Tuesday, 29 April 2014

COMICS UNMASKED: ART AND ANARCHY IN THE UK



The British Library is about to open its huge exhibition of British comics, COMICS UNMASKED: ART AND ANARCHY IN THE UK. I was surprised and pleased to hear from co-curator Paul Gravett that it will include pages from RIOT, a comic strip by myself and my partner Vikki Liogier, published way back in 1981. I met Vikki the previous year when she was visiting the UK from France and we have been together ever since. At the time I was living in a squat in Brixton and for Vikki it was an eye-opening experience. Looking back now, it’s hard to picture just how grey and miserable a place London was in the 1980’s. Brixton was a particularly impoverished and run-down part of the UK and the conditions were ripe for the riots that finally kicked off in 1981 after the police operation Swamp 81. The police were enforcing the notorious ‘Sus’ laws, which allowed them to stop, search, arrest and even imprison people they suspected of intending to commit a crime. This was effectively Thought Crime and at its peak the police used it to stop and search over 1,000 people in Brixton in 5 days.  There were also constant 'drug raids' and for a while we would be woken nightly (usually between 3am and 5am) by vanloads of police with dogs raiding houses, rousting the occupants and lining them up against the wall in the street outside our squat. When the riots came it was no surprise.

The police force in Britain today is widely recognized to be riddled with racism, but believe me, its nothing compared to the police of the 1970's and 1980’s who were corrupt, brutal and racist to the core. We both wanted to express our own outrage for the way the police were behaving and the result was RIOT, written by Vikki and drawn by myself. I had already had a strip published in KNOCKABOUT COMICS, the wonderful anthology published by Tony and Carol Bennett’s publishing house, so I took this one straight to them. I remember Tony being a little doubtful about the fundamentally ‘decent cop’ who is driven by shame at his own behaviour to resign from the police force. It’s true that the existence of that decent cop did stretch the imagination a little, but it made for a better story and Tony ran the strip in the pages of Knockabout #3.

Vikki and I are still together and that strip means a lot to us. We’ll be at the reception on Thursday evening, when Jonathan Ross will be guest speaker. It marks a huge sea change in the perception of comics that such a venerable institution as the British Library is not only featuring an exhibition of comics, but focusing on the radical, underground, subversive side of British Comics. “Baroness Blackstone requests the pleasure of your company…” Bloody hell!

Poster by Jamie Hewlett
It’s worth noting perhaps, that we no longer have much in the way of radical comics like Knockabout, Nasty Tales or even Crisis in this country. Angry young cartoonists seem to have been replaced by the ‘slightly irritated’ and ‘mildly annoyed’ and the most revolutionary or radical aspects of the alternative and independent comics I see around now are the printing techniques and marketing strategy. We do still have the occasional riot though…


Art by Jamie Hewlett

Here's the blurb from the British Library web site:

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.

Ticketprices and visitor information

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