[Edit: Brodie Waddell has found a comic strip from 1693; and another one from 1643]
According to Wikipedia, a comic strip is ‘a sequence of drawings arranged in interrelated panels to display brief humor or form a narrative, often serialized, with text in balloons and captions’ which first appeared some time in the 19th century, although exactly when and where is debatable. 1933 is the date given for the first comic book:
a magazine made up of “comics” —narrative artwork in the form of separate panels that represent individual scenes, often accompanied by dialog (usually in word balloons, emblematic of the comic book art form) as well as including brief descriptive prose
Over the last few years, I’ve been wondering why this didn’t happen earlier. I don’t think it’s just a case of inevitable progress, the inspiration of a super-special genius, or people in the past being more stupid. I haven’t researched the question in any detail, and I wouldn’t be surprised if someone else had said all this better than I can, but I thought it was interesting enough to write about. In true early modern style, I’ve presented it as a dialogue with an implausibly ignorant straw man. So why didn’t anything that meets the modern definition of comics exist in the 1640s?
Is it because people didn’t understand sequential art?
Don’t be stupid, straw man, sequential art is much older than this. Trajan’s Column and the Bayeux Tapestry both used a series of pictures to tell a story. During the 17th century, sequential art was also used for practical purposes. In 1607, Jacob De Gheyn produced a series of engravings to show soldiers how to use pikes and muskets. These pictures were widely copied in English drill books – Gervase Markham was the first and certainly not the last English author to copy them (Lawrence, Complete Soldier, 140-1, 152-3).
Is it because speech bubbles hadn’t been invented yet?
Actually they had. You can see lots of examples at Mercurius Politicus. People were clearly used to producing and reading pictures with speech text in them.
Is it because of censorship?
King and Parliament both tried to censor the press, but censorship failed in the early 1640s, partly because the civil war disrupted it, and partly because censors were overwhelmed by the amount of stuff being published, which just encouraged people to publish even more. Both sides in the civil war were happy to allow and even encourage offensive and dishonest propaganda if it served their interests. Some authors and printers still got in trouble, but some very radical views found their way into print in the 1640s. Weekly newspapers first became a big thing in this period, so no-one was stifling innovation.
Would comics have been too expensive to make?
Yes, but not as much as you might think. This was long before cheap paper made from wood pulp, so paper was made from rags and was more expensive. That didn’t stop cheap print from happening. Short text pamphlets printed with moveable type were affordable for printers to print and a fairly wide range of people to buy. A custom woodcut picture on the front page pushed the costs up, but also made the pamphlet more attractive to buyers so could be worth doing. A pamphlet with an original picture on every page probably would have been too expensive to produce. But printers often recycled woodcuts, as you can see from a whole series of posts at Mercurius Politicus: part 1, part 2, part 3. The examples at the top of part 2 even came with blank speech bubbles that could have different text printed in them. Something like Dinosaur Comics would have been feasible if there was a market for it.
Is it because most people were illiterate?
Sort of, but in a very roundabout way. Knowing how many people could read is actually quite hard. It’s complicated by the fact that reading was usually taught at an earlier stage of education than writing, whereas now they tend to be taught together. That means that lots of people who couldn’t write might still have been able to read. Literacy was also gendered because boys tended to get more education than girls and were more likely to be taught to write, so talking about how many ‘people’ were literate can be misleading (Erickson, Women and Property, 57-8). I’m sure I’ve seen estimated figures for literacy somewhere but I can’t find any now. It seems to be generally reckoned that literacy had been increasing for a long time before the 1640s, and there was certainly a significant market for cheap pamphlets.
But there were also lots of people who couldn’t read. That doesn’t mean that they were cut off from print culture. The crucial point is that reading practices were very different in this period. Pamphlets were often read out loud to a group so that illiterate people could enjoy them. Today this is associated mostly with children, but then it was normal for adults. Dagmar Freist points out that some pamphlets were written as dialogues or plays which could be acted out by more than one person (Freist, Governed by Opinion, 19, 25, 85, 126-7). Reading a comic is a much more solitary experience. It’s not practical to read them aloud to a group because the pictures are just as important as the words, and they work together (or at least, it wasn’t practical before slide projectors). It’s not just that (some) people were illiterate in the 1640s: there was a different kind of literacy that’s much less prominent now. The comic as we know it wouldn’t fit the social practice of reading in the 17th century. I think that’s the main reason why there wasn’t much demand for something like a comic book.
Seventeenth-century people also had different ways of reading images, and perhaps different ways of seeing- the comic-like woodcuts in 1640s pamphlets look very different from modern comics. Cheap woodcuts often didn’t bother with realistic perspective or scale. Maybe this was partly a case of pay peanuts, get monkeys, as realistic looking representative art was produced in this period, but often realism wasn’t the point. The woodcuts in cheap 1640s pamphlets are full of symbolism that can’t be read literally (Freist, 127-8). This is also true of expensive and ostensibly realistic looking equestrian portraits. Today most people seem to expect ‘realistic’ literal representations of things, although what they get from comic art, photoshopped photos and CGI films is often hyperreal and actually impossible (for example). It seems to me that mainstream comic art is heavily influenced by cinema. Cinematic ways of seeing were inconceivable in the 17th century, and I suspect it might not be a coincidence that comic books took off after cinema took off (although it might be – I really don’t know). This leads me to a bigger hypothesis that I’m probably not going to do anything with, but here it is:
Modern comics aren’t graphic novels, they’re printed films.
