by Chris Randle
(from the anti-papal broadsheet Which of These Fower That Here You See, 1623)
The Comics Reporter‘s Tom Spurgeon recently linked to a blog post which claimed to identify an early comic strip dating all the way back to 1493, its story arguably told in sequential images and primitive dialogue balloons. I was struck less by the existence of this find than I was by what Tom noted with polite disinterest: A lot of people have a recurring fixation on potential proto-comics. I’m not sure why this is so. The mediums of the industrial age are young enough for their origins to be relatively well-documented; depending on how far your definition of “motion picture” stretches, it’s pretty clear that the first film was either Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory or Roundhay Garden Scene. But no one seems to especially care about what the earliest novel might be, even though that question is almost as open and nettlesome as the words-and-pictures one.
The perennial quest for The First Comic may be motivated by an interest in artistic ancestry. Its complement is the same desire for legitimacy that moved so many cartoonists and readers to tortured angst over the past century. (Now we argue about whether everything was better in the bad old days, before tawdry, disreputable gutter culture could get gallery retrospectives.) The most popular text for “comics studies” courses, by far, is Scott McCloud’s 1993 book Understanding Comics – to the chagrin of scholars who resent the outsized influence of its formalist approach. After allowing that “Sure, I realized comic books were usually crude, poorly-drawn, semiliterate, cheap, disposable kiddie fare,” McCloud tries to expand the typical boundaries of the medium’s history with an increasingly equivocal series of pre-modern strips: Aztec picture manuscripts, the Bayeux tapestry, wordless paintings from ancient Egypt. Others have suggested more convincing candidates, like Picasso’s juvenilia or the sardonic drawings of James Ensor.
What if those searching for ur-comics are driven by something more reflexive than resented cultural illegitimacy? In How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll, Elijah Wald suggests that the introduction of long-player records in 1948 accorded a new seriousness and intellectual cachet to select non-classical styles. Consciously or not, the 1960s’ first rock critics only reinforced that association between albums and Art; the archetypal example is their reaction to Sgt. Pepper, which Kenneth Tynan called “a decisive moment in the history of Western civilization.”
Even now, when the technological or commercial reasons for releasing music in 12-song chunks every other year have disappeared, most listeners and genres still tend to hear LPs as an artist’s major statements. Perhaps there’s a similar structural explanation for the critical fascination with proto-comics. The first comics history was written in fanzines, around the same time that rock criticism emerged, and it had a fannish tint: Authors relied on oral testimony and hearsay rather than documents, displayed their affection for obscure esoterica, and obsessed over canons both literary and fictional. The fanzines’ very existence was a hurt, defensive reaction to the paternalistic disdain of Fredric Wertham. Writing-about-comics is less pitiable these days (even Wertham has his defenders), but I suspect that certain good/bad habits remain widespread. Hunt for ever-older strips from the past, and you can place them somewhere in that grand canon.
The irony of all this searching is that I don’t think comics can be said to have a single clear ancestry, theory-wise. As Charles Hatfield argues, they’re inherently interdisciplinary, a bastard medium. Comics is like the orphan bounced from foster home to foster home without ever quite finding a permanent one. But that shouldn’t be a mark of shame anymore.