Tuesday, November 21, 2006


When and where comics originated is another matter of debate, largely dependent on its definition. The majority view, represented by many authors and academic sources, Scott McCloud being the most recent, is that the comic format observes precedents in Egyptian hieroglyphics, Japanese emaki, European stained glass windows, pre-Columbian Central American manuscripts, and the Bayeux Tapestry.

An alternative view is represented by Roger Sabin who argues that the definition is predicated on the printed comic form. This perspective is increasingly being challenged as electronic distribution of movies, music, books and art emphasizes content over the delivery mechanism.

15th–18th centuries

Last image in William Hogarth's A Rake's ProgressSabin cites the invention of the printing press as the moment when the modern form began to crystalise, arguing that the medium of comics has been intrinsically linked with printing.

An early surviving work which is recognisable as being in the form of printed comics is Francis Barlow's A True Narrative of the Horrid Hellish Popish Plot (c.1682). The Punishments of Lemuel Gulliver by William Hogarth, (1726), is another early work that bears similarities of form, although Eddie Campbell has argued that these may be more a collection of cartoons rather than actual comics. Other notable artists producing work in this period are Thomas Rowlandson, Jan Vandergucht, James Gillray and George Cruikshank. Rowlandson and Gillray are credited with having codified the speech balloon in its present form, from the previous convention of having speech represented by banners.

An example of Rowlandson's work from 1782, satirising the politics of the day, shows it to be an early variation of the strip cartoon. His work popularised the strip form as a pictorial narrative.

The 19th century
Rodolphe Töpffer, a Francophone Swiss artist, is the key figure of the early part of the 19th century. His work is reprinted throughout Europe and in the U.S., creating a market on both continents for similar works.

In 1845 Töpffer formalised his thoughts on the picture story in his Essay on Physiognomics: "To construct a picture-story does not mean you must set yourself up as a master craftsman, to draw out every potential from your material —often down to the dregs! It does not mean you just devise caricatures with a pencil naturally frivolous. Nor is it simply to dramatize a proverb or illustrate a pun. You must actually invent some kind of play, where the parts are arranged by plan and form a satisfactory whole. You do not merely pen a joke or put a refrain in couplets. You make a book: good or bad, sober or silly, crazy or sound in sense."

Sir Ernst Gombrich certainly felt Töpffer to have evolved a new pictorial language, that of an abbreviated art style, which worked by allowing the audience to fill in gaps with their own imagination.

Satirical drawings in newspapers were popular through much of the 19th century. In Britain, in 1841, Punch, a magazine containing such drawings launched. In 1843 Punch referred to its 'humorous pencilings' as cartoons in satirical reference to Parliament, who were organising an exhibition of cartoons at the time. This usage became common parlance and has lasted into the present day. Similar magazines containing cartoons in continental Europe included Fliegende Blätter and Charivari, whilst in the U.S. Judge and Puck were popular.

In Germany in 1865 Max and Moritz by Wilhelm Busch was published within a newspaper. This strip is thought to be a significant fore-runner of the comic strip.

It is around this time that Manhua, the Chinese form of comics, started to formalise, a process that lasted up until 1927.

In 1884, Ally Sloper's Half Holiday was published, reputed to be the first comic strip magazine to feature a recurring character. In 1890 two more comic magazines debuted to the British public, Comic Cuts and Illustrated Chips. These magazines also republished American material, previously published in newspapers in the U.S.. They established the tradition of the British comic as being a periodical containing comic strips.

Depending on the criteria used, the first successful comics series featuring regular characters was either R.F. Outcault's single-panel cartoon series Hogan's Alley (1895) or Rudolph Dirks' multi-panel strip The Katzenjammer Kids (1897). The Yellow Kid, the star of Hogan's Alley, became so popular as to drive newspaper sales, and in doing so prompted the creation of other strips. This boom marks the beginning of comics as an ongoing popular art form.

The 20th century
The term comics in the U.S. came to define early newspaper strips, which initially featured humorous narratives , hence the adjective comic. In 1929, strips started to broaden their content, with Buck Rogers and Tarzan launching the action genre. More strips followed, with the term "comic" quickly adopting through popular usage to refer to the form rather than the content.

1929 also saw the first appearance of The Adventures of Tintin published as a black-and-white strip in Le Petit Vingtième, a supplement to Le Vingtième Siècle, a Belgian newspaper. The strip was collected as Tintin in the Land of the Soviets in 1930, being published in the European comic album format.

Another notable publication of 1929 was The Funnies, a reprint collection of newspaper strips. Reputed to be the first four-color comic newsstand publication in the United States, it was published in tabloid size, a size which left it easily confused with the Sunday supplements of the time and so harmed sales to the extent that publication ceased after 36 issues.

The first publication to use a format recognisable today as a comic book was Funnies on Parade which took the tabloid size used for the Sunday supplements and folded it in half. Published in 1933 by two workers for the Eastern Color Printing Company of New York, Harry Wildenberg and Max Gaines as an advertising giveaway, its success led to similar giveaways being published. On a hunch, Gaines distributed extra copies to newstands, with a ten cent cover price, returning to find them all sold. This led to Eastern publishing Famous Funnies in May 1934 for sale through the newsstands.

By 1935 comic books were commissioning original material, mostly influenced by the pulp magazines of the day, whilst also repackaging foreign material. Will Eisner was one who supplied foreign material, and in his retooling of the material to fit the comic book format Eisner is credited with inventing the grammar of the comic book. Techniques devised by Eisner whilst adapting the material for this new format include the "jump cut".

In 1938 Action Comics #1 was published, featuring the first appearance of Superman and ushering in what is now referred to as the Golden Age of Comic Books. Also in 1938, Spirou first appeared in Belgium, starting the typical custom of weekly magazines featuring mostly Franco-Belgian comics.

After World War II the form in Japan, known as manga started to modernise. The lifting of a ban on non-propaganda publications, allowed Osamu Tezuka to re-energise both the content of manga and the style of its presentation Tezuka's first book work was an updating of Treasure Island, appropriately titled New Treasure Island (1947).

During the latter half of the 20th century comics have become a very popular item for collectors and from the 1970s comics publishers have actively encouraged collecting and shifted a large portion of comics publishing and production to appeal directly to the collector's community. The collecting of comics is today known by a separate term known as panelology.

The modern double usage of the term comic, as an adjective describing a genre, and a noun designating an entire medium, has been criticised as confusing and misleading. In the 1960s and 1970s, underground cartoonists used the spelling comix to distinguish their work from mainstream newspaper strips and juvenile comic books; ironically, although their work was written for an adult audience, it was usually comedic in nature as well, so the "comic" label was still appropriate. The term graphic novel was popularised in the late 1970s, having been coined at least two decades previous, to distance the material from this confusion.

In the 1980s comics scholarship started to blossom in the U.S., and a resurgance in the popularity of comics was seen, with Alan Moore and Frank Miller producing notable superhero works and Bill Watterson's Calvin & Hobbes being syndicated.

In 2005 Robert Crumb's work was exhibited in galleries both sides of the Atlantic, and The Guardian newspaper devoted its tabloid supplement to a week long exploration of his work and idioms.