The Great British Graphic Novel Comic art exhibition at the Cartoon Museum

Published On April 21, 2016 | By James Bacon | Comics, Conventions and events, Reviews

This is a phenomenal experience, it exceeded my expectations and I was blown away by the calibre of the artwork on display. The Cartoon Museum has amassed the finest examples of comic art, an incredible mix of exemplary work, providing a beautiful tapestry of the history and breadth of the greatest works from Britain for public consideration.

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One is quickly confronted by a terrifically huge and vividly illustrated map by Hunt Emerson, using a Harry Beck style to link together the various themes the museum have cleverly placed the artwork in. This map instantly helps one to understand the history and connectivity that is on display while giving a contextual launch pad to the curators to share information and propagate thoughts about what is on display, while also showing the overlap of subjects in a clear, simple way.

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(above, Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress from the early 1730s; below Ronald Searl’s CapsUlysses)

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Soon I was looking at lovely pieces, starting with Hogarths ‘A Harlots Progress’ from 1732, ‘The Bottle’ from 1847 by George Cruikshank, ‘Ally Sopers; A Moral Lesson’ from 1873, Ronald Searle’s Capsulyssese from 1955, written by Richard Osborne. All giving one a real sense of history, showing that illustrated stories are nothing new in Britain.

Then as I rounded a corner I saw a grouping of Commando Comics placed next to a full colour cover of Charley’s War, and four pages of this seminal work of the First World War. Undoubtedly Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun’s masterpiece is indeed a crucial addition here, but I had a feeling of true appreciation of the comic form when I saw this colour cover and four original pages lined up. Juxtaposed with this was My Life in Pieces, The Falklands War by Will Kevans from 2014. Original art, cover and concept sketch made for a great grouping.

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(Charley’s War by Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun)

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Onwards, and I see a page from When the Wind Blows, Ethel and Ernest and the cover for The Tin-Pot General and the Old Iron Woman all by national treasure Raymond Briggs. This was superb, to see his colour art and detail visibly in such close proximity and again, this stirring anti-war message riffing around the other pieces on display in this area was poignant.

Comics in all their formats were featured, and it was lovely to see Modesty Blaise by Peter O’Donnell and Jim Holdaway from the Evening Standard in 1969 near to the photo collage and ink of Dave McKean from Mr. Punch, written by Neil Gaima, in turn next to the beautiful ink work of Bryan Talbot’s genre-defining Luther Arkwright. Crikey, the art is all so gorgeous.

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(Above: Bryan Talbot’s Luther Arkwright; below: Mark Buckingham’s mixed-media Miraceleman: the Golden Age)

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As one rounded a corner, one was confronted by a huge Mark Buckingham cover of Miracleman: The Golden Age. It was spectacularly beautiful, and so large, created only this year, but such a fine addition to this exhibit. Seeing the artwork up close allows one to appreciate and see the work that is in relief, the doors and balloons, the logo and small figures and gold medallions all beautifully added to the fantastic painting of Miracleman. Composed with acrylic, enamel, moulding clay and doll’s house doors, it just deserved to be taken in at length. To hand were more works by Buckingham, pages from Death: the Time of your Life, and Miracleman;The Golden Age. I was somewhat taken aback when I realised that the Death comic was twenty years old; was it really that long ago it first came out??

Another corner turned, and I am facing a wall with six pieces that are just wonderfully exceptional to see this close up. Two pages of Watchmen by Dave Gibbons, complemented by the water coloured pages by John Higgins, sat next to two pages of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Kevin O’Neil. These works written by Alan Moore were near to a page by Brian Bolland of Batman: the Killing Joke. As one looked on, it is clear why these comics are so popular and also cause so much interest and thought, even now decades on from their original publications.

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(Above: black and white Watchmen art by Dave Gibbons and coloured version by John Higgins, and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen artwork; below a closer look at the coloured Watchmen artwork)

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The size and immense presence of the cover of Sandman #3 by Dave McKean was superlative. It is a huge piece of art; I thought the Miracleman was big, but this must be close to A0 in size, and is so attractively done, again, to see the pen a and ink work as well as the shelves in relief, and the packet of Silk Cut, normally obscured by the DC symbol on the comics, was gorgeous. Nearby was a page from Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylumn, art also by Dave McKean, along with a page from Hellblazer by John Ridgeway.

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(Above: Dave McKean’s unmistakable artwork for the original Sandman series, here the original for Sandman #3; below: a wider view of the corner dominated by that Sandman cover artwork, including a page from Bolland’s Killing Joke art on the far left)

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The breath taking art just didn’t stop. This exhibition is thoughtful about what is on display, and it was lovely to see a colour piece by Jamie McKelvie from The Wicked and Divine, written by Kieron Gillen and coloured by Matthew Wilson, next to three fantastic pieces of Tank Girl artwork by Jamie Hewlett, as written by Alan Martin.

