2. The History of Comics
The history of the comic book is one long and interesting journey through the centuries, being very well documented by comic historians both from the U.S. and Europe. Following its footsteps, this history does not only reveal the continuous progress and development of the art itself, but carries with it the history of the world, entrapping in the panels and speech balloons the eventful and beautiful parts of the societies in which, and for which, they have been created. Although the later years of the comic book are crystal clear and can be found in many comic history books nowadays, the origins of this sequential art are still up for debate.There is an almost general consensus that the links between comics and thousand years old sequential depictions are not coincidental, but there are still questions to be answered by the better of the academic community in order to conclude that there was a natural and conscious progression from Trajan’s column, for example, to the colorful interconnected panels that we see nowadays.
In the following pages, the most important steps of the comic book have been reproduced, and more in depth analyzes were performed where it was necessary, to illustrate in a methodical manner the process of development. It is in no way meant to be an exhaustive route, but putting everything in the right context is needed, in order to further dwell in the machinations and complexities of the art form.
2.1 Stories in images, a universal means of cognition
Stories are part of the very fabric of humankind, ever since we developed a social cognitive brain. Research in human psychology shows that we have a large appetence for information which comes in the form of stories, making the message easier to memorize and recall when needed. This means of transferring information from one individual to another, from the current generation to the next, has pushed us forward as a civilization, opening up imaginative spaces that replaced the lack of first-hand experience with the timeless knowledge of others. Nevertheless, oral storytelling requires a common language and a lot of people to disseminate. This singular channel was rather restrictive and didn’t come with our ‘native kit.’ This gap has been largely filled with the invention of writing and the printing press, but language, especially the written form, lacks the ability to tap into our native sensorial perception system in our mind, which is a lot faster, being developed over thousands of years of understanding the world around us through our eyes and making split-second decisions based on this imagistic feedback formed on our retina and processed by our brain. It is rather obvious that a new medium, a visual form of conveying information would be much more effective in telling a story, a form that is universal and not bound by linguistic rules.
This form of sequential imagery that emerged independently in different parts of the world catered to the need of transmitting the message of the story to whomever looked at the work, whether it is, in no particular order, Trajan’s column, the Greek friezes, Egyptian hieroglyphs, the tomb frescoes of Thebes, Ghiberti’s Bapstry doors, the stained-glass of Chartres or the Bayeux tapestry. The employment of imagery to tell a story has been done later even by the Christian church, through its Bibliapauperum, being widely distributed in Europe and targeting the illiterate.
This early form of sequential art, although not yet a mass-medium, since they could be seen only in one place (excepting the illustrated bible, which itself had limited dissemination power), can be considered the precursor of what it is known now as the ninth art, the comic book or the graphic novel. It is in this period that societies all around the globe realize that, how newspaper Arthur Brisbane would put it in 1911, a picture is worth a thousand words. This was, and is, the fastest way of absorbing large amounts of data, transmitted through a universal means of communication.
Although the skill and work that was put in all of these early sequential works was immense, many of these art forms didn’t quite survive as a continuous art, but rather developed into something more durable and sustainable. It is with the arrival of the next era that sequential art really becomes an art for the masses.
2.2 The proto-comics
Technology has always been pushed forward by the needs of society to overcome problems that dragged their effectiveness down. It is this process of social learning and application that created an environment which required language to emerge—to solve communication problems—and later writing, another social requirement that allowed messages to surpass the limitations of space and time and make language more efficient.
The invention of the printing press was the cornerstone of mass-media, allowing the written language and images to be disseminated without any limitations whatsoever, as long as the publishers had the money for the basic materials required. With every step forward, other problems arose that needed to be tackled. Now, with the power to convey information through writing anytime and anywhere, the publishers needed their readers, in a world where much of the people were illiterate. The free education movement that started in England eventually resolved this problem, creating a large mass of literate, reading people. This posed another hurdle for the publishers, which needed to ‘feed’ the masses with new information and tapped in their appetence for fiction. Serialized fiction was common in the nineteenth century newspapers, but the problem of time consuming reading sessions reappeared. The busy life of the industrial era wasn’t an auspicious place for ‘wasting’ time in reading something made up out of thin air when actual news was flying around in so many papers of the time. A medium which can transfer the information immediately and comprehensibly was needed.
Before the American boom in the late 1800s, some pioneering works emerged in Europe: Francis Barlow created A True Narrative of the Horrid Hellish Popish Plot (c.1682) as well as The Punishments of Lemuel Gulliver;William Hogarth created a set of seven sequential images on “Modern Moral Subjects,” and also A Rake’s Progress (1726), which was created at fist as a series of paintings with a common narrative, but later engraved and transformed into a book. This is the period when the dialogue bubble was developed, inspired by the medieval phylacter, that acted as a label—called a caption nowadays—which either gave the name of the character or stated its purpose in that frieze.
|Plate 39 of the book Histoire de Monsieur Cryptograme, by Rodolphe Topffer (1830)|
It is only around the 1820s that the form of the comic strip is arguably established, through publications like The Glasgow Looking Glass, a satirical publication that is accredited to have hosted in its pages the first ever modern strip, a comic with all the modern elements: caption, speech bubbles, and serialized narrative. Rodolphe Töpffer was among the first to actually conceptualize this art form, after creating several sequential illustrated stories like Histoire de M. Jabot, Monsieur Crépin, Histoire de M. Vieux Bois, Monsieur Pencil or Histoire d'Albert, in 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.”
|Topffer - autoportret (1840)|
Töpffer is considered if not a father of the comic, at least the most notable precursor of the art, and the first comic book author to have ever been read on American soil, his book, with the English title The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck, being published in a comic book format as a supplement to a New York newspaper on 14 September 1842.
Around the same period, in Great Britain the iconic Punch magazine was establishing as the most read humor and satire publication. Similar magazines in Europe were Le Charivari and FliegendeBlätter, while the U.S. had Judge and Puck.
The satirical drawings gained the name cartoons, which is used until the present day and it is the origin of the word comics, due to the humorous nature of the drawings, that doesn’t define the art form nowadays, but it is an important part of the industry.
2.3 The first fully fledged comic books
Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday is considered to be the very first comic magazine named after and featuring a regular character. This British publication is also cited by some historians of being the first comic book ever using this modern format.At the turn of the century, the American industry of the comic book was beginning to expand rapidly, catching the imagination of teenagers and, sometimes, their parents. The newspapers had almost a mandatory comic strip section that not only limited itself to humor, but expanded to adventures, action and mystery narratives.
Although they were comics in every aspect, the strips had yet to become books, which happened in 1934, when collections of already published strips were reprinted and bound as a standalone magazine. This is the point where the Golden Age of the Comic Books begins for the American public, an age at which we will largely refer to in the following pages, being the biggest and most well-known industry in the world.