Alan Russell visits London’s Cartoon Museum, revealing some of its treasures for British comic fans…
I’ve been a comics fan since I was a young child back in the early 1970s.
In those days of course, there were far fewer things to capture your attention. But if you had an imagination and had thrilled to images of NASA travelling to the moon, enjoyed glimpses of spaceships and far away planets on shows like Lost in Space and Doctor Who (not to mention the eye catching and enthralling adventures of Gerry Anderson’s Supermarionation heroes), then comics would be an instant fix to draw you in and grab you.
I grew up in those founding years, attracted to Mighty World of Marvel (which launched in 1972 in the UK) and the black and white anthologies from publisher Alan Class, printed on low grade paper, who sourced his reprinted material from Marvel – and a variety of smaller US publishers such as Charlton and ACG, who released 80-page plus “compilation” comics into the British newsagents.
So comics are very much still my thing – and still are, even to this day. It was however only relatively recently that I discovered
through conversations and groups on the internet, that London had its own Cartoon Museum, which describes itself (pretty accurately) as “British cartoon and comic art from the 18th century to the present day”.
Glimpses of some original art images posted by the staff that work there convinced me this was a place I needed to go to and so a few weeks ago I made the short trip across London to visit.
Located near to Bloomsbury Square and Tottenham Court Road, it raised a smile to find out it’s not too far away from Forbidden Planet’s old second home in New Tottenham Court Road, plus that of the sadly now defunct Comic Showcase and Comicana shops.
Finding it is pretty easy and on arrival I paused outside momentarily to look at the two storey shop premises and imagine what wonders might lay inside. Once you step through the door you’re not transported to another dimension, but what lies within is equally as imaginative and inventive.
On arrival, you’re first greeted by the Cartoon Museum shop. Here, you’ll find a good selection of Doctor Who out of print Target novelisations, plus books on the history of comics, many on the creators themselves – and a smattering of both UK and US released graphic novels and trade paperbacks. It could perhaps be improved a little to attract more casual or new comics fans in terms of what’s
stocked, but the die-hard veteran of the printed page will know exactly all the material they’re looking at – and of course nearby
comic shops can serve you up more if you’re drawn in.
Located here is the sales point and this is where you pay (the very modest and reasonable) fee of £7 to gain entry. At the time
of my visit there were two main exhibitions on, the Great British Graphic Novel, which runs until 24th July and an exhibition of
Doctor Who novels cover art celebrating the work of the talented painter Chris Achilleos. Chris’ art has graced not only many
a classic Who book front cover during the 1970’s and 80’s, but has also been seen in many fantasy art books over the years.
Sadly, the Who exhibition has since finished but there is a roadmap/history leaflet given to you when you pay and enter the
museum that describes the timeline and some key points in the history of graphic novels in Britain.
On entering the Museum proper, there’s a short corridor that leads into the main downstairs gallery, the museum itself being located in a small two storey premises that will probably take you about 40 minutes to browse around, depending on how long you linger in front of a particular piece. As you enter the main ground floor room you’ll immediately notice a projector showing a video on the
wall of artist David Lloyd, explaining how he and writer Alan Moore created the classic V for Vendetta.
Just to the right of this is some eye catching Mark Buckingham Marvelman / Miracleman art (from his original run) plus a Marvelman mosaic created out of various materials and then painted, which served as a cover to one of Marvel’s recent issues, plus one of the hardback compilations of his work on the character with author Neil Gaiman.
Downstairs also plays host to some original Lloyd Vendetta artwork, plus a page from Dave Gibbons and Moore’s classic Watchmen,
with both series represented by the same page shown in black and white alongside the eventual coloured version.
Artwork is also represented from Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman and Moore and artist Kevin O’Neill‘s The League of Gentlemen also has a page on display downstairs.
Whilst it’s the comic art that always enthusiastically gets my attention, I should also point out that there are a number of satirical cartoons from other publications on display, plus early art from the Victorian era so all forms of British artwork are present in every shape and form, with a number of indie cartoons featured as well.
