By James Bacon: Britain’s first dedicated comic book gallery has opened and it’s brilliant.
Panel Gallery is in Northampton, and makes this market town a definite destination for comic book fans, displaying original art of the highest quality and offering a thoroughly enjoyable experience, taking in absolute treasures.
The Gallery is very close to the town centre, and you are confronted by an absolutely stunning collection of artwork as you enter. The space is beautifully bright, the shop front is totally clear glass allowing natural light to flood the space, giving the art its best look.
This first exhibition of many is the personal collection of the gallery owner Jeff Chahal, stunning in its breadth, and a superbly thoughtful selection.
It’s an overwhelming sight as you walk in, so very impressive straight away as you’re presented with a wide selection, 40 pieces in all, and a real variety of genre, countries, and styles.
Jeff Chahal is first and foremost a comic book fan, running the very popular NICE (https://nicecon.co.uk/) comic convention in Bedford, as well as Northampton-based Close Encounters comic book shop. His appreciation and love of comics is palpable as he shows fellow fans his Fantastic Four #1 and is happy to let you have a photo with it. He has certainly developed a personal collection sufficient to kick off the first of many exhibitions, but engages and loves comics, and is wonderful to chat with.
The Gallery’s aim is to reach out to new people, and Jeff is asking collectors and fans to bring in people who have not seen art like this before, hoping to share his appreciation of art with the local community – not only the comic book community but also people who may not realize how gorgeous this art is.
I took my time. With over 40 pieces it was important to relax into a nice viewing. While many pieces were immediately recognizable, Jeff was happy to introduce me to pages that I’d not known or was aware of, contributing to a delightfully exploratory experience, learning as I went, taking it in. The pieces are strategically grouped, the space is utilized just right, to ensure it is not crammed.
A page of Sláine by Glenn Fabry, a really strong classic page from 2000AD, starts us off and soon I am drawn to three pages of Justice League Classified featuring an incredible sequence of The Flash by John Byrne and Mark Farmer. It’s really lovely to see the first page and then a double page spread, allowing the observer to see a sequence and how it’s so interconnected. This is juxtaposed with a Newspaper strip piece by Frank Bellamy, Garth demonstrating a contrast in scope and style.
Jeff’s personal tastes shine through in this collection and I was pleased to see a number of pieces by British artist Doug Braithwaite, who is a master with the pencil. Indeed, I spent time considering a Galactus commission which was to just such a high standard. Esad Ribic is likewise well represented and rightly so, this dynamic Croatian is so deft with a pencil and it was terrific to see a page of Thor God Of Thunder, to look at the detail, the blue pencil under the incredible pencil work.
Two covers side-by-side, showed the real variety of approach, the Doctor Who comic character Abslom Daak: Dalek Killer by Steve Dillon, such neat clean ink line work next to a cover of Scalped, the Vertigo series by Jock.
On the rear wall, fully painted work was on display, creating a colourful display.
A Hulk by Bill Sienkiewicz, such energetic frenzied but brilliant work, was striking near to a fully painted Sláine by Glenn Fabry. Both pictures are incredible to see and take in, both stunning and so different in style.
In the centre of the grouping a full colour mixed media piece by Barry Windsor Smith, initially I was at a loss, but Jeff explained this is the unpublished Marvelman/Miracleman 25 cover, a stunning and utterly unexpected piece to see.
As I worked around, I had to pause, to really take in how beautifully simple and clean the work of Jack Kirby is. Yes, a page from Thor 165 in all its glory hangs near work by George Perez and Bob McLeod, Gill Kane and Geoff Isherwood. It is unreal to see, so close and in person. The art by Kirby so well done, and so polished and exacting. This was unexpected. It was good just to look and enjoy it.
I continued to feel an experience of knowledge gathering, learning about the art, understanding it, that spine tingling feeling of ‘ah-ha’ and of course in some cases, discerning for the first time, particular and distinct styles, that Jeff and others may be able to immediately spot, but which we can all learn about, no matter how much of a fan we are.
The stunning art continued, Absolute Carnage Vs Deadpool by Marcelo Ferreira, Punisher War Zone by John Romita Jnr, Grimwood’s Daughter by Kevin Nowlan and Ultimate Thor by Carlos Pacheco. It is so delightful, to see, and again I was impressed at how art nearby complemented and of course contrasted, a Silver Surfer image by Herb Trimpe stunning in its black and white simplicity, and then a Spawn Dark Ages Liam Sharp so wonderfully rendered.
Jeff loves the medium and feels that comic artists need more recognition, I pondered whether this was the personification of the solution to that, as he not only appreciates the art, as I do, but has spent time and money to share it, share the love and appreciation of the art. I have to admit, I totally understood this, we want to share the love with fans and collectors, but we all want people to come to it, to find it.
Panel Gallery is a perfect welcome window. In the short time I was there people were looking in: the store stands out. Jeff plans to change the exhibit every 3 or 4 months. He will be changing it up, themes, individual artists, exclusive but affordable prints but importantly offering an outlet both for artists and the fans. As Jeff discussed the plan, which is to have art for sale, which is badly needed I feel, not only an outlet for fans to enjoy art, but a venue for artists to sell their art and fans to buy it, I made mention of how I’d enjoyed and had much success at art comic exhibitions where, while the key pieces were on the walls, excellent but more affordable pages were in folders or to hand, so a range of budgets could be catered for, and those pages that artists often find hard to sell meet their market.
Opening hours are planned to be Tuesday to Saturday 11-4. It was such a relaxed and lovely visit. I recognized as I left, the accompanying jazz music, unintrusive, but atmospheric, and noted as I looked back that it is an incredible achievement.
This gallery opened on the 4th of December and File 770 had early access to ensure a full report could be given in what are busy times, for which we are grateful.
Photos of the Gallery are by James Bacon and photo of Jeff courtesy of himself.