If you’re of a certain age and enjoyed what some might describe as the golden age of British comics, you should get yourself down to the Lightbox and savour their latest exhibition. It don’t ‘alf take you back.
Never mind the fact that the title of the exhibition – ‘The Story of British Comics So Far: Cor! By Gum! Zarjaz!’ – seems to have been drawn up by a committee to ensure that no one felt excluded, this show may well appeal most to that baby boomer generation reared on the Beano and the Dandy, Dan Dare in the Eagle, Roy of the Rovers, Princess, School Friend, Jackie and Bunty.
One frame in a Desperate Dan strip from the Dandy – sadly, the Dandy ceased its print edition in 2012 – had me laughing out loud in the Lightbox. Desperate Dan has a problem with hiccups, which, as always with him, is a huge problem. The force of one hiccup sends his aunt Aggie flying out of the window; another brings the house down. What made me chuckle audibly was that long-suffering aunt Aggie disappears through the open window without a yell of surprise, or word of complaint. Oh well, maybe you have to see it for yourself, to see what I mean. There is a bust of that other Dan, the daredevil space captain who often found himself stranded on Mercury, or some other inhospitable place. The smile of supreme confidence on his face made me think of Buzz Lightyear. Buzz’s confidence always turns out to be misplaced – but maybe Dan Dare’s air of superiority in the 1950s was of stronger stuff. Pre-Suez, at any ate.
In Dundee, home of DC Thomson and the Beano and the Dandy, there are statues of Desperate Dan, Minnie the Minx and Oor Wullie. Beano and Dandy were both launched just before the second world war. The Dandy closed in 2012 but the Beano, which I always preferred as more anarchic, is still going. If only former education secretary Michael Gove had visited Bash Street school – what would they have made of him, eh, chums? Viz, launched in the late 1970s and aimed at adults, or more accurately, at halted-development adolescents, represented a loving parody of the DC Thomson format. My wife accompanied me to the exhibition, and spoke of her sense of anticipation, waiting for her girls’ comic to be delivered through the door each week. She felt that the girls did not get enough of a show at the Lightbox, a little lost amid the Lions, Busters, Swifts, and War Picture Libraries, perhaps.
The exhibition is intended as a journey through the past, present and future of “sequential art”. The ‘Cor!’ part is a potted history, including examples of 3,000-year-old hieroglyphics, 18th century satirical prints by Hogarth, and a contemporary “playful yet political” ceramic by Grayson Perry. ‘By Gum’ is the down-memory-lane section, plus DIY comic-making interactives. ‘Zarjaz!’ includes modern manga, graphic novels and digital comics. The exhibition has been curated by museum professional and comics enthusiast Hamish MacGillivray and Paul Gravett, a journalist and curator who has worked in comics publishing. Hamish has said: “Both older people and school kids have helped to evolve the layout and interactives. My ideas were brought to life thanks to some theatre magic by set builders Bowerwood and the enthusiasm of Paul Gravett and the Lightbox team.”
When I was a kid – before school drummed such things out of me – I drew up my own comics and strip cartoons. My mum kept them, and I came across them recently when clearing out her flat. One message to readers was signed off, “From the happy editor”, which made me smile. Happy days indeed, it seems, looking back – when life always appeared hilarious.
‘The Story of British Comics So Far: Cor! By Gum! Zarjaz!’ is on show at The Lightbox until 31 December 2016
ILLUSTRATION: ASIA ALFASI AND HAMISH MACGILLVRAY, THE STORY OF BRITISH COMICS SO FAR © THE ARTIST AND THE LIGHTBOX