Once upstairs the layout morphs into a square balcony all round with a view onto the downstairs. There’s a well thought out room upstairs which encourages children to draw and colour, with tables laid out with artwork and crayons, something to occupy the little ones if taking them along for a viewing.
There’s also further original British art. I dawdled for a while around the Achilleos Doctor Who art, which really came alive off the painted page in all its glory. There was a more than generous selection of cover paintings viewable at the time, but sadly the
exhibition has now come to an end.
Nearby there is some wonderful art from “Charley’s War ” (pages by the strip’s co-creator, Joe Colquhoun) which is appropriate given that we’re currently commemorating the Battle of the Somme. There’s some art from DC Thomson’s humour publications too, some more indie pieces and then four wonderful framed works grouped together at the far end, all of which deserve mentioning.
First there is the opening page of the very first “Hookjaw” strip from Action by Spanish artist Ramon Sola. Wonderfully realised
in dark black ink, you can see where the logo and the banner have been posted onto it. Next to this is a real masterclass, a painted Don Lawrence piece from “The Trigan Empire“. While this popular strip has reprinted by the Don Lawrence Collection, it’s rare to see original art, and this example of Don’s full painted colour work is a real treat. The item itself is a 1979 cover of the Dutch magazine Eppo, so is a rare sight for British audiences, too.
The next item really caught me by surprise, as it’s a cover piece from Marvel UK when they started up in 1972 with Mighty World
of Marvel as their first publication. It too is a rare item, drawn by Jim Starlin – the cover of Issue Three, featuring Spider-Man,
The Hulk and The Fantastic Four. Back before he started working at Marvel in the United States, Jim drew around 15-20 Marvel UK
covers and the likelihood is that most probably haven’t survived, so this is a true gem.
Lastly in this little section of classics we have a page from the much loved 1960’s/70’s British character The Spider. Originally seen in
Lion from the mid-60’s, the character was later reprinted in the IPC publication Vulcan during the 70’s, also going on to be popular in reprints across Europe. The art on display is from English artist Reg Bunn (profiled here on the Cartoon Museum’s own Comic Creators Project site), who wonderfully drew The Spider larger than life throughout his comics career. This particular page is a nice one to have to look at, showing the character in action and the detail is wonderful and beautifully inked. Looking at it for several minutes it’s very reminiscent of Brian Bolland’s work, making you wonder if the latter was inspired by the former.
There’s a bit more than I’ve described to see at the museum, so if you’ve the slightest interest in comics (particularly the work of British artists), I’d not hesitate to highly recommend a visit as it can be easily reached by train or bus.
If there was one slight wish fulfilment thing on my list, it’s that the place have a much bigger home displaying more of its goodies. This of course is not the fault of anyone involved with this wonderful concept, rent and property is simply not cheap in London.
The museum itself is worth regularly re-visting. They have a decent catalogue and collection of material that is in storage and items are rotated throughout the year, with another exhibition set to replace the graphic novel one later at the end of this month.
• The Cartoon Museum is at 35 Little Russell Street, London WC1A 2HH Telephone: 0207 580 8155 Web: www.cartoonmuseum.org | The Museum is open Tuesday – Sunday 10.30 – 5.30pm, closed Mondays, except for bank holidays | Facebook | Follow the Museum on Twitter @Cartoonmuseumuk
• The Great British Graphic Novel Exhibition runs until 24th July 2016 – an exhibition looking at the rise of the British Graphic novel with works by William Hogarth, Kate Charlesworth, Dave Gibbons, Martin Rowson, Posy Simmonds, Bryan and Mary Talbot and many others. To accompany the exhibition, the Museum is offering a limited series of free workshops to school groups. For more details see their schools page
• The Cartoon Museum also runs the Comic Creators Project, which will enable the museum to purchase a large number original pieces of comic artwork for the Cartoon Museum collection and develop exhibitions, activities and events which will share Britain’s comic heritage with a wider public, not just in London but across the country. For more information visit comiccreatorsuk.wordpress.com | Twitter @ComicCreatorsUK | Facebook