Critical Takes: Comics Unmasked, Comic Book People, and The Plot

by Kim Munson

Working my way through my ever-growing pile of books about comics, I am very happy to have found a couple of fun and useful books, and one oldie-but-goodie.

The first is the exhibition catalog for Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK by Paul Gravett and John Harris Dunning, published in conjunction with the ambitious exhibition of the same name that just closed at the British Library. Said to be the largest exhibit of comic art ever shown in Britain, the book and show are Comics-Unmaskedmeant to hit some of the most interesting highlights in the British Library’s extensive collection of British comics. And it does not disappoint.  The book is divided into sections focusing on politics, heroes, gender, violence, sexuality and altered states.  It begins with a brief history of British comics, including the country’s 1950s decency campaign, and then continues with an essay about comics and how they reflect British culture. While chapters on politics and sexuality provide some amazing examples, I was really intrigued by the chapter on altered states, which includes not only drugs, but also psychic phenomena and magic. This section covers a range of work that includes a 1470 Pauper’s Bible to Ah Pook is Here by William S. Burroughs and Malcolm McNeill (1970-77), PSI Judge Anderson (2009), Misty by Pat Mills (1978) and recent works by Dave McKean. Anyone wanting a stirring introduction to British comics will find one here.

comic book peopleJackie Estrada has been working with San Diego Comic Con in one way or another since the very first one in 1970. Lucky for us, she always had a camera on hand. In Comic Book People: Photographs from the 1970s and 1980s (Exhibit A Press), photos and generous captions give the reader a window into a period when most of the icons of comics (e.g., Kirby, Eisner, and Kurtzman) were still around, and today’s masters were just starting out. Estrada covers cartoonists, authors, animators, movie people, staff, and about anyone else you could imagine at Comic Con. This is a must for anyone researching comics, curious about what Stan Lee used to look like, or people that enjoy photos of bad haircuts.

It had been years since I had read Will Eisnser’s last book, The Plot: the Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (2004, with a forward by Umberto Eco). It’s basically a detective novel exposing the origins of a propaganda campaign that won’t die, no matter how many times it has been proven as a fraud. It begins with a 1864 book Plotcalled the Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu, written by Maurice Joly as a protest against Napoleon III, which is plagiarized by Mathieu Golovinski  in 1902 at the request of advisors to Tsar Nicholas II, who want to prevent the modernization of Russia by persuading the Tsar that these changes were part of a Jewish conspiracy to take over Russia.  By 1920, The Protocols had spread around Europe, claiming there was a secret Jewish plot to take over the world. The Protocols were proven to be a fraud first by the London Times in 1921, and by other media, courts, and government bodies since, but even today The Protocols still surface as a propaganda tool. The book lacks many of Eisner’s signature atmospheric touches — there is no Eisnspritz — but it shows the artist excelling at character and expression. The narrative moves at a brisk pace, except for a short ten-page lull where his characters stop to examine the evidence in detail. It’s a story about a monstrous lie with tragic consequences, but it’s also a story about how lies spread and take on lives of their own.

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The Comics Alternative is a podcast and blog focused on the world of alternative, independent, and primarily non-superhero comics.

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