Saturday, March 31, 2007


Here, so far as I can tell, is the origin of the modern comic strip. Caveat: take this with a grain of salt; I'm no expert on the subject and I might have over-simplified things.

Well, you could argue that it all began with Daumier (example above). Sure there was Hogarth, Cruikshank and others but Daumier was different. His lithographs weren't just beautiful and funny, they retained the fluid feel of the original sketches. Not only that but Daumier was a famous easel painter and that bought a lot of credibility for his cartoons. Cartooning was considered a low-class activity in Daumier's time and his fine art reputation did a lot to make it acceptable to the middle class.

Success always breeds imitators and Daumier's imitator was a guy named Cham (example above). Cham got his foot in the door by offering simplified Daumier-style drawings in a series for the same price that Daumier got for just one picture. Cham might have been a weasel but he did help to popularize the idea that cartoons should tell a story using multiple pictures.

Cham was so successful that he inspired a German named Rodolphe Topffler to try his hand. Topffler used Cham's serial panel technique but drew the characters in what he called the "outline method," a technique that didn't require Daumier's painterly tones and shadows. I don't know if Topffler was an aristocrat but he seemed to want the public to think that he was. His outline method was executed in a deliberately crude style so that it would appear that he just dashed them out for his own amusement and had no thought of making money with them.

Back in France, Dore saw what Topffler was doing and approved, only he thought the outline method worked better if the characters were a bit more realistic and were carefully inked. Dore wasn't very fond of the serial picture method. He preferred big, Jack Davis-type crowd scenes like the one above.

Back in Germany Wilhelm Busch (example above) combined the best ideas of all the artists I just mentioned: Daumier's belief that cartoons could be fine art, Cham's multiple panel idea, Topffler's outline technique and Dore's clean-up theories. Busch was the first artist to make a good living exclusively by doing funny panel cartoons. People say he was the first truly modern master of the comic strip. After him comes the great German-American newspaper artists like Dirks, the creator of "The Katzenjammer Kids." You know the rest.
A few questions remain. Where were the English while all this was going on? Why did the creative torch pass to the United States? Who invented the modern version of the word balloon?


William said...

I know there were a few political cartoons around the time of the civil war using a very similar mechanic of the balloon.

Look at what Jonathan Barli is doing:

Charlie J. said...

boy, if people back then thought those third sketches were crude, imagine what they'd think of contemporary "adult" cartoons!

Lester Hunt said...

"Where were the English while all this was going on? Why did the creative torch pass to the United States?"

Very interesting post -- and an interesting question! Part of the explanation for the torch going to the US was probably economic: compared to other countries at the time, the US had middle- and working-classes with (for the first time ever) a huge amount of money to spend on whatever they wanted, which gave creative people an incentive, and opportunity, to develop new forms of entertainment. However, this doesn't explain why England didn't take the lead. It was also a comparatively prosperous country at the time. Probably, no singe-cause explanation will do the trick. Maybe the explanation is a combination of prosperity and democratic attitudes and ideas: cartooning is art for the people.

Jenny said...

Where were the english?

You love Johnson, et al--have you never seen how popular cartoons were from the Georgian period onward? Cartoons were HUGE! Punch was started very early...I think these styles were happening simultaneously on both sides of the the english channel at least.

I've read that the Yellow Kid used balloons in the sense we think of for the first time, but I don't think that can be right...I know I've seen those single-panel cartoons of the 1700s with a character speaking in a balloon.

Jenny said...

Okay, here's the wikipedia entry on Punch, started in 1841. Interestingly, it states that "Punch was responsible for the modern use of the word 'cartoon' to refer to a comic drawing."

Jenny said...

And here's a lovely thing from wiki's entry of Daumier:
Baudelaire noted of him: l'un des hommes les plus importants, je ne dirai pas seulement de la caricature, mais encore de l'art moderne. (One of the most important men, I will not say only of caricature, but further of modern art.)

...isn't that fabulous?

Eric O. Costello said...

I have a largish collection of Punch volumes, including the first volume from 1841, and a lot from the 1840s and 1850s. Punch did do a number of "serial" type cartoons, where six drawings would appear on a page, telling a story. Some of Sir John Tenniel's earliest work, years before Alice in Wonderland, was done in this format. And I've seen speech balloons used in some of the brutal George III/Regency era drawings. If you want me to poke around my volumes, I can find examples to cite (though I have to get a working scanner).

Anonymous said...

The art in old comics is beyond amazing, but except for guys like Milt gross and Groucho Marx its difficult to enjoy comedy writing from that era without being ironic.

Every comic syndicate says on their submissions guidelines "good writing can save bad art but amazing art can't save terrible writing" I agree.

Theres a bunch of really solid artists I know who go on and on about how terrible the art in the funny pages is and theyll have these comic strips that are beyond lame

Benjamin said...

Talking about comics... I'm always wondering why neither you or John have ever posted anything about Franquin. It's nearly impossible for me to believe that you wouldn't think he's brilliant. Or perhaps you haven't heard of him? His comics never really crossed the atlanctic, but I've heard quite a few Americans mention him.
Do you know him? What do you think of him?

Anonymous said...

art looks amazing, cant understand the writing but it seems like typical lameass "cartoonist" humor.

I find John k's stuff hilarious btw

Anonymous said...

Thats a good point about the english, Their comedy shows are amazing but their comics always seem to be 40 years behind the times.

Check out most of the cartoons there are british and godawful

Anonymous said...

