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The novel is dead, declared Will Self recently. Really dead this time, he said, certainly as the prince of artforms.

So what will take its place as the pre-eminent, written narrative structure of the new century?

Step forward the comic book, perhaps, so beloved of Sheldon Cooper, Jonathan Ross and the quants who currently rule the roosts in the counting houses.

And why not? It has the visual stimuli of an iPad (and often lives there), whipcrack dialogue, none of the dull “it was a dark and stormy night” stuff, memorable characters and its closest associates at the Zeitgeist Bar & Grill are the megabucks bruisers in the computer game industry.

Sixty years after the first comics show, the British Library is staging Comics Unmasked with a quest to legitimise the art form and excite the parents, alongside their sticky-fingered offspring.

Comic books have a message of protest – all with colourful pictures and a Guy Fawkes mask if your revolutionary instincts are stirred to action.

Around 80% of this exhibition comes from BL’s extensive archives following the spectrum from the Dennis the Menace school of biffing to Alan Moore’s epic alternate histories – “where unrepresented parts of society can see themselves” said co-curator Adrian Edwards.

He added: “A lot of people think of children’s comics when they hear the word ‘comics’ but what we want to show in this exhibition is that they are so much more. 

“They tell stories about public protests, about pushing boundaries about challenging authority.”

Co-curator Paul Gravatt said: “We want to get back to the core power of this medium which is this peculiar mix of words and pictures that really communicates.

“Much more than childhood nostalgia, comics are a powerful adult medium that can reflect society and change people’s minds. 

“From the very start comics have been cross-pollinating with movies, music and theatre and today are on the cutting edge of digital storytelling and multi-media installation art.”

Prepatory drawings and notes go behind the scenes of the creation of comic books while headlining names – including Jamie “Gorillaz” Hewlett, Posy Simmonds, Dave “Batman” McKean and Neil Gaiman contribute.

Highlights include an example of a medieval “comic” from 1470, previously unheard recordings of the Oz obscenity trial of the ’70s, artwork and manuscripts from Kick-Ass and Sandman and cultist Aleister Crowley’s tarot card painting of The Universe.

And as for Will’s foreshortened future? “I’ve no intention of writing fictions in the form of tweets or text messages – nor do I see my future in computer-games design. 

“My apprenticeship as a novelist has lasted a long time now, and I still cherish hopes of qualifying.”

Until August 19, British Library NW1 2DB, £9.50,