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The Basics of Comics – Part 1 of 2

Understanding their historical development

That comics are a big phenomenon is not news to anyone, at least not in these days and times. As globally connected consumers most of us have been introduced to the exciting new field of Graphic Novels.

However, one observes that in many instances this statement by way of introduction is grossly incomplete. Because the facts are that – neither is it a new field, nor is the field called Graphic Novels (which is just one of the many players).

To understand this phenomenon better it is of utmost importance to present some dry straw to chew on before moving on to greener pastures:


‘Comics’ is a term that has never really needed definition because one immediately perceives what is being spoken about.

Creator Unknown

Yet, I have personally never come across a more difficult, more controversial term to define than this one. An amalgamation of a very long-winded discussion on definitions is given by Scott McCloud where he says –

“Comics are juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer”

This is as neutral as he could be, and yet it is far from perfect – primarily in that it excludes single panel images from the ambit of comics.

Somewhere in the late 20th century people realized that comics needn’t just be for children, they could be very serious and mature. So to differentiate the child’s play from the grown-up’s angst we had the birth of the term Graphic Novel.

The Alcoholic – Jonathan Ames and Dean Haspiel

This was okay at first, but unfortunately there came about a mis-association – that of the word with the mood and not with the genre. All ‘serious’ comics received the moniker of the Graphic Novel, irrespective of the form. Very simply, to be a graphic novel, the comic should have the features of a novel – length, fictional narrative, depth etc. However, this term should not be applied indiscriminately. And, surely humourous can also be a quality of graphic novels.

There is also a muddled tendency to consider comics themselves as a sort of genre of literature, which they most certainly are not. They are not a genre, just like cinema is not a genre. Comics are a medium.

I myself stick to the term ‘Comics’ for 2 simple reasons:

I don’t want to be an apologist for something I love by re-naming it, just because it sounds juvenile or non-serious.

I have found it to be the least problematic term, the path of least resistance.

In fact, it is even said that the term Graphic Novel was coined by Will Eisner who had written a sobre, long format comic which he felt the publisher would reject, hence he jazzed it up by calling it a Graphic Novel. And following that clever turn of marketing wit, publishers nowadays love to call almost all comics Graphic Novels, and bookshops follow suit by marking their shelves likewise.

Now, having stirred the hornet’s nest of definition, I proceed to the history of comics, to what many consider to be proto-comics – early examples of art similar to modern comics.

We have Egyptian wall paintings, probably the oldest examples of this form. This is from a Tomb, 14th century BC, and it isn’t merely decorative, as one might think, since it depicts agricultural methods from Harvesting to Taxation.

Menna's Tomb - Egypt

Ajanta Caves of Maharashtra, 2nd century BC, has paintings such as these which cover the walls and tell stories from the Jatakas. Characters are repeated here, and their setting and aspects change, implying it is a story unfolding.

Ajanta Caves - Maharashtra, India

Trajan’s Column of the 2nd century AD, relief carvings on a stone column 98 feet high, shows us Roman Emperor Trajan’s victory in the Dacian Wars. It is read bottom up, along the spiral.

Trajan's Column - Rome, Italy

The Bayeux Tapestry, 11th century AD, is 1.5 feet by 224 feet of embroidered cloth depicting the Norman conquest of England.

Bayeux Tapestry - Normandy, France

Arguably these have long been valued as absolutely magnificent works of art and have been in the artistic imagination for centuries, yet they are usually not thought of as sharing an ethos with today’s comics. In fact, many would consider it blasphemous to even suggest this. But what is important to mark is not the birth of a popular art form here, but the evidence of a human urge to ‘show’ a story, and the ability to ‘read’ these stories. Just as a caveman knocking two pieces of stone doesn’t necessarily see himself as a percussionist, he is yet a precursor to the man’s search for rhythm.

Triptych of Virtue of Patience – Bernard van Orley (1521)

This manner of showing stories, rather than telling them, never disappeared but didn’t firm up for a long time either. Sporadic tendencies to show stories even cropped up in Renaissance art such as in the use of triptychs or 3-part paintings.

The penultimate stage in the development of comics is seen in the engravings of William Hogarth of the 18th century. His works were not comics in the modern sense, but were undoubtedly good examples of Sequential Art, a definition that is often applied to comics.

A Harlot’s Progress, Plate 5 – William Hogarth (1732)

An example is his most famous work – ‘The Harlot’s Progress’. Through 6 plates he tells the story of a woman who takes to the life of a harlot, or a prostitute. We see the obvious absence of speech, yet mind-boggling richness of the pictorial details communicates a lot through the plates.

Interestingly, it was with Hogarth that we also see the start of comics as a mass-distribution art form. These plates were engravings and could be reproduced mechanically, and Hogarth’s works became very popular products, just like comics today.

The real fountainhead of comics, though, was a Swiss gentleman called Rudolphe Töpffer, of the 19th century. He was a writer, caricaturist and teacher. He used to draw caricatures for the enjoyment of his students. I would like to think that illustrations also came in use when he had to teach, by way of demonstration. Through some serendipitous confluence of these strains he created the world’s first comic book.

It was called ‘Histoire de Monsieur Vieux Bois’, published in 1837, and translated and published in the United States in 1842 as ‘The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck‘.

The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck – Rodolphe Töpffer (1842)

For the first time we see some very familiar elements of the modern comic used together – the iconic protagonist, the use of panels to divide depictions, a direct narrative link between panels, exaggerated physiognomy, relation between background and foreground, presentation of dreams and so on. Every page is a historic one for us. And all this created 183 years ago. And also worth mentioning is the name of one of his admirers – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the famous German writer.

Comics continued to grow and mature with some subsequent artists. In the second half of the 19th century, we also see the growing influence of the newspapers and periodicals in popularizing comics, or more specifically in this case – Cartoons. These were single panel works we spoke of earlier – satires of the world’s contemporary politics and very widely read.

Art Historian EH Gombrich was one of the first people to see the potential and novelty of these cartoons for communicating on the sphere of ideas by visualizing metaphors, which is a feature of limitless visual energy in the hands of the creator. This cartoon from 1857 shows the British perception of India’s First Battle of Independence, where rebel Indian soldiers rose against their British commanders, but eventually were crushed in retaliation. Britain (the lion) attacks the murderous Indian rebels (the tiger) who was just about to maul and kill the innocent British (the maiden).

The British Lion’s Vengeance – John Tenniel (1857)

The newspaper also gave a fillip to cartoonists by introducing the daily comic strip which were usually 3 panels long (longer on Sundays) and were independent episodes involving recurring characters, or even segments of a longer-running story. The enormous distribution of these, thanks to newspaper subscriptions, was critical in taking this form into homes every day. There were times when rival newspapers engaged in all out ‘wars’ to win the race for carrying the best comics. These races also led to the start of colour supplements in newspapers designed to be more eye-catching than the next.

Hogan’s Alley – Richard F. Outcault (1896)

The natural off-shoot of these newspaper comic sections was the magazine wholly dedicated to comics, such as Action Comics and Pep Comics. The most popular characters featured in these further went on to have their own series altogether. Thus we have the modern comic books truly coming into the spotlight.

Action Comics No 1 – Joe Shuster and Jack Adler (1938)

Everything after this stage is a blur of activity with so many possibilities opening up that there are parallel underground and mainstream activities, and crossovers. Everything from chemistry and history lessons to superheroes meeting real Presidents becomes part of the comics creators’ imagination.