Eddie, you must know a bunch of storyboard artists and animators who showed you their submissions to the syndicates that you had to grin and pretend were funny

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

William, Jenny, Eric: I've seen lots of crudely drawn, teardrop- shaped word balloons from the 1700s. What I wonder is who invented the carefully drawn, clearly-lettered versions that you see in modern strips. It was a big innovation because it saved us from cumbersome captions and made comics a purely visual medium where the artist was more than just an illustrator of the written material.

Like Jenny I'd guess The Yellow Kid used the first modern word balloons but I'm not sure. The Kid used word balloons but they were usually minor adjuncts to the dense copy written on walls and clothes.

Later Outcault (The Yellow Kid artist)strips used word balloons exclusively but they were lettered in a Baroque way that made them more graphic than informative.

The first big-name artist that I know of to use balloons the way I like to see them was Dirks.

Lester: Good guess. It may also have something to do with European comics being associated with political caricature and radical politics. Maybe the cartoonists' politics brought them under heavy scrutinty by censors so some bailed out by coming to America. Just a guess, I don't know.

Eric, Jenny: Punch did indeed have funny one or two panel cartoon illustrations in the 1840s. That's why I think of cartooning as being 160 or 170 years old. And Edward Lear was no slouch.

Even so, the concept of long-form stories being told in panels was a continental invention so far as I know.

Benjamin: Franquin was a talented and influential guy but for me his work was strangely cold and heartless. It's all technique with no soul. He'd have been better off if he'd moved to America.

I don't say that because I'm a nationalist. European art was undeniably full of soul up til the 1910s or 20s then it lost it, maybe because of WWl.

Sometimes I think Europeans feel sorry for Americans because the landscape here is so full of ugly gas stations, billboards and fast-food places. What they fail to see is that, in spite of all the clutter and urban problems, in spite of all the stupid decadence, there's still a lot of soul on the streets and an artist can't do his best work in an enviornment that lacks that. Franquin should have moved here.

Sean Worsham said...

Now I know where Katzenjammer studios got their name from! :)

Great history lesson too! Cham may have created the whole idea of Simplified Cartoons! Detail isn't everything! :)

Jorge Garrido said...

>What I wonder is who invented the carefully drawn, clearly-lettered versions that you see in modern strips

Eddie, I`ve seen Dick Tracy strips where the word ballon was more like a rough cloud, so it was maybe alot later than we think.

abwinegar said...

I've seen some modern comic strips where they don't use balloons at all.

Are they trying to make more headroom for art? Or tell a story?

Can word balloons get in the way?

I think in some comics the artist makes the word balloons work for their strip. Which can crowd things if the story has alot of detail.

Pogo is one of many comics I've seen where the word balloons becomes a character.

Rogelio T. said...

Although this is not exactly the answer to your specific question, I saw these and I thought you might find them amusing.

speechballoon evolution

speech balloons

The website has a ton of old comic stuff. It's pretty neat. Here's a link to it's home page.

Andy's Early Comics Archive

William said...

Pogo has definitely the most creative use of word, type, text, speech in any comic ever. The variety and versatility are simply astonishing.

An excellent modern comic, I think, is the current strip "LIO". It never has any dialogue and seems to be inventive every day.

Matthew Cruickshank said...

Where were the English?

They were in the pub.

Benjamin said...

"Franquin was a talented and influential guy but for me his work was strangely cold and heartless."

Yes, I'd say that could be true for most of his work. But have you read the "les idées noires" comics? Those are the funniest and most heartfelt things he's ever written/drawn. He made them after he had a nervous breakdown/depression, and they're full of anger towards society and other things, all with very dark humor. They're also his most graphically interesting work. If you haven't yet, you should check them out.

Hammerson said...

>> Franquin was a talented and influential guy but for me his work was strangely cold and heartless. It's all technique with no soul. He'd have been better off if he'd moved to America. <<

Uncle Eddie, that's very interesting opinion, though I disagree with you on this. Also, I can't really imagine Franquin working in America. What have you seen of his comics? Have you seen his "Gaston Lagaffe" stuff? I grew up with those comics, and still today find them fresh and inventive, both in art and writing. Also, I second Benjamin's recommendation for "Les idées noires". They're quite different from the rest of his work, very close to some kind of underground comics. However, it might be really difficult to find a collection outside of France.

The main reason why Franquin is so unknown in the States is probably because so little (if anything) of his work has been published in English language. Really unusual, considering how important and influential he was in Europe.

Anonymous said...

Banner style word balloons (The ones that looked like ribbons with words painted on them) were around for sometime before the Yellow Kid was cited. The odd thing about the Yellow Kid was, that the habit of using word balloons to note who was speaking, had temporarily fallen by the wayside. I think this may have been editorial decision by whomever, to simply make the caption far too complex so that the gag could totally bypass any gut reaction.

So the Yellow Kid gets cited terribly often, in those histories going backwards in US newspapers from today, because he held sandwich boards serving the same sort of function had sort have been the first sample those praticular researchers had found. But it was a bit of a revival of sorts, after a short period of the habit being lost, perhaps to the barons of print (sort of like the way Feldstein eradicated hand lettering on his work for Gaines over the years)

I think their are medieval tapestries, even greco-roman mosaics, that use the flowing banner suggesting speech from the general area of the speakers voice box region. Speech balloons have been around for a long time, it is just that the baloon shape was late in coming-- they were ticker tape and ribbons for a long time.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Rogellio,: Interesting links! Thanks!

Hammerson, Benjamin: I'll look them up! Thanks!

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Anon: Those word baloon ribbons really marred some old paintings! It's weird to see cartoon conventions in fine art.

Anonymous said...

The funny thing is that when comics were started, no one cared bout color. Now, the best comics are colored.

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