Subjective Ramblings and Peripheral Thoughts from the Edges of a Comics Studies Project
A while back, I posted a brief review of David Kunzle’s magisterial work on picture stories from the 1450s until 1826. In his follow-up work from 1990, The History of the Comic Strip, Vol. II: The Nineteenth Century, Kunzle fills the gap between that and the beginnings of continuous international comic strip, then comic book, then graphic novel production. In its own time, the book was an important (and, like its predecessor, apparently largely ignored) corrective. Since 1947, when writer-artist Coulton Waugh published his book, The Comics, it has been largely axiomatic that the first comic strip was Richard Felton Outcault’s cartoon “Hogan’s Alley” with its recurring character popularly known as the “Yellow Kid.” But American comic strips had countless European antecedents. Wrote Kunzle: “By now I should have learned that to deny in the face of the U.S. media that United States invented the comic strip is about as pointless as denying that the United States invented freedom and democracy” (xix). Despite Kunzle’s magisterial efforts (and those of several scholars and critics since), the Outcaultian origin story still has many adherents, but The Nineteenth Century provides an important record that is difficult to deny, even if it might be easy for some to ignore.
Kunzle opens the book with a description of the cultural and economic context in which comics first began to coalesce, moving on to a brief chapter on Victorian caricature. By the 1820s, the full-composition broadsheet with didactic or propagandistic intent of old had to step aside for the more humorous and fragmented. Illustrated magazines began to appear, and already the late 1820s saw the arrival of pictorial narratives in the British press. But it was in Geneva that the modern comic strip came about, at the hands of schoolmaster Rodolphe Töpffer. All in all, Töpffer published eight works that can be described, anachronistically, as “graphic novels.” Kunzle describes them all, contextualizes them, and provides visual excerpts (more recently, he has collected, edited, annotated, and published them). Töpffer was popular in France (as evidenced not least by the plagiary of his work), and found several would-by successors. Chief among them were Cham – who, in fact, ghosted one of Töpffer’s last works, Monsieur Cryptogame (1846), because the originator’s eyesight had failed him – and Gustave Doré, more famous today for his book illustrations, but initially a prolific caricaturist and comic strip maker. (This period is sketched in briefer outline in art historian Patricia Mainardi’s paper on “The Invention of Comics.”) After these two, comics in France experienced a lull.
Comic strips experienced a revival in France in the late 1860s, in the forefront of which was the corpus of Léonce Petit’s pictures of the struggles between the bourgeois townsfolk and the peasantry, which Kunzle treats in a lengthy and highly detailed chapter. Over that same period, comic strip production proliferated, maturing by the 1880s fully into a growing number of magazines and over a dozen artists “more or less” specialized in the comic strip. One of the most successful newcomers was the Chat Noir, a radical and even anarchic magazine that contained several strips, many of which were wordless pantomimes, that experimented with the form.
Nineteenth century German comic strip history is dealt with in three chapters. The first is brief, a preface to the nearly fifty pages devoted to Wilhelm Busch. Busch, who developed the old German Bilderbogen tradition and added sequentiality and narrative to it, is most famous in comics circles as the creator of Max und Moritz (1865; the story has won immortality as the direct inspiration for the American comic strip The Katzenjammer Kids, which is still being published today) and, to a lesser extent, other light classics like Pious Helene. The final chapter on Germany trail off into caricature and cartoon before moving on to a summary of late-19th century comics, but using examples that seem out of place, less comic strip than picture story or cartoon. The same can be said about the following section, in which colonialism in comic strips, cartoons, and painting are treated.
After the brief treatment of Germany, English comics history gets to end the main part of the book with a brief chapter. It begins with the pocket-sized Man in the Moon, first published in 1847, which not only included comic strips, but actually devised a pull-out plate to accommodate the strips drawn in imitation of Töpffer’s oblong format. Folding shortly after discontinuing this innovation, Man was followed by several short-lived attempts at illustrated journalism, before the famous magazine Punch became viable in the 1860s-70s. Comic strips had a couple of false starts in the mid-1850s and late 1860s. Then came Ally Sloper, described by Kunzle as “Europe’s first enduring serialized comic strip and cartoon character” (316). Sloper first appeared in the magazine Judy in 1867. By the 1870s he appeared in reprint albums, and in the 1880s, he even got his own regular title. (A brief but enlightening discussion of Ally Sloper by comics historian Roger Sabin can be found here.) Kunzle also traces some of Sloper’s successors, racing toward the end through more than decade’s worth of magazines (“that deserve brief notice for the quantity, if not the quality, of their comic strips,” 329), produced by a variety of artists who, it is difficult not to feel, get short thrift in favor of more rebellious creators. (Another noteworthy aside of Kunzle’s is the identification of cribbed American materials that are not further investigated or explained.)
The next chapter treats “side streams,” or the histories of comic strips in Austria, Italy, Spain, and Russia in the period treated in the book. The case can be made that these could have benefited from lengthier treatment, instead of the sometimes overlong treatment of specific French or British comic strips. Capping the book is an essay on the language, or visual vocabulary, of comic strips, showing common graphic tricks and devices that were developed and used in the era.
Like the previous volume, Kunzle sometimes gets lost in description, as for example his detailed run-throughs of Töpffer’s works or in the class-struggle-centered chapter on Petit. The book, of course, is somewhat dated by now, some of its claims having been supplanted by new discoveries. In outlining the book, for instance, Kunzle writes: “The period covered here takes us from 1827, the year Rodolphe Töpffer drafted his first comic strip/picture-story, to the start of a new epoch in 1896, when the first continuing comic characters were created in an American newspaper (The Yellow Kid) and in a British children’s weekly.” As several scholars have since shown, “The Yellow Kid” was not as special as it has become in the popular and scholarly imagination. Perhaps none has expressed it more forcefully than comics historian Ian Gordon, who in his 1998 book writes that, despite claims of its being the “first,” “Outcault’s graphic added nothing to the form. It was not even the first piece of comic art printed in color in an American newspaper” (25). But again, Kunzle’s scholarship is a model for what comics studies can and should be. And, like the first volume of The Early Comic Strip, the richness and variety of illustration is breathtaking. The final verdict is that this book is well worth the read for anyone who is interested in the early history of comic strips.