This week, something a bit different: an interview with Andrew Hickey. Andrew has his own blog at Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! and has just joined the group blog Mindless Ones. He has self-published (as both ebooks and print-on-demand) books about various combinations of music, science, liberalism, comics and Doctor Who, as well as a collection of short stories. You can find his work at:
Andrew’s latest book, An Incomprehensible Condition: An Unauthorised Guide To Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers, will be released soon, and to celebrate he’s doing a blog tour. Yesterday he was interviewed at Deep Space Transmissions, and today I have an interview with him about self-publishing and ebooks, which I hope will be interesting for digital history people. For a list of the rest of the tour, see here. And now, the interview itself…
It’s now four years since I started blogging. Last year I said I might stop today, but I’m not going to now. I need a blog to promote my forthcoming book, I’m not ready to do anything completely different yet, and blogging is still a useful way of trying out new ideas and keeping in touch with people. I’ve somehow gone for nearly three months without posting anything because I’ve been so busy. Before I can even start writing the book I have to work on a chapter for an edited collection and also finish building a roof. And there’s an article which is probably going to get revise and resubmit soon. Posts should get more regular from now on, but in the meantime, here are some links and news:
- Bench Grass is a new military history blog, with some great posts on armoured warfare. One of the few people who really gets cavalry.
- At Airminded Brett Holman has finished (for now) post-blogging the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. One of the many surprises thrown up by his experiment is that there wasn’t a clear division between the two at the time. The press seem to have been more optimistic than the present myth of The Few would suggest (and it was a big shock to discover that Churchill was mostly talking about bombers in that speech), and some people wanted the Germans to try and invade Britain because they knew it would fail. Despite knowing that German bombs wouldn’t defeat them, the British seem to have massively over-estimated the effectiveness of their own bombing of Germany. Meanwhile Daily Mail readers, then as now obsessed with impractical and morally dubious solutions to exaggerated problems, demanded more reprisal bombings of German civilians.
- The Institute of Historical Research has launched a digital consultancy service and announced a digital editing system called ReScript.
- PhDork at The Pursuit of Harpyness looks at “An Anti-Suffrage Monologue”, in which American suffragette Marie Jenney Howe mercilessly exposed anti-feminist hypocrisy by putting contradictory arguments against equal voting rights next to each other, ostensibly so that readers could pick the one they preferred. This kind of hypocrisy hasn’t gone away. Early-modern women’s historians are faced with Lawrence Stone’s objection that elite women are not worth studying because they’re not typical, and David Starkey’s objection that ordinary women are not worth studying because they had no power. Opponents of women serving in combat roles say that a woman wouldn’t be strong enough to drag her wounded male comrades to safety, and that male soldiers would spend too much time looking after their female comrades instead of fighting.
- Pink Parts is a webcomic set in a strip club and written by Katherine Skipper, who used to work as a stripper. It’s intelligent, honest, funny and really has something to say. Good to see a stripper’s point of view being put across in a medium which is far too dominated by privileged white men. It ties in well with Catherine M. Roach’s book about stripping, which I reviewed last year.
- Comic genius Kate Beaton gives her own interpretations of courtly love and King Lear.
- PEP! is a magazine about comics, music, politics, Doctor Who and other things, edited by my friend Andrew Hickey. It even includes some articles by me. I tried to push myself do something different from my blogging and academic writing, which wasn’t entirely successful but I’m all about failing better. In issue 1 (available as free PDF download or expensive print on demand) I gave an argument in favour of political extremism (from a feminist and postmodern angle) which made some good points and one bad point which went up a blind alley to do with Zeno’s paradoxes, but since it provoked a rebuttal from the editor I must have done something right. In issue 2 (PDF; print version available soon) I took a long and exhausting (but nowhere near exhaustive) look at lazy journalism, bad science and gender ideology relating to spatial reasoning abilities. Since I wrote it in March it’s been superseded by some other things (especially Cordelia Fine’s new book Delusions of Gender, and a new report which disproves gender differences in maths ability) but I’m still pleased that I managed to write something outside my comfort zone.
- Andrew has also written a book about the Beatles. I found the blog posts that this grew out of really interesting, even though I don’t like the Beatles.
- And finally, you can have minutes of fun looking for film and TV locations on Google Streetview. Here are Baywatch headquarters near Santa Monica and Baywatch Hawaii headquarters at Haleiwa.
Chris Onstad is a genius, but this week I think he might have underestimated how rude 17th-century cheap print could be. For example, see Early Modern Whale on 17th century porn, or the effects of coffee (even I was surprised by the mention of dildos there!). At Mercurius Politicus there’s a pamphlet war involving woodcuts of she-devil toilet sex, while Ovid’s Ars Amatoria was one of the things guranteed to irritate a puritan. In Agnes Bowker’s Cat David Cressy dated the first picture of an erect penis in English popular print to 1641. And here are some breasts (illustrating the story of a very promiscuous woman) from LOL Manuscripts. Also in this old post (more popular with Google searchers than anything else I’ve ever written) I looked at how the Old Bailey Proceedings described two bestiality cases in more detail than was strictly necessary. The kind of prudishness parodied in Achewood is more often associated with the Victorians (and that might well be a myth that annoys 19th century specialists), but it could occur in 17th century print too. At LOL Manuscripts there’s a really bizarre example where a pamphlet has an uncensored picture of ass kissing but refuses to spell out the word “arse”!
So yes, people in the 17th century had sex, looked at porn, and used dildos. These are just some of the things that didn’t get mentioned in traditional historiography because they weren’t “proper” history.