An Escapist’s Oasis

Along a city side-street that splinters off from the chaotic flurry of Oxford Circus, I descend a set of stairs and find myself smack-bang in an escapist’s oasis.

Like stepping into the colourful inked pages of your favourite childhood comic book, the London Cartoon Museum is as vibrant and playful as it is educational and inspiring. For those of you that remember leafing impatiently through the typically extraneous fluff of the daily newspaper in order to locate that one condensed page of cartoons and funnies, then this is the place for you.

The museum’s current exhibition, Comic Creators: The Famous and the Forgotten, running until the end of 2019, delivers in spades in it’s promise to showcase the wild, the wonderful, and the whimsical world of British comic strips. With original pieces of art (some unpublished or on display for the first time) and spanning roughly 150 colourful years, a good deal of these comic creations are enjoying a well deserved revival, in an industry where local writers and artists have all-too often been overshadowed by their European, Japanese or American counterparts.

From those who went on to create instantly recognisable or award-winning graphic novels, comics or television series, to the lesser known characters and creations, that for some reason or other seemed to have faded into obscurity over the years, this exhibition has managed to assemble an impressive range of original works, all hanging side-by-side and chronologically adorning the museum’s walls. Complimenting each and every piece are fun and informative side-notes on placards provided by museum curator and comic-strip tutor and academic, Steve Marchant.

Whether or not you like to consider yourself a regular comic strip aficionado, a walk through this exhibition will probably conjure up a mixed bag of reactions, along the lines of:

Oh, I remember this...’, to ‘What the devil is that?’.

And it’s precisely this amusement park ride through a polarised arc of feelings and emotions that makes this exhibition one educational journey well-worth undertaking.

Sweeny Toddler
Sweeny Toddler was one of Leo Baxendale’s later comic creations for lesser-known British comic Shiver and Shake.

Through the course of this comic strip pilgrimage one can expect to find such celebrated titles as The Beano and 2000AD, but be sure to keep an eye out for the less obvious British titles like Look-In or Lion too. There are a good deal of war and cowboy publications depicting courageous alpha male heroes like Johnny Red, Buck Jones and Hurricane Hurry. But there can also be found titles aimed at young girls too, like Oh, Tinker; a caricatured version of that beloved fairy who happens to grant a lucky girl’s wish every convenient week.

A large portion of the animated characters staring down from the pages will be instantly familiar too, like Dennis the Menace, Rupert, Judge Dredd and Danger Mouse for example. Expect to be introduced also to a handful of those not so renown, like The Dandy’s veteran artist Jimmy Crighton’s earlier quirky creation, Billy and Bunny, espionage antihero The Spider, or the riotous Jock MacSwiper.

With the majority of original artwork being black Indian ink on white paper, it’s refreshing to see that all of the showcased works aren’t exactly restricted to this particular medium either. Some are coloured with inks or pencils, acrylic paint and even crayon… whilst others cleverly combine collage or stencil with their sketches.

In addition to all of this, it’s well worth mentioning that the benefit of seeing these comics up close and personal is that one not only appreciates the intricate detail and care that has gone into producing such refined work, but you can’t help but notice the candid beauty too in their subtle imperfections. Key examples of this are the vertical lines scratched into the black ink with a scalpel to give the effect of white rain, in Simon Harrison’s artwork for Strontium Dog, from a 1998 edition of 2000AD… or the discolouration over time of the fibre-tip pen from black to blue in a number of other notable works. 

In the foyer on the way out I was fortunate enough to run into Steve Marchant, the museum’s curator, and he was generous enough to shine some more light on the motivation behind such a one-of-a-kind exhibition…

  1. Would you care to elaborate on how the idea for such an exhibition as this one came about?

‘Comic Creators: The Famous and the Forgotten is the culmination of five years dedicated to acquiring examples of original artwork featuring characters and creators from British comics, some still well-known today, and others- arguably of equal merit, that somehow slipped through the cracks of comics’ history. The Cartoon Museum has always displayed examples of comic art alongside it’s cartoon art collections, but these were randomly donated by artists and collectors until we received a very hefty grant from The National Lottery Heritage Fund specifically allowing us to seek out and purchase a broad range of artwork from the 1880’s to the 2000’s’.

2. Why do you think that some of these British writers and artists have not received the same levels of recognition and fame as their contemporaries? 

Unlike comics in the USA, Europe and Japan, it was very rare for artists and writers to be credited in the pages of British comics until the late 1970s, when 2000 AD began to credit the ‘droids’ that supposedly created the strips; in fact the comic’s editor – Tharg – is of course a pseudonym for at least a dozen different editors over its 40+ years. Sorry if that news spoils anyone’s day.

The main reason for this enforced anonymity was publishers’ fears that rivals might contact the creators and woo them away with offers of better pay and conditions. And even in these more enlightened times, where we’re seeing various book collections of old strips appearing on a regular basis, it’s still economics that broadly dictates which characters and creators get that honour. Sweeny Toddler, one of the later strips by Bash St. Kids and Minnie the Minx creator Leo Baxendale is bound to sell more copies than Sweeny’s stablemate The Bumpkin Billionaires by the lesser known Mike Lacey. It’s still the case that in the wider world outside comics fandom, very few – if any – artists have achieved the level of fame granted to pop stars and actors’.

As US cartoonist Dan Clowes once said:

“Being the most famous comic book artist is like being the most famous badminton player“.

3. You mentioned that this is only a small portion (barely a quarter) of the total of the pieces obtained in the collection. Would you be so kind as to give us a hint on what we can expect to see in the near future? 

Many of the pages we’ve acquired came in sets of 2,3 or more pages so there’ll be more from the creators currently on display. We also have quite a few pages of Victorian comic art – drawn so small that we might have to supply magnifying glasses to visitors. There are a lot more incredibly-drawn pages from ‘girls’ comics – an area that’s been a revelation to me, as I never read them growing up. We have some Brian Bolland pencil art from Animal Man that was never published, and loads more from the famous and the unjustly forgotten’.

Click here for more information on the London Cartoon Museum

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