O Say Can You See: The Greatest Patriotic Super Heroes of All-Time
My first summer in London in many years is turning up a bounty of comic book appreciation. With beautiful exhibitions and events springing up all over the city, it seems like this is a pretty perfect time for lovers of visual communication to visit.
Although I’m from London, I only come back every 2 or 3 years and every time I return it seems quite different. While I always enjoy myself, this year it felt as if London were doing everything possible to be my ideal city.
On my first evening in town, I found myself at a bit of a loose end, too disoriented by the jet lag to switch on my brain to make social arrangements to see friends (it’s an 8 hour time difference from Los Angeles and a 12 hour flight, which is quite disorienting in tandem). Instead, killing time, I took a look at Tom Spurgeon’s website and happened to see that there was a party happening in the next couple of hours at the swanky new location of Gosh! Comics.
Although I’m calling it the “new” location, Gosh! moved a couple of years ago, so it’s really only new to me. I have many fond memories of the old Gosh! Comics shop from my misspent youth, when I’d go to the British Museum to sketch the marbles (the naked Greek statues make a good stand-in for when you don’t have the money or access to real life-models) and in the afternoons I’d sneak out to go buy comics across the road.
I easily found the new location on 1 Brewer Street and it is an even better shop than the original, right on the corner with tons of daylight and two floors of bright, open, shelving, packed with a broad variety of comic books. Over the years I’ve been to a lot of comic shop parties, from the sullen, shuffling lines of signings which are so common, to those rare and wild cocktail parties filled with sparkling conversation and much social interaction. I wasn’t sure where on the spectrum this party would fall and I kept my expectations low as I made my way across Soho to the shop.
Already an hour in when I arrived, the party was already packed, with artist and writers Jim Medway, Donya Todd, and Oliver East all busy signing, sketching, and chatting at a central table, while owner Steven Walsh diligently poured of glasses of champagne and beamed at his guests spilling out on to the street. I wondered about the well-dressed, outgoing crowd and wondered if I was in the right country. Having moved away years ago, the occasional visit to London had not have prepared me for the friendly, warm atmosphere I encountered here. The diverse crowd excitedly browsed the books, snapping up classics and new comics as they shared their interests with each other.
Standing outside for a moment to marvel at the buzzing crowd, I stopped to talk to author Medway about the party, his work alone at the drawing board, his role in classrooms teaching young people to produce their own comic books, and his life in Derbyshire (in smelling distance of the great Swizzle sweet factory!). I asked about the inspiration for his inventive surreal work and he told me that he didn’t grow up with any interest in American superheroes, but instead always had a desire to tell the stories of strange characters and monsters through words and pictures.
Charming comic book author Viv Schwarz wore a ’60’s-styled, Marvel superheroes portrait dress, which she had made herself from cotton sheets (very inspiring, as it looked quite professional). She carefully explained that while she loved drawing “funny books with pictures”, she really didn’t consider them “graphic novels” yet. I’m not sure what the definition is, but I applaud her creativity and inventiveness, whatever label she chooses to put on it.
The next day I tried to go to a fashion exhibition, which would have been nice, but those plans were happily thwarted by my accidental discovery of London’s Cartoon Museum. Jumping off the bus early to get Japanese noodles, I passed the small museum and an eye-catching poster in the window advertising a retrospective of the great Ralph Steadman; STEADman@77. Of course I couldn’t resist it and was quickly immersed.
The first floor of the exhibition packed in a huge array of Steadman cartoons spanning the breadth of his career, as well as information about the original publications, his approach to the work, and his evolving philosophy. The second floor accommodates a permanent workshop space for children to make comic books, as well as housing a large permanent collection of original art from British cartoonists.
Outside of reproductions, I’ve never seen any of Steadman’s work in the original form, and I hadn’t realized how much impact it would have. Obviously his work is often shocking and high-impact, but reduction of the scale or limitations in the quality of the reproductions often rob the pieces of their impact. When looking at original Steadman drawings, his ability to combine a wild, expressionist line with cold, hard geometry is quite daunting. He uses every tool at his disposal to express himself and he nearly always has something very interesting to say.
It gave me a strange little thrill to get up close to a page of David Lloyd’s art from his seminal book with Alan Moore, V for Vendetta, complete with the hand-lettered speech bubbles written on blue graph paper and pasted on. We’re so lucky to have computer so letter pages now, though this did add bags of character to it. I thoroughly enjoyed all of the elaborate original art pages on display, from comic book stories like The Bash Street Kids, (where the artist mused about his fever-induced choice to draw the teacher’s wife looking like a clone of the teacher, complete with mustache!) to the 1977 appearance of Dan Dare in 2000AD, which included anecdotes and explanations from the artist and publishers.
It would be ridiculous to expect a third day of unplanned comic book appreciation, and yet when I went to the South Bank to take photos before a play, I found a temporary exhibition all about The Beano called Beanotown. This is quite an interesting exhibition, in that it is equally divided between a children’s activity destination and a historical retrospective of the comic book and artifacts. While many other subject matters wouldn’t be appropriate for such a raucous yet cerebral mixture, for The Beano it is perfect.
The content and characters of the The Beano were all always about being as naughty and mischievous as possible, while doing so with a level of attention and affection that many comic books would do well to emulate. Weaving in and out of the anarchic and creative play of the small children, I found a wealth of pages of original artwork, explanations of the unusual approaches to current events and politics, and many items from the various Dennis the Menace and Gnasher fan clubs I’d belonged to as a child (a very different menace from your American one).
Thoroughly happy with the comic book love I’ve been lucky enough to stumble across in London, I have another week of people to meet and things to see, so I can’t imagine what I will discover next. It appears that after decades of overlooking the talents of comic book artists, Britain is applauding this wealth in the mainstream. It is a very rewarding time to be visiting and experiencing so much love for a medium which has always provided such a rich form of communication in my life.
(If you enjoyed the photos I took for this article, the rest of them are all in a flickr set here.)
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