Sunday, July 05, 2009

AAARGH! Bumper Souvenir Catalogue

As far as I'm aware, Aaargh! was the first major exhibition of comics in the UK. I may be wrong—I'm sure there must have been exhibitions of individual artists, especially cartoonists, before, but this was the first to specifically celebrate comics as an art form.

It took place between 31 December 1970 and 7 February 1971 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts and was organised by Michael Kustow, a writer, producer and cultural activist. Kustow was associate director of the National Theatre and the RSC and was a director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts when it moved into the Mall, where the Aaargh! exhibition was held. He subsequently became the first arts commissioning editor for Channel 4 in 1982 and is still a writer and critic. His books include The Book of US (1968), Tank: An Autobiographical Fiction (1975), One in Four (1987), theatre@risk (2000) and Peter Brook: A Biography (2005).

Design (#264, December 1970) noted the exhibition thus:
Mike Kustow, ex-director of the ICA, is back at Nash House organising the first major exhibition of comics held in this country. "AAARGH !!!" will include original artwork, vintage backnumbers, magic lantern shows, dolls, lunchtime theatricals and films. The first section will run through British comics - from Comic Cuts to Cor! taking in stock characters like Weary Willie and Tired Tim, Professor Radium and Dan Dare. Then the great European and US comic heroes, from Krazy Kat to Feiffer victim Bernard Mergendeiler with a side-swipe at Tarzan and the Marvel Comics galaxy. Comic technique will be explained (as in the ingenious use of frames in this example from Neutron by Guido Crepax).

A number of artworks have been specially created by ICA war horses like Bruce Lacey and Adrian Henri, and one section of the exhibition will chart the reactions of children to the comics they read and display audio-visual stories composed at a comics summer school held in London earlier this year.

Included on the backup programme will be film episode serials of Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers and others, and a lunchtime play based on Frank Dickens' Bristow strip. "AAARGH!!!" takes place at Nash House from 31 December to 7 February between 11 am and 10 30pm.
Reviewing the exhibition, Christopher Warman of The Times (31 December 1970), was impressed from the moment he walked in to the moment he left...
There is a 12-foot-high monster astronaut at the door mouthing his neon-lit welcome of "AAARGH!", and beyong him banana skins, giant footprints, manhole covers are painted on the floor, while an exhotation "Look-out, Dan" shrieks out from the side.

The visitor would do well to be wary, for he has entered the blood-pulsing, heart-stopping, dangerous other-world of the comic...

At the end of the exhibition is a restaurant. Billy Bunter stares balefully. Balloons shout "Munch", "Slurp", "Gobble", "Burp". Fried eggs adorn chairs and the floor. In this genuine world of make-believe, they could just be real.
Michael McNay (The Guardian, 1 January 1971) saw it as part of an "intellectualising of comic cuts culture".
It was only a matter of time before the Institute of Contemporary Arts hitched its bandwagon to this star, and ran an exhibition of comics. It is not, of course, called an exhibition, but a celebration. The man who organised "Aaargh!" (to give it its full title), Mike Kustow, did not read comics as a child in North London, so he is able to combine the erudition of the historian with perspective, and the fervour of the convert.

But the matter is not quite as straightforward as Colin MacInnes claimed on this page last month. The interest of the literate and articulate in popular arts is not just the groping of a group whose own highbrow culture has broken up nor intellectual slumming, through there is an element of both, but the response of people who, unlike Kustow and, probably, MacInnes, were fed comics with their powdered milk.

In many schools, the Superman and Captain Marvel comics that came over with the wartime American forces were contraband beyond the dreams of avarice (and in their train a wonderful spawning of superhumans: Plastic Man, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Captain America, all drawing on the myth of invincibility that goes back at least to Achilles). They were compelling because Superman was in his heaven and all was right with the world, because the stories were masterpieces of compression (George Melly, who does the words for Flook, pointed out to Kustow that 20 words was the normal maximum for a balloon), and because they were well drawn.

This last point cannot be made often enough. Roy Lichtenstein realised it long ago: pictures like the Tate Gallery's "Whaaam!" derive their compressed power of line and design from comic book originals. But Lichtenstein is rare among painters: a lot of "fine" artists have had a lot of fun at the ICA, painting Desperate Dan friezes and, in the children's section, rubbery attenuated versions of Popeye and Mickey Mouse; none of them has approached the invention, the tension of line, the brilliance of framing, the delicate intricacy of the real cheap article, and of course, no single frame can recapture the compression of time and space in a complete comic story...

Desperate Dan is cruder and blunter than Krazy Kat, yet Patrick Hughes's fine art homage to him at the ICA isn't desperate enough by half: it fails to capture the strip's vitality. Desperate Dan is another immortal, but this time he is the creature of D. C. Thomson Ltd., the patriarchal, non-union Dundee firm that has held the most important corner of the British comics market since long before George Orwell wrote his worried article about the plot to subvert minds of the British young. And here the ICA exhibition falters badly: the "Wizard", "Adventure", "Rover", "Beano", "Dandy" and the others are missing. How did you celebrate comics without them?

The fault is not Kustow's or the ICA's. D. C. Thomson simply would not play...

