There is no denying that Alan Moore has had a big influence on visual culture and film in recent times. Comic-book artist Moore’s graphic novel, V for Vendetta, told the story of Guy Fawkes-masked revolutionaries that was reworked into a hit film and eventually became the motif of the anti-capitalist and Occupy movements. Moore’s From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen both helped work up a London gothic, peopled with Jack the Ripper, Mr Punch, and other characters on the edge of myth – you can see its influence in the TV series Penny Dreadful and Ripper Street and in the steampunk sci-fi of China Mieville. His influential comic Watchmen, also made into a film, re-imagines US comic-book heroes as screwed-up Cold War warriors with sadistic impulses. Moore influenced other comic-book and fantasy writers, like Neil Gaiman, Mark Millar, Warren Ellis and Grant Morrison, and worked alongside the excellent Pat Mills on the satirical sci-fi comic, 2000AD (which gave us Judge Dredd).
Unfortunately, the curators of the exhibition Comics Unmasked at the British Library have been overwhelmed by the Gothic vision, at the expense of every other contribution to the medium. And as creative as Moore’s gothic is, it is still a lot less interesting than the material that has been left out of the exhibition. It is an aesthetic for adolescent boys who think that unhappy and twisted stuff is correspondingly profound, while comedy is trivial and facile. The truth is often the other way round, where horror and gore are really just sentimentality, prurient and moralistic at the same time, while comedy allows marvellous slippages of meaning that are much more intelligent. These are the fanatics who renamed the comic book a ‘graphic novel’ to make it sound more grown-up.
The commissioned poster for the exhibition is by Tank Girl creator Jamie Hewlett: a superheroine looks world weary, a bandage on her knee and mask lifted to reveal the bags under her eyes, while she sips on a hip flask; she has just beaten up a superhero, who lies prostrate on the floor (did he harass her?). It is the theme of the exhibition – that all heroes have feet of clay.
The gothic does encourage some flashes of imagination, but it is quite taxing to see yet another raddled prostitute eviscerated – in spattered ink, of course – for the entertainment of troubled adolescents. How much wittier to peer through the Desperate Dan-shaped hole that Desperate Dan leaves in a brick wall – right down to the buttons on his shirt. Where are those truly subversive characters, the Bash Street Kids? They’ve been elbowed aside by the showroom dummies (an unintended self-satire) in the Guy Fawkes masks that loiter in the shadows of the exhibition, threatening nothing. The blurb for the exhibition says it ‘explores the full anarchic range of the medium with works that challenge categorisation, preconceptions and the status quo’, but that is not really true.
Who are the real anarchists? Leo Baxendale, who first drew the Bash Street Kids, once told me he had been instructed that the naughty schoolkids were always to be punished at the end of the strip, so he handed in his first ever page with a riot at the school being suppressed by club-yielding riot police. His editor took the point and let Baxendale and the schoolkids run riot without reprimand. How much more joyful and subversive their pranking of the schoolmaster is than the scores of Alan Moore imitators dishing up another ‘nightmarish’ vision of overpowering elites and occult conspiracies.