I think we can trace the beginnings of the change in perception to 1966 when the Smithsonian Institution put on an exhibit honoring 75 Years of the Comics, showing the growth and development of form in the newspaper strip. One year later an international exposition on comic strips and their creators was held at the Louvre hosted by Claude Moliterni, director of the French Society of Research in Illustrated Literature. The exhibition traced the evolution of figurative drawings from carved Trojan columns to space-age comic strips using slide projections and panel blow -ups of comics from America, Europe, Argentina and Mexico. Among the early pioneers in historical research was David Kunzle, with a massive two volume History of the Comic Strip (1973) which searched for precursors from 1450 to the late nineteenth century, and Denis Gifford’s Victorian Comics (1976) with its emphasis on British beginnings.
An impressive recent book on beginnings is Thierry Smolderen’s Naissances de la bande dessinée De William Hogarth à Winsor McCay, published in late 2009 by Les Impressions Nouvelles. Thierry Smolderen is a Brussels born scriptwriter, essayist, theorist and Professor at the European School of Visual Arts. His articles have appeared in the periodicals Les Cahiers de comics, 9th Art, and Comic Art and he has been writing scenarios for graphic albums since the eighties.
Naissances de la bande dessinée (“The Many Births of the Comics”) studies the parallel growth, and world-wide diffusion of influences, from the days of William Hogarth to the modern baroque stylings of Winsor McCay. Smolderen starts with Hogarth, and rightly so, as he was the originator of commercial reproducible caricature in Britain and strongly influenced Rodolphe Töpffer and George Cruikshank, the two giants whose experiments would have the most influence on the practitioners of 19th century comic art. Hogarth’s Harlots Progress was sold by subscription for one guinea, and the buyer was supplied with a bonus in the shape of an illustrated ticket. Hogarth’s famous pictorial dramas had a tremendous effect on the nascent novel, the drama, book illustration, sequential caricature, and even social reform.
Smolderen's most surprising claim is that Töpffer, contrary to Kunzle’s theory of him as “Father of the Comics,” had no interest in promoting the modern comic strip, that instead he invented the form in order to ridicule G. O. Lessing’s theory of poetry as a sequential art, which was put forth in The Laocoon: or the Limits of Poetry and Painting: “The rule is this, that succession in time is the province of the poet, co-existence in space that of the artist.” Töpffer’s ironic use of sequential graphics was meant to expose the fallacies of Lessing’s ideas, and Töpffer showed little interest in the comic albums produced by those artists he influenced.
Naissances de la bande dessinée investigates the role played by various media in the organic development of the comic strip; in novels, the romantic gestures of the stage melodrama, the rise of book illustration, photography, magic lanterns, and the cinema. George Cruikshank’s spectacular use of sequential illustrations in Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard was inspired by the pictorial drama of William Hogarth, and turn of the century comic strips by A. B. Frost were influenced by Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic studies in human and animal locomotion.
The book is illustrated throughout with examples of sequential art drawn from all corners of the globe. Samples from all the major actors are presented in sharp focus reproductions: Töpffer, Cruikshank, Cham, Dore, Grandville, Caran d’Ache, Doyle, Oberlander, Christophe, Frost, Sullivant, Outcault and McCay. The whole is so information rich that it comes as a surprise to find it weighing in at a mere 144 pages.
Smolderen’s book is a graphic reminder that the comic strip was not the invention of the American comic supplements at the turn of the century. The comic strip was the result of a century (possibly more) of world-wide experimentation by artists and writers with a mass appreciative audience drawn from every class of society. There was very little that was original to the comic supplements. Comic strippers like Frederick Burr Opper and F. M. Howarth had been supplying comic journals with sequential art since the 1870’s, the format of the Yellow Kid followed Hogarth and Cruikshank, the Katzenjammer Kids were borrowed from the German bilderbogen of Wilhelm Busch, and even Little Nemo’s technicolor dream-world had been anticipated by the artists of Quantin’s l'Imagerie artistique of the 1880’s.
The comic strip was the result of a continuous diffusion of world theory, experimentation, and technology from the days of Hogarth to the present. The history of the comic strip is a world history and we can only hope that Naissances de la bande dessinée and other essential works of European comic scholarship will someday be translated into English for the education and enjoyment of North American audiences. Strangely enough my search of Google blogs and newspapers for English reviews of Naissances de la bande dessinée was a dismal failure, not one English language review could be found.