answer was that they would be lunatic fascists plagued by sexual impotence. Watchmen is an extraordinary work of fiction – good enough that it made it onto Time's list of the top 100 novels of all time. It started a total reappraisal of the super hero genre. British writers like Morrison and Moore then set about dismantling the American super heroes altogether. They were followed by Brits like Warren Ellis, Mark Millar and, today, Kieron Gillen, whose recently-finished Young Avengers is like pop culture, super-distilled, injected directly into the eye. Almost overnight, comics became thrillingly adult. And from this process the current approach to super heroes was born.

Moore took on Batman with the seminal A Killing Joke, a Joker story whose vague and haunting ending had more to say about the character, and his relationship with Batman, than the decades of material leading up to it. In one particularly gruesome scene, Joker shoots Barbara Gordon – who is secretly Batgirl – in the spine. It is suggested that he then rapes her. For many readers it was like the end of childhood. Something pure and innocent was suddenly drenched in adult themes and a frankly terrifying aesthetic. Unfortunately, it also triggered a long period in which female characters were treated as people to be brutally murdered to imbue the hero with the requisite angst, culminating in a famous scene in which Green Lantern finds his girlfriend stuffed in a fridge.

Meanwhile, Morrison was busy locking himself up alone and eating amphetamines so he could replicate the voice of the Joker, which he did to uncanny effect in Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. Here, the relationship with Batman becomes distinctly sexual. The masked hero appears to completely lose his mind inside a world made vivid and upsetting by the extraordinary art work of Dave McKean, who is the artistic director of the British Library exhibition.

Interestingly, Morrison and Moore then took very different paths. Both men had broken the super hero – Moore by showing him to be a male power fantasy, Morrison by showing him, quite literally, to be fictional – "paper people" as he put it. But Morrison wanted to put them back together again. Reading interviews, you get the sense he felt an emotional need to do so. In one telling moment, he insisted on a cover showing the Justice League shot from below, so as to reinstate their godhood and decency. Moore wanted them left broken and his public pronouncements today – worsened by creator disputes with DC Comics – are usually typified by an angry denunciations of modern comics.

From the new adult approach to super hero comics rose Vertigo, an offshoot of DC comics, producing literary, adult series. This is where The Invisibles was published. It is where Ellis developed Transmetropolitan, a tale about a rampaging, drug-taking journalist in the mould of Hunter S Thompson. It is where Northern Ireland's Garth Ennis wrote Preacher, an extremely violent tale of a preacher losing his faith, who discovers God has given up on his creation and takes it upon himself to, in his words, "kick his ass". And it is where English novelist Neil Gaiman wrote The Sandman, a story about the Lord of Dreams, who is a curiously unlikeable, distant, rule-obsessed figure. It was an exquisite, gorgeous work, arguably the best possible thing to read just before you fall asleep. It did more to bring in female readers to comics than any other series.

And so British writers fundamentally altered the super hero and, according to some comic historians, saved the very genre from extinction. But they also created the indie comic scene in the US, which is currently experiencing a creative explosion under the management of upstart creator-owned company Image.

The British invasion receded. British writers and artists no longer dominate American publications. But the instincts they brought with them – the commitment to the anti-hero, the despairing themes, the radicalism, dislike of authority  and rain-drenched aesthetic – became part of the DNA of American comics. It is an artistic field in which Britain exercises disproportionate influence.

The British Library exhibition is a testament to how seminal that British contribution has been. It is gleeful, frequently indecent and completely unapologetic. Just like British comics.

Art and Anarchy in the UK opens today and closes on August 19th. Parental guidance is required for visitors under 16 years.