The British Library’s comics exhibition Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy In The UK, enthusiastically billed by the library as “the UK’s largest ever exhibition of mainstream and underground comics” has just completed its time in the library’s PACCAR Gallery.
However the British Library was not the first of the United Kingdom’s Legal Deposit libraries to put on a major comics exhibition as back in the summer of 2008 the National Library Of Scotland (NLS) in Edinburgh put on an exhibition entitled Local Heroes: The Art Of the Graphic Novel which had a similar, although deliberately more populist, theme.
Looking back at that NLS exhibition puts the British Library’s claim of the largest ever comic exhibition on somewhat shaky ground. John Birch, the curator of that NLS exhibition, in an interview on downthetubes in 2009 stated that “this exhibition had over 200 items on show” while the 2014 BL exhibition co-curator Paul Gravett stated on his website that “co-curator John Harris Dunning and I have cherry-picked around two hundred items to display.” Certainly the NLS exhibition’s display cases looked well stocked while the British Library had a sparse ‘less is more’ look to it perhaps because it had rather more floor space that its collection of exhibits required.
The oldest item on display at the British Library exhibition was a copy of a Biblia Pauperum, a ‘Pauper’s Bible’ published in Germany around the year 1470. These were highly illustrated books that, despite their modern name, were probably owned by the rich and were also perhaps used by priests to tell bible stories to their illiterate flock in the same way that primary school teachers read illustrated story books to their youngest pupils today.
The two pages it was open at showed images from the Book of Revelation Chapter 12:
And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars:
And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered.
And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads.
And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon.
Much has been written on the subject of what the first comic is and many consider it to be Rodolphe Töpffer’s 1827 illustrated story Histoire de Monsieur Vieux Bois/The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck. Yet this Pauper’s Bible from almost four centuries before Töpffer shows sequential storytelling in a two panels per page layout complete with in-panel text boxes.
For me this was the most interesting item on show not just for its age but for what modern comic it reminded me of. Standing looking at it I did think that the exhibition had missed a trick by not placing an open copy of Commando in the case beside it to show the remarkable similarities in the format of the pair despite their publication dates being more than half a millennium apart.