Esther McConnell, The Graphic Novel: A Potted History

This blog post is the second of a series by Esther McConnell, exploring graphic fiction and publishing. These posts are being written as part of Esther’s second project on the Project Management and Research undergraduate module at Cardiff University. 

