November 30, 2011

Where did comics come from?

One of my primary goals here is to construct a definition for comics for myself so that I feel comfortable discussing what the medium is and is not. In order have a solid definition, I feel I need to understand the medium's historical roots. To that end, I'm going to wrestle with two divergent historical models, those of Scott McCloud and that of R.C. Harvey.

Scott McCloud is best known for his 1993 book Understanding Comics,1 and that's where my first historical model comes from. McCloud's definition, which he constructs for readers piece-by-piece, is "Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce and aesthetic response in the viewer." This definition, as pointed out by cartoonist Dylan Horrocks,2 is both more and less inclusive than most working definitions. Whether generously or greedily, this definition includes any artistic works that contain two or more images (words are optional) intended to communicate the passage of time and thus narrative. Thus comics, for McCloud anyway, includes early 20th-Century "silent novels" by the likes of Lynd Ward and Frans Masereel, William Hogarth's serial prints, medieval depictions of saints' lives and deaths, and even older examples. Indeed, it is hard to see what exactly makes these things different. 

"The Life of St. Martin of Tours," 14th Century (artist unknown):4

William Hogarth's "Before and After":6

From Frans Masereel's Story Without Words:3

From Jason's Hey, Wait:5

Thanks to McCloud's pointing it out, I am convinced that these examples all do pretty much the same artistic and narrative "thing" for a viewer; I am not convinced, however, that they can all accurately be called "comics." Still, I do believe that comics are part of a long tradition of creating narrative by using two or more images in sequence.

This images-in-sequence requirement is also what makes McCloud's definition more exclusive than some. In "How Comics Came to Be"7, cartoonist and critic R.C. Harvey demands that any definition acknowledge comics' ancestry among single-panel gag cartoons. Harvey presents a very convincing case by detailing a lineage that begins by explaining that the word "cartoon," although originally used to to describe sketches for tapestry sketches, came to take its modern meaning (animation aside) as long ago as the 1840s. The English magazine Punch responded to Parliament's call for patriotic murals by publishing a series of "satirical drawings about government and calling them 'Mr. Punch's cartoons.'" This form of cartoon was then refined through history, peaking with excellent works by the likes of Peter Arno, whose word and image are totally dependent on each other for communicating the intended meaning. Harvey also takes the lineage backward to the single-panel, image-and-caption graphic works of artists like Hogarth and Goya. Concluding this portion of history, Harvey declares that "the modern gag cartoon is the haiku of cartooning, and no definition of the medium can be complete without embracing it."

Francisco Goya's "They've already got a seat":9

"Grand Show of Prize Vegetarians" from 1852 edition of Punch:8

Peter Arno's "But I can't!":9

Harvey also recounts the history of the newspaper comic strip as it developed from this kind of single-image cartoon into multi-panel strips that are perhaps most familiar today, doting particularly on Richard Outcault's Hogan's Alley (star of "The Yellow Kid") as the catalyst for the transition, and Bud Fisher's Mutt and Jeff as the first fully-formed modern multi-panel strip. Hogan's Alley, it seems, was the first widely-distributed work to break with the convention of using a caption, although speech landed on the character's shirt before other strips began to use speech balloons. Mutt and Jeff, in Harvey's opinion, represents the peak in both the use of the speech balloon and the comic strip structure (a series of panels ending with a punchline and a narrative connection to "next week's" strip) as we know them.

Hogan's Alley's Yellow Kid:11

1918 Mutt and Jeff strip:12

I will have to take Harvey's word on his evaluation of which examples of single- and multi-panel comic strips are most notable, but I have to concur that excluding the single-panel gag strip seems to ignore a major part of comics traditions and conventions. Additionally, McCloud's insistence that the passage of time is only present when more than one image are placed side-by-side comes off as a little narrow-minded and a lot inaccurate. A more precise explanation might declare that that single-image or single-panel works suggest the passage of time (in the sense that we understand them to be the "during" of "before-during-after"), while multi-image or multi-panel works depict the passage of time (though they certainly suggest much more passage of time as well)...

With these kinds of declarations and observations, I'm verging dangerously close to the tempation of settling on a definition. Since that's not my aim in this post, I'll stop here and simply conclude that the roots of comics most certainly lie in many places, most notably the wide range of single- and multi-image works of visual art that humans have been creating for as long as we can remember.

1. McCloud, Scott. (1993). Understanding comics. New York, NY: Harper Perennial
2. Horrocks, Dylan. (2001). Inventing comics: Scott McCloud's definition of comics. The Comics Journal, 234. Retrieved from
3. Image source:
5. Image source:, © Jason.  
6. Image source:
7. Harvey, R.C. (2009). How comics came to be. In J. Heer and K. Worcester (Ed.), A comics studies reader (pp. 25-45). Jackson, Miss: University Press of Mississippi.
8. Image source:
9. Image source:, © Peter Arno
10. Image source: 
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