So there is a whole sub-culture missing from the show. Porn, a minor but flourishing undergrowth, is not at the ICA either: an Italian variety was impounded by Her Majesty's Customs. But among some inferior camp ("Is this the end for Phoebe? Will it just be her and all those sabre toothed tigers? Does depravity triumph?") there is one extraordinary beautiful piece of work by Nicholas Devil, "A de luxe adult comic book recounting the adventures of Saga, a superheroine descended from Barbarella across centuries and continents."

In this Japanese episode, the best frames combine the boldness of Ukiyo-e prints with the subtlety of colour that modern multicolour printing systems bestow. It is well worth seeing and the show itself, in spite of the omissions, is a slap-up bumper beano.
The refusal by D. C. Thomson to get involved in the exhibition—something that I'm sure wouldn't happen now—explains why the Cavalcade of British Comics section featured comics from Comic Cuts to Cor!! via Puck, Chuckles, Radio Fun, Film Fun and Eagle without a single mention (in the souvenir brochure's editorial) of The Beano or The Dandy. Photographic blow-ups, original art-work and rare vintage issues were promised and Christopher Warman described how "On adjoining walls, Rupert Bear ventures from one innocent crisis to another, and Barry Mackenzie from the Private Eye comic swears his way along the strip."

I'm not sure if you can say that, nearly forty years on, comics have become intellectualised or benefitted from the occasional critical assessment as "art". Lichtenstein pop art of the sixties has become naughties pop art by Jeff Koons, who uses Popeye "as a comment on the economic crisis because the spinich-guzzling cartoon character was conceived during the Depression" (The Times, 11 May 2009), apparently, although I'm not sure which aspect of the Depression Popeye (created before the Depression started, incidentally) represents. And as Koons began his Popeye Series in 2002, it was certainly not conceived as a way of commenting on events six years later.

My point is that comics per se are still a gutter form of art to most people. Popeye, in the hands of Jeff Koons (who does very nice balloon dogs), is art, but it's unlikely we'll be seeing an exhibition of E. C. Segar's original Popeye artwork any more than the Tate would exhibit the uncredited comics and artists that Roy Lichtenstein took his inspiration from. Isn't it a shame that the country that created the comic can't find some way to celebrate the fact.

(* photo of Mike Kustow taken from the Bloomsbury website biog.; Robot photo from a very poor repro. of The Times (31 Dec. 1970); not sure of the copyright on either so if there's a problem, let me know. If anyone has any photographs from the Aaargh! exhibition, I'd love to see them.)


  1. I went to see Aaargh! twice, revelling in the fact that a proper exhibition had been devoted to comics. Not because it in some way legitimised the medium (though that might, I suppose, have helped my bemused parents accept my interest in all things comic-strip), but simply because I was hungry for knowledge.

    As a 14-year-old, at that point all my knowledge of the business and the history of comics had been gleaned from actual current product. I didn’t have access to comics from even a couple of years earlier (though annuals, tantalisingly, stuck around on people’s shelves a bit longer) other than those I’d bought and saved myself.

    So my only sources of background information were the Penguin Book of Comics and an American volume on newspaper strips by Gene Byrnes which lurked otherwise unborrowed in my local library. I also had access to issues of two early British fanzines: Milton Finesilver’s The Bowler (discovered via his ad in Exchange & Mart!) and Higgs & Clark’s Unicorn.

    And that was it. I’d looked covetously at Jules Feiffer’s Great Comic-Book Heroes in the window of the Indica bookshop in Southampton Row but couldn’t afford a copy. My first encounter with Dark They Were And Golden-Eyed in Bedfordbury and the first volume of Steranko’s History of Comics was still some months away.

    Somewhere in a box in a garage I have the Aaargh brochure but haven’t seen it for years and at least one house move. But seeing it on Bear Alley brought back some memories. Buying my first copy of Fantasy Advertiser (with a Steve Parkhouse cover) at the bookstall on my first visit, and a vintage issue of Knockout on my second. Seeing original artwork for the first time. And especially seeing the original artwork for a comic that hadn’t even made it into the shops over here yet (via Thorpe & Porter): the double-page splash of Jack Kirby’s first issue of Jimmy Olsen, depicting (patchy memory tells me) Olsen, the Newsboy Legion and a pasted-up Plastino Superman whose very S-symbol was itself a separate paste-up. (Hope I’m not imagining all this. Perhaps it was really the first issue of Forever People?)

    Does the brochure actually contain a catalogue of all the exhibits?

  2. Thanks for sharing your memories. No, the "Bumper Souvenir Catalogue" was a slim affair with a couple of articles, some poorly reproduced panels and little else rather than an actual catalogue of what was being exhibited.

    Somewhere in this tip I call an office, I've a copy of Milton's Wonder Man fanzine. I must try to find it again.

  3. Hello - I'm finding this article much later because I'm writing an article about comic art exhibitions around this period. Thanks for all the good information on this show. I recently interviewed the UK author/historian/curator Paul Gravett, who told me about this show (in fact he sent me this article) and told me that it was the first time he had seen real hand-drawn comic art on display in a museum. He told be about the Kirby art too. He said they had the opening double spread from Forever People, and the last whole page from New Gods #1. He didn't mention Jimmy Olsen, but it wouldn't surprise me.



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