It can be argued that comics, or sequential imagery, has been around since we first started to make markings on rock walls. From caves to smart phones (where you’ll find the Stela app) the history of comics, or sequential art, is long and fascinating.
Hey, Kids! Prehistoric Comics!
Before we continue it might help to define what comics are, how they are set apart from static drawings and paintings. It is the introduction of the element of time. One image can tell a small moment in a story, two images side by side can expand that story with more detail.
Some caves have drawings that become sequential as the viewer walks through the cave. Others have a few drawings near each other that tell a story, usually of a hunt, showing the beginning and then the end of the story.
Draw Like an Egyptian
The earliest forms of writing in Mesopotamia, China, and Egypt were pictographic in nature. These pictographs developed into more stylized characters except in Egypt, which maintained a more literal representation of the forms. Egyptians also painted a great many murals, many of which told stories in a sequential way.
Thrilling War Adventures!
Over the millennia artists used sequential images to expand their vision. From sculpture friezes to triptychs there are a few exemplar, um, examples.
Trajan’s Column is decorative column in Rome. Built between 107-113 AD it depicts in relief the Roman emperor Trajan’s victory in the Dacian Wars. Starting at the base and winding up 30 feet the frieze details the two victorious battles against Dacia.
Jumping forward in time a thousand years is the Bayeux Tapestry. This is an embroidered tapestry 230 feet long and 20 inches tall. Like Trajan’s Column it depicts a battle, the Battle of Hastings.
Many churches in the Christian world portrayed the stations of the cross, specific scenes from the crucifixion of Christ. Told either in painting or stain glass. In Asia there were many murals depicting stories and scenes from The Buddha’s life.
Funny Drawings Get Serious
The invention of the printing press brought the written word and images to the masses. As print developed the early topics of religion gave way to many more subjects, including government social commentary. While incorporating spoken word into paintings, usually scroll-like representations coming from the speaker’s mouth, it was during the age of print that we find word balloons, albeit rough and clumsy compared to modern comics.
Most famous of these early prints is William Hogarth (1697–1764) seven sets of sequential images on “Modern Moral Subjects”, A Harlot’s Progress, A Rake’s Progress and Marriage A-la-Mode being the most well-known. Each print was self contained but when put together the series showed a sequential story.
In Scotland the magazine The Glasgow Looking Glass (1826) is considered the first proto-comic book. It lampooned the fashions and politics of the time using sequential images and words, including balloons.
In the mid-19th century in Switzerland Rodolphe Töpffer created the most comic strip-like stories. Although he didn’t use word balloons, as they had fallen out of favor by this time, the layouts and timing were more precise and sophisticated. His work was highly successful, and highly pirated.
As more magazines and periodicals were published due to advancements in printing technology. Satirical drawings were very popular. The preeminent magazine in the U.K. was Punch, which coined the term “cartoon” for these drawings. In the art world “cartoons” were preliminary drawings for a painting. Parliament had organized a showing of cartoons and preliminary drawings. Punch called their “humorous pencilings” cartoons in a satirical reference to Parliament. The term stuck.
Another British humor magazine, Judy, published the first weekly comic strip featuring a recurring character, Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday. It was later given its own magazine of the same name. Very successful amongst the working class, it was periodically published from 1884 to 1977. It also spawned imitators with Comic Cuts and Illustrated Chips.
In the United States the first sprouting of newspaper comic strips were getting ready to bloom.