In the late 1800s, the comic strip was developing separately, first as single panel, editorial cartoons, such as those of Thomas Nast to true comic strips. Cartooning as a form dates back to about 4000 B.C. when “[t]he caricature of [a] man with [a] potbelly and elongated nose…” was found in an African cave (Robinson 14) and has stayed with us since then. Art as narrative was strong not only in prehistoric times but also in Greece and Egypt, when in Egypt “…their satire [was] even executed in strip form,” (Robinson 14) and “[t]he action friezes on Greek vases and buildings were pure narrative art,” (Robinson 14-15) for humor and tale-telling purposes.
The Middle Ages also saw the popularity of illustrated literature in the illustrated manuscript form like the Book of Kells and different versions of Chaucer. Of significant importance is the Bayeux Tapestry in the Middle Ages which was “…an embroidered strip 230 feet long by 20 inches high [that] was a pictorial narration in color and legend of the Norman invasion of Harold’s England by William the Conqueror; this monumental work has been called a remarkable precursor of the comic strip form” (Robinson 15).
Gutenberg’s press popularized the woodcut in books in the fifteenth century, but even before this “Speech balloons and labels in cartoons had made their appearance as early as the fourteenth century, and the frame technique appeared by 1600;…” (Robinson 19). By the seventeenth century newssheets, the direct parent of the newspaper, were created (Robinson 19), all which helped set the stage for three very influential English satirists: William Hogarth, Thomas Rowlandson, and James Gillroy (Robinson 16), who between them set the boundaries of modern cartooning.
By the sixteenth century cartooning as a social satire was in full swing which Hogarth helped to popularize and Rowlandson crystallized. “Rowlandson’s pictorial narrative in strip form…published in 1784, utilized frames, captions, and balloons, and is certainly a prototype comic strip” (Robinson 16-17). Rowlandson also created Dr. Syntax which is thought to be the first regular cartoon character (Robinson 17). Lastly Gillroy was “…the first master draftsman to take caricature as a primary occupation and shaping the simplicity of approach that is the essential feature of modern newspaper cartooning” (Robinson 17). Rowlandson and Gillroy were also “…particularly responsible for the increased use of balloons to indicate dialogue,” (17 Robinson).
The next major development for the modern era came with sequential art as a story-telling form introduced by the “…Swiss artist, author, educator, and teacher…” (18 Robinson) Rudolph Topffer in 1827 (18 Robinson) who defined one hundred years before its time the modern “continuity adventure strip” (19 Robinson) which he called “picture-stories”.
Topffer also added another crucial element to cartooning: time. As I will discuss later, the time of a strip or book is not totally the author’s to bestow but even so the addition of time was incalculable for comic art because “[the] concept of creating time by a chronological sequence of images proved to be the unique power of the comic strip as well as the film. One frame is essential to the next; each frame truly grows out of the one before and impels a further image as a result,” (19 Robinson) just as Paget’s art impels us onward in our imagining the action of Holmes and a comic’s art impels us from panel to panel, page to page and hopefully from book to book. Topffer’s innovations also shifted focus from caption to picture, something followed in Paget and Doyle but not entirely; there is more action in Paget than in Phiz, yet the text still does the horse’s share of the work.
The strip abandoned the heavy use of caption in most humor strips though its use did survive in the more dramatic strips like Flash Gordon and Mandrake the Magician that needed a “narrator” to explain actions that a character conceivably couldn’t, since realistically people do not describe what they do themselves as they do it. Finally, Gustave Doré was “only in his early twenties” when his work was published in Paris using many modern strip features for the first time such as “…the sudden plunging of action into silhouette, the use of speed lines to simulate movement, the juxtaposition of close-up and long-shot,” (19 Robinson).
I won’t deal with film’s contribution this week (and maybe not for a while) even though it is ultimately literary. Time and visual story-telling in a comic influenced early filmmakers to the point of imitation, such as D.W. Griffith’s “…introduction of the close-up, which the comic cartoonist had already developed as part of his bag of tricks,” and with “[c]ontemporary film makers Orson Welles, Alain Resnais, and Frederico Fellini [all] credit[ing] the comic strip with influencing their work,” (19 Robinson). It is an irony then how film vocabulary is now used to describe comics instead of the other way around!
On the other side of the Atlantic Americans were contributing to the comic strip as well. Ben Franklin was drawing political cartoons as early as 1754, as was Paul Revere (20 Robinson). Later Thomas Nast, another man in his early twenties (20 Robinson), began cartooning in the Civil War era through the 1870s and 1880s taking on Tammany Hall. As opposed to Europe and cartooning in papers “American political cartooning of the nineteenth century was for the most part confined to almanacs and satirical weeklies…” but like Europeans “[t]he text was often integrated into the cartoon along with captions, labels, and balloon dialogue.
The style was of European origin, as were most of the leading cartoonist of the day,” (20 Robinson). In 1863 “An English émigré, Frank Leslie, brought the graphic humor magazine to America…” (20 Robinson) and in the 1870s “…the New York Daily Graphic became the first newspaper to feature cartoons,” (20 Robinson). The comic monthlies of Leslie’s could be considered the first American comical book featuring short, independent jokes. There was no overarching narrative thread to the early comical books beyond two to three panels, but that would come soon enough. Its first beginnings awaited the rise of a new century, a newspaper war and a superstar in yellow pajamas. More on that next week.