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REVIEW: The Origins of Comics

Thierry Smolderen's fascinating book exposes a deeper history of multi-panel comics than is widely understood, while also establishing new through-lines among the early cartoonists' aesthetic and narrative philosophies.

The Origins of Comics: From William Hogarth to Winsor McCay
Thierry Smolderen
Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen, translators
University Press of Mississippi, 2014 (original French edition 2000)
publisher site | WorldCat

In case you're unfamiliar, a quick history lesson: most historians have placed the birth of comics in the early- to mid-1800s with the Swiss artist Rodolphe Töpffer, and indeed he appears to be the first to put several images side-by-side on one page in order to communicate the passage of time. But this book's research and analysis places this credit instead with the 18th-Century Englsih artist William Hogarth, whose Harlot's Progress and other narrative print series established what Smolderen calls "the novel in pictures". He also demonstrates that Töpffer, while absolutely influential to future developments in comics, actually intended his one-thing-after-another drawings to be a criticism of industrial progress, positioning him in opposition to the idea of codifying a medium that celebrates this kind of storytelling.

Smolderen explores many other facets of comics' early history, including practitioners' complicated feelings about the new media of photography and cinema, their varied relationships to changes in the art world at large, and their dependence and influence on the newspaper industry. One of the most interesting portions looks at the development of the speech balloon and its appearance in multi-panel comics upon the invention of the phonograph. All of these investigations take into account the context that is often forgotten or misunderstood by modern observers of history, like revealing Rodolphe Töpffer's ironic use of paneled storytelling or debunking the idea that speech balloons are the inevitable form of speech in comics.

If I have a complaint, it's very small: this book's lovely cover design looks to me more like a coffee table book than serious scholarship. That tonal difference might be jarring to some, but its beautiful reproductions of comic strips and other art will be a delight to readers regardless of their assumptions about the text. And while I did find the writing somewhat dry and at times over my head, it was ultimately engaging and enlightening, and it left me wanting to explore its ideas even more. I absolutely recommend it for academic librarians and archivists, but public and school librarians who want to explore the nature and history of the medium will get a lot out of it too.