Cartoons. Comic books. Graphic novels. The funny pages. There are lots of ways to describe them; you’ll have yours and I have been a fan of comics since I was child. Like many, big loud titles like Justice League were my gateway drug and that passion soon opened up to a much broader range of comic artists; Chris Ware, Seth, Adrian Tomine and Katsuhiro Otomo to name but a few. I love museums too – I mean, at school I was even in Museum Club (first rule of museum club is… oh, I see you’re ahead of me on that gag).
So, you might be interested to know more about the Cartoon Museum in London, which draws the evolving language of 300 years of largely British comic artists from the 1700s right up to present day. The Museum is home to more than 6,000 original comic artworks and aside from the story of artists and industry, and the high quality of the art itself, it’s a library of invaluable social commentary. Power, politics, protest – from the satire of 1800s to the activism of the 1980s, this is a finely crafted collection which showcases subtle, and often not so subtle, acerbic top shelf wit, through the union of text and image.
The Museum is a short walk from Oxford Steet underground station on Wells Street – one of those quaint streets with boutique shops that Hollywood thinks all of London looks like. You can’t miss the Museum; a bright neon sign ushers you in. The Museum is all on one floor in the basement, so first you must descend the cherry-red staircase which, were it not adorned with comic book characters, could be a beckoning to one of the city’s more niche nightclubs… or a super-villains lair, perhaps?
From there you’re into the Museum’s bright reception space, a little bit pop art, a little bit Batman 66, you’re standing in the colourful splash pages of the pulpiest of pulp comics – it’s a fun and engaging way to start your journey. A hearty greeting from volunteers sets the friendly tone and from there, you’re into the main galleries. The decoration is uncomplicated, basic even - white walls make a suitable background to show off the vivid and varied collection. The Museum might feel a little too enclosed for some but the waymarking is clear and how long you stay depends on your interest in cartoons and this is an object rich museum, and every panel has something new to share.
From the pages of great British comics like 2000AD, TV21, the Beano, and the Dandy to artists and storytellers like Dave Gibbons and Rachel Ball, to the history of satire from James Gillray (born 1756) onwards, there is much here to marvel at.
On my recent visit, alongside displays of the core collection, there were two exhibitions; the first was about V for Vendetta, first published in 1982; Behind the Mask is a detailed look at one of the world’s most beloved comics. Tracing the themes of anarchy, vengeance and liberation, the exhibition sets out original art and text, and the scale of thought that goes into creating a graphic novel this complex. A wall of V for Vendetta masks (pictured at top) watches over visitors to the exhibition.
There are sketches, designs, original final pages, as well as a look at the success – or not – of the 2005 film in capturing the spirit of the book.
Oppressive themes have been cleverly referenced in the exhibition design; security cameras, protest messages and of course, the unblinking gaze and sinister grin of that iconic mask which is used by many movements today. Filmed video from the artist David Lloyd brings a first-hand account of the journey of this extraordinary comic; the labour to marry words and pictures and how the reward can transcend both.
The second exhibition was BLACK, the new graphic novel by Tobias Taitt and illustrations by Anthony Smith. A deeply personal and striking true story based on Tobias’ own life growing up in social care. It’s the story of 1970s Britain, and how attitudes of race and class marginalise those who have the least.
The black and white illustrations on offer are deeply affecting, intimate even – and they capture an important voice on British, and Black British history; simply displayed, this helps to amplify the power of Taitt’s commentary, how outlooks are changing and his own love affair with literature.
Previous exhibitions have sought to bring fresh perspectives on the comic book industry, such as Dear Mr Poole, the story of Philip Poole who, for more than half a century, sold ink, nibs and art supply goodness to some of the most famous comic artists in the world. Ralph Steadman, Hank Ketcham and others become close friends of Poole, writing letters and postcards to him, adorned with their trademark artistic flair. A charming exhibition that brought a very personal flavour to cartooning and the industry that surrounds it.
Finally, the Museum has a well-equipped learning space, and a rich programme of arts activity – largely aimed at children – some of which ends up on the Museum’s own website. Such as the Life Under Lockdown comic; a collaboration by many local young people to express their views on the pandemic in comic strip form.
Quietly excelling in terms of access, the Museum is wheelchair accessible, offers large print, magnifying glasses and a hearing loop, as well as a range of visitor support for people with autism or anxiety. An extensive YouTube channel brings everything from artist interviews to children’s activities you can undertake at home; some exhibitions even have Spotify playlists! All of this adds to the friendly and welcoming atmosphere. The website is clear, with an online shop, and a blogger-in-residence.
There is no café but there is a cheerfully presented shop that wisely avoids the comic-book titles you can get anywhere and instead focuses on small-press publishers, independent comic books, zines and exhibition related titles, along with the an array of museum-branded stuff. You could easily discover the work of a new artist, and in time, I could see this becoming a destination shop amplifying some of the brightest and best of up-and-coming comic book talent.
It’s a tired trope to describe something as a dark horse or a hidden gem, and The Cartoon Museum is certainly a gem, and certainly should not be hidden. A small site with a big voice; this is a valiant museum that roars and, if you find yourself in London, be sure to go and visit.
The Cartoon Museum, 63 Wells Street, London, W1A 3AE
Closed on Monday, open Tuesday to Sunday with lates on Thursday
Exhibitions: Behind the Mask recently closed; BLACK is on until 15 January 2022; a new exhibition (not reviewed) entitled Laughter Lab explores the psychology of cartoon humour and is non until 5 June 2022.
Nearest tube: Oxford Circus
Tickets: £8.50 for an adult with a range of concessions for children, students, older people and carers.
Just for fun: six comic book publishers are hidden in this article; can you find them all?
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Stuart Hobley is the Director of The Linbury Trust, a grant-making body that supports a wide range of organisations, mainly in the UK. Stuart joined the Trust in 2019 and prior to that he was Area Director for London and the South at the National Lottery Heritage Fund, which uses money raised via the Lottery to financially assist heritage, arts and the natural environment. Stuart is also a member of the Mayor of London’s Culture Leaders Board; a voluntary committee who advise the Mayor on the arts and culture sector. @StuartHobley.