Subjective Ramblings and Peripheral Thoughts from the Edges of a Comics Studies Project
David Kunzle is one of the founding fathers of contemporary Anglophone comics scholarship and one of its seminal figures, a status he in no small measure earned through the publication of his 1973 The Early Comic Strip: Narrative Strips and Picture Stories in the European Broadsheet from c.1450 to 1825 (Berkeley: University of California Press).
Kunzle’s magisterial and sadly often overlooked work primarily constitutes a massive corpus or catalogue of reproductions of hundreds of broadsheets, playing cards, woodcuts, and other materials – in full, no less – that, according to his estimation, can be classed as picture stories and thus ancestors of the modern comic strip. The survey, beginning in the 1450s and running all the way until 1826, is accompanied with largely descriptive historical commentary. Through extensive archival work, Kunzle managed in the 1960s to find an incredibly rich and often surprising treasure trove of specimens of picture stories or what Will Eisner a decade later would dub “sequential art.” In devoting himself to hunting down material, cataloguing it, and situating it in its historical context, Kunzle engaged in a type of comics historical “grunt-work” that, it seems, has since rarely been attempted and, as far as I can tell, never been matched.
The book’s first section deals with commentaries on and representations of politics, beginning with the advent of printing in Europe and religious propaganda published in its first century. From there, it moves to France and the Netherlands between the 1560s and 1620s, while the following chapters treat the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), the Dutch Republic (1653-1689), and England through the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras as well as the “Horrible Popish Plot” and beyond. The second section treats personal morality tales, structured thematically as well as chronologically, considering crime and punishment, vices and follies, marriage, sexual morality and other topics related to rakes and harlots. The third section is devoted to Londoner William Hogarth and his successors. Beginning in Hogarth’s famous “progresses,” the story moves on to a few examples of narrative art inspired by the artist. It then treats the advent of caricature, which experienced its golden age in the late 1700s and early 1800s. A final chapter treats Hogarthian and post-Hogarthian art on the European continent. I sketch the book’s contents in such rough outline here for one simple reason; it is not possible to do it justice in a short review. Its richness must be experienced first-hand to be fully appreciated.
The Early Comic Strip is no doubt dense and (figuratively and, thanks to its large format, thick paper stock, and 471 pages, literally) heavy. Even for an avid history buff and near-unsatiable reader like myself, the book does get a little too bogged down in detail at times, but this is a rare occurrence and really only a problem if you attempt to take in the entire thing in one or two sittings. And if that is a fault of the book rather than of some (I assure you, entirely hypothetical) readers’ ambitions, it has many redeeming qualities that tip the balance heavily toward the positive end. It provides an excellent prehistory, situating the emergence in Europe and the US in the mid-1800s of comics in something like the form we know them today in a larger genealogy. The book is also refreshingly free from the grand claims to comics’ origin in Egyptian hieroglyphics or the Bayeux Tapestry or any number of other claimed birthplaces that are so common to comics commentary today. It also stands as an example of what comics studies can be, if it is practiced with equal measures of effort and ambition. And it is nearly impossible to beat for its illustrations, a fact which stands endless repetition.
Sadly, the book has been out of print for a long time, so this post is more a teaser than anything else. But if you happen to find it in a used bookstore or online, buy it. And if you see it in a library, tarry a while, if only to get an impression of what you’ve been missing out on. It’s worth it.