Monday, 27 August 2007

Keith Robson’s History of Comics

I took advantage of the Bank Holiday weekend to take a short trip to see the free exhibition Keith Robson – The History of Comics at the Museum of Hartlepool.

Keith Robson is a Hartlepool-born comics artist, chiefly for DC Thomson, and an illustrator for TV and books. The exhibition is partly about his work and partly about British comics generally, drawing on Robson’s personal collection. Despite the unrestricted title, there is no consideration of comics from other countries.

The problem with a museum exhibition about comics is that there is no way of treating the subjects in the way their producers intended – you can’t be allowed to leaf through and read them, for fear of damage. This exhibition approached the problem in four ways. On the walls were examples of Robson’s original art for strips like “General Jumbo” (from The Beano) and “Tricky Dicky Doyle” and “Jonah” (from The Dandy). In display cases were, I’d guess, something over a hundred comics, mostly from the 1950s to the 1980s, but with a good number of earlier examples too. All of these were closed, which meant that you could only see the covers. Fortunately, a lot of British comics used to run actual strips on the cover, not just single images, so there were samples of different styles of comic to read and consider. There was a television display cycling through a slideshow of comics images. And, earlier in the exhibition’s run, Robson had worked with a number of local children to produce a new strip with and about them. The results are now on display in a cabinet.

Context for these exhibits was a little lacking. There was no soundtrack to the slideshow, so the images were unexplained. There were two pages of text on display stands – one a biography of Keith Robson, the other his potted history of British comics, which sets out his view that comics effectively started in 1937 with The Dandy and that “traditional British comics” have now died out except for The Beano. The question of whether the mixed magazines now produced for children should be classed as “comics” is one that gets people hot under the collar, but what was odd in this case was that Robson’s exhibition did not match his definition. There were several pre-1937 comics on display, as well as issues of Starblazer picture library (if libraries are part of Robson’s “tradition”, then Commando is another survivor).

If anything, it was the pre-1937 comics that were of most interest to me. Regular periodical comics have been around in Britain since the 1880s. The significance of The Dandy is that it did away with the older British custom of telling comics stories twice over – once in pictures and word balloons, and again in text captions under each frame. This was a very useful way of producing nursery comics, as it gave parents something to read to their small pre-literate children as they looked at the pictures; but it was redundant elsewhere. I had only seen these older strips in reproduction, usually much reduced, making the text captions illegible. What surprised me was how small the type was even on the originally published tabloids: I’d guess about 9 point on a 1928 edition of Merry and Bright and even smaller on a 1939 edition of Jingles.

The single most beautiful piece on display was a 1928 edition of Happy Days, with “At Chimpo’s Circus” on the cover. The colours were as sharp and bright as if it had rolled off the presses yesterday.

Well worth a visit, then, though a small demerit goes to the gift shop for not stocking any related items. It may be, however, that plans fell through. Early publicity for the exhibition said that Keith Robson would be producing a history of comics in strip form, but the first page, which was on display, was unfinished, with only three panels lettered, inked and coloured. I hope that he gets the chance to finish this for another forum, even if I don’t agree with the starting point and definition.

The exhibition only has a short time left to run, closing after Sunday 2 September. If you want to make a day of it, the Museum is also the entrance to the horribly-named “Hartlepool’s Maritime Experience”, centred around HMS Trincomalee, a restored warship from 1817.

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