I will first be dealing with the development of Batman in near future columns. The development of the comic book form will also be a topic, which includes social and literary history of Britian and America. The development of Superman will then follow. Religion and morality, and the two countries’ relations to it will also be a topic. You may ask yourself, why England and America? Aren’t comic books American art forms? Well, yes they are, but their birth and “pedigree” aren’t. Comic books, in their particular forms, are indeed American institutions, but they followed on the heels of both American and English traditions that were quite interdependent of each other.
Doyle was fascinated with America and many of his characters were American, like Holmes’ “lover” Irene Adler, Adam Worth (immigrant at age 5) the basis for Moriarty, and most of the cast of A Study in Scarlet, just as Poe’s Dupin was French and Burroughs’ Tarzan was British. In fact, if you’ve ever read Tarzan, you may think like me that Burroughs was English and not raised in Illinois and Massachusetts.
This week, we will examine book art and the beginning of the comic strip, and how its development matured to later turn into the comic book. Comic strip art and book illustration developed concurrently in modern times from the late 18th to early 20th centuries. There will be a later section for book illustration itself, and for now we will just touch on it in the form of Holmes.
So, in order to get at the past we begin in the 20th century. We begin at 1927 with the last Holmes story “The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place”. I will be examining what came in between this and the beginning of Holmes in other avenues, but for the moment we will continue on this thread and then go back. Holmes is such a great exemplar because the character’s longevity led not only to his thorough and at times conflicting development, but it also provides the unique opportunity to see the same writer with the same character over a period of 40 years, stretching from the late Victorian era and practically dropping us off at the comic book’s door in 1935 when comics began printing new material instead of simply reprinting newspaper strips.
In “Shoscombe”, we see the full page picture, or “splash panel”, in comic book terminology, used in Holmes. Of the five drawings, three are full page splashes, and a fourth takes up three-fourths of the page. The splash panel wasn’t immediately used in comics, as it wasn’t immediately used in Holmes, but became a staple of the comic form soon on (approx. 1941).
In these five drawings tension is paramount. The first amplifies the moment when Holmes and Watson discover the mysterious substance is glue, with Watson looking into the microscope (and turning the knob yet). The second depicts the very moment when a frightened gentleman yells and turns away at a run from his employees. The third chooses the moment when Holmes and Watson are descending into a gloomy mysterious tomb, and the fourth depicts the moment when a dog Holmes released reaches a hansom cab with a mysterious passenger in it.
The final picture illustrates the best tension and dramatic apex of the group, for it is when Holmes confronts the culprit with a mummified body in a crypt while the culprit is in the act of staggering away from the sight. These pictures show that the new artists left the Paget style intact (Sidney Paget was the main illustrator of the Holmes stories), showing us key moments in the narrative which allows us as readers to crystallize and view these moments in full detail as they are the most important. The same is true with the early comics’ panels, showing us the most important or effective moment of action, and this is due to the comic’s inheritance from the illustrated magazine and pulps as well as from the newspaper strip.
In this first real discussion of the development of the comic book, let us look at the artistic development of the comic book from its beginnings in political cartoons and comic strips and the transatlantic facets of this third main dimension of popular fiction’s (and comic books’) development. There was much development in the use of graphics with popular magazines and novels before Nast-era political cartoons, but for the sake of brevity, I will begin the discussion of this third component here, after a quick recap of its pre-history.