The Prehistory of Comics

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Where to Start Before You Start

Santiago Garcia points out in his great book of comics history and criticism, On the Graphic Novel, that people tend to trace the beginning of comic books back to an individual moment, usually either Rodolphe Töpffer’s histoires de estampes in the 19th century or to the massively popular, serialized comic strip “The Yellow Kid” by R. F. Outcault in the early 20th century.

Garcia points out that there’s often some argument being made by choosing one of those or the other. The “comics is a serious form of art” folks tend to choose Töpffer, maybe because Goethe liked his work or because the 19th century seems to give everything in it a certain air of fanciness from this far in the future. On the other hand, the “comics is a popular medium” folks choose “The Yellow Kid,” a strip that featured vaudeville-style gags and hard punchline jokes.

But there’s a prehistory to all of this, a very long time in human history when what you called a thing that featured images, language, and story wasn’t important even though lots of things still put two or three of those things—images, language, and story—into conversation with each other. There are a lot of things that people will plop into this category of “comics that existed before the word comics was invented,” and I’ve narrowed it down to the ten that I think get mentioned the most often. Here’s my list:

  1. The Standard of Ur
  2. Mayan Pictographs
  3. Trajan’s Column
  4. The Bayeux Tapestry
  5. A Rake’s Progress”
  6. Rodolphe Töpffer
  7. The Yellow Kid
  8. Famous Funnies
  9. Action Comics #1
  10. X-Men #248

(Don’t worry, I’ll explain why #10 is on this list a bit later.)

Over the next however long, I’m going to be doing short write-ups on each of these to record them so that they’re easily accessible and organized. These things all get mentioned briefly in comics studies readers and pieces of comics criticism, but readers who don’t know, for example, who Trajan was off the top of their head are left out of the conversation a bit, I think.

More soon.

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