Visual art: Unfit for heroes

With its vast resources, the National Library had a golden opportunity to take us through the evolution of comics, but this flawed exhibition is an opportunity squandered



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TO SAY comics are not funny sounds like an oxymoron, but that seems to be the main point of a confusing exhibition at the National Library. Comics may once have been comic, but the modern descendants of the Dandy and the Beano are the graphic novel. The exhibition proposes to set out this evolution and, in particular, the Scottish contribution to it, but the Dandy and the Beano feature only barely here (though they are credited with introducing the speech balloon to the comic strip), and Dudley D Watkins, that great master of comic art, the creator of Desperate Dan, Lord Snooty, The Broons, Oor Wullie and so many other classic characters gets little more than a mention.

The idea of a sequence of images forming a narrative is as old as art, but it was Hogarth who first made it funny. But, for Hogarth, his Progresses were not simply comic, for all the acuteness of their observation of human folly. They were also comic in the older sense of the word, that is, comedic: they were akin to the theatre with its flow of interacting characters through a series of changing scenes.

That surely was the true birth, not only of the comic format, but of its modern descendant, the graphic novel. Hogarth's satirical successors, Gillray and Rowlandson, regularly added the spoken word in speech balloons. Though they are not credited with it here, they also pioneered the rapid, cursive style of drawing – apparently quickly executed and so quickly understood – that was to become definitive of the medium.

In this exhibition there is a series of vivid Edinburgh scenes in this style, though maddeningly it has no date or attribution. Indeed, in the exhibition there are very few labels and it is altogether so badly designed it is almost unintelligible. Such information as is offered is in text panels laid out in speech balloons – and in large type, as though there was a suspicion that those who read comics may need discreet assistance with the simple written word – but there is only the most general relationship between these panels and the comics on display.

Whatever its antecedents, the first comic strip, we are told, was the Histoire de M Vieux Bois produced by a Swiss caricaturist called Rodolphe Tpffer in 1827, and in English a dozen years later as the Adventures of Mr Obadiah Oldbuck. Funny Folks in 1874 was the first regular comic strip in English. Others followed and one incidental piece of information here is that Alfred Harmsworth used the profits from Comic Cuts and other comic strips to found the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror.

American comic characters such as Popeye began to become familiar too. Many migrated from newspapers to feature in independent comics. The Broons and Oor Wullie, of course, stayed at home in the Sunday Post. Nevertheless, they were part of the golden age of British comics which ran from the Thirties to the Fifties with the Dundee productions of DC Thomson at its heart.

American comics were bigger and more adventurous perhaps, but in parallel with the McCarthy witch-hunts, they ran into difficulty in the Fifties. It testifies to the perceived power of comics that they were regarded as a cause of juvenile delinquency, a major threat to the social order and a danger to the young. In Britain, The Eagle, founded in 1950, was a Christian answer. It worked because the artists took over – Dan Dare would not have got far had he remained Lex Christian, Parson of the Fighting Seventh, as was originally intended.

Largely in colour, The Eagle was also much better printed than any previous British comic. Such technological advances are another part of this story, not fully explored here. In America the comic industry took itself disastrously in hand, adopting a code more stringent even than the Hayes Code for the cinema. Not only did it outlaw all sex and gratuitous violence and make sure crime never paid, it adopted a pious social conformity too: "Policemen, judges, government officials and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority."

The underground comic was an almost inevitable reaction and so, prefigured in America by Mad in 1952, the Sixties saw counterculture titles such as Oz determined to outrage, which they did with success. Famously, in 1971 Oz was taken to court for an obscene Rupert Bear. Prison sentences handed down were only overturned on appeal. Oz and later Viz and other underground comics were still comic in intention, even if not everyone found them funny.

It was in the Eighties that the shift to what saw itself as an alternative, serious graphic literary form took place. Art Spiegelman's graphic novel Maus, the story of the artist's own family's experience of the Second World War and the Holocaust, first published in 1986 in the magazine Raw won a Pulitzer Prize and so the new format came of age – or at least it did in English. There is passing reference here to the fact that in France and Italy the graphic novel had been an accepted art form for years and had produced some brilliant artists. Raw was one route by which these Continental comics became familiar in the English-speaking world, but there are no examples to illustrate it here. Japanese manga was also influential. There are a lot of examples of more recent publications in English, but without clear explanation it feels as though you had strayed into a Heavy Metal bookshop.

Raymond Briggs's wonderful Where the Wind Blows is apparently highly rated in this story and there are a few other familiar faces, Asterix and Posy Simmons looking very lost among the aliens and comic book monsters, for example. If you spend a lot of time peering at the covers you can work out that separate cases are dedicated to different Scottish artists, including Eddie Campbell, Cam Kennedy and Frank Quitely. The way it is displayed you can scarcely judge the quality of their work. The exception is the whole of Kidnapped by Kennedy and Alan Grant, presented on the wall, but it is not exciting. Alan Grant is also given a separate case along with other writers including Mark Millar. Ian Rankin's name is brought in, but he seems only to have contributed an introduction to Hellblazer.

As a society we are shifting from the literary to the visual. An art form that crosses over between the two is very topical, therefore. The National Library has the resources to present a major exhibition on this topic. This is not one, however. You can deduce some of the story, but only in fragments.

The design is the real problem; it completely loses the subject matter. I am afraid this reflects a failure of nerve, a loss of confidence in what the library should do and a feeling that it must find new audiences. You can just hear the designers' pitch, can't you? "Books and labels in glass cases are so boring. Comics will bring in the young and we will pitch it to them in a language they understand."

This great library is part of our national infrastructure. It need no more justify its existence than our roads or bridges. It should not have to go out and tout for customers like any commercial enterprise. The audience will come when they need it. It is our collective memory. It is also very sad to see such an institution trying to second-guess the imagined ignorance of a target audience.

It is deeply condescending, too, to suppose that, if they do come, they will have so little curiosity that they will not want to know what they are looking at. Or perhaps I am quite wrong and this exhibition is just boys' bedroom stuff, pitched exclusively at nerdy comic book enthusiasts. It might as well be.

• Until 1 June