As I started to ponder whether this was all too much, the cover from Judge Dredd: America by Colin MacNeil and a page of Strontium Dog by Carlos Ezquerra from 1987 featuring Ronald Regan having been bitten by a Vampire, who fans will recognise, left one wondering if the Stars and Strips and this Presidential occurrence were placed side by side on purpose.

Seeing art take shape is wonderful, and the placement of pages by Posy Simmons from Tamara Drewe and Gemma Bovery above a cabinet, containing this treasured original sketchbook belonging to Posy Simmonds was fabulous.

One of the things I really liked about this exhibition is that contemporary work of brilliance has also featured, I was very taken by the fine line work and clean ink of Una’s Becoming Unbecoming and the stunning art of Red Rosa by Kate Evans, which juxtaposed the original pen and ink work with the final lettered and shaded version, with digital additions.

The beautiful colour work of Bryan Talbot was also on display with pages from upcoming The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia by Mary M. Talbot (out in May), and again, here pieces were positioned so the actual comic creative process could be understood.

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(above: pages from the forthcoming Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia by Mary and Bryan Talbot;)

This was also ably demonstrated by another unpublished work, (A Girls Guide To) Sensible Footwear by Kate Charlesworth, were a selection of pencil roughs and thumbnails, indicate the process for the viewer as the process proceeds to actual comic book pages.

A nice grouping of four pages by Asia Alfasi, from Tripoli, who moved to Britain aged seven in 1991, looked quite stunning, ‘EWA A Tale of Family, Struggle and Hope’ is a work in process, but when the most recent troubles occurred in Libya, Asia Alfasi travelled there, and I understand this lead to some rethinking about her graphic novel. The ability of stories to be so poignant, so important and also so current was thusly portrayed, a work stopped midway to reconsider what is being produced based on the reality of occurring history. I was so impressed.

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(EWA: a Tale of Family, Stuggle and Hope by Asia Alfasi)

I managed to speak to the curators, Anita O’Brien, director of the museum and Dr Paul Williams of the University of Exeter, and was truly taken by their attention to detail and passion for the art that was on display. I was impressed to hear that they are working hard on acquiring art for the Museum so that they are preserved and available in future, and some of the pieces on display were recent acquisitions. There was so much wonderful artwork, and so much I have not mentioned: V For Vendetta, Spiral Cage, From Hell, True Faith, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, Supercrash, Black Holes, Sally Heathcote Suffragette, Billy, Me and You, A Tale of One Bad Rat, and Laika… Gosh there is so much, and there are other highlights in an exhibition that leaves one impressed and delighted in equal measure.

I finally spent some time looking at a page of Troubled Souls, by Garth Ennis and John McCrea. The beautifully fully painted work, telling one of the very few stories that have come out of the Northern Ireland Troubles. As a bonfire rages, the protagonist, Tom Boyd contemplates the Irish question, and in writing this story, Garth Ennis allows the reader to contemplate it too. A politically live subject at the time, Ennis’ skill in telling a story is demonstrated with this début work, he knew it was good subject material for a readership keen on politics, and despite his desire to just get published as a motivation for writing the story, it is his inherent ability as a storyteller matched with such beautiful colours and inks, as illustrated by John McCrea that makes it one of the seminal works to come from the Troubles. Indeed the simple human, even cynical desire driving it’s conception is perfect given the nature of the human story that is being told.

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(the Troubles in comics form – Troubled Soul by Garth Ennis and John McCrea)

I got so much from just looking at this one page, but such feelings, thoughts and experience was presence everywhere I looked.

This exhibition is unbelievably marvellous and an absolute joy to behold, a pleasure for new and old readers alike, and accessible to all who may have any type of interest. I felt incredibly privileged to be able to see the raw original art of so many works that are just so crucial to the media of comics (not just in their native Britain but worldwide) and the museum has definitely delivered on bringing the works of The Great British Graphic Novel to the public.

The Cartoon Museum are hosting a number of events over the summer, a selection of Drop In Sessions with Dr. Monica Walker looking at spotlighted works, Woodrow Phoenix turning pages of She Lives, his giant graphic Novel, a talk on The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia by Mary M. Talbot and Bryan Talbot on the 4th of May, to just mention a few, do check their site for regular updates. The Great British Graphic Novel Exhibition – which also celebrates ten years of the Cartoon Museum – runs until July 24th.

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About The Author

James Bacon
James Bacon is a train Driver working in London but originally from Dublin. He also loves comics, theatre, history and books, runs conventions, writes about these activities and has edited a Hugo-winning Fanzine.

6 Responses to The Great British Graphic Novel Comic art exhibition at the Cartoon Museum

  1. Thanks guys for such a fantastic review. We are really pleased to be putting on the show, and hope it will be a draw for visitors to celebrate our 10th anniversary…!

    Oliver Preston, Chairman The Cartoon Museum

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  6. Checked this out yesterday – what a fantastic array of work AND the guys running the exhibition/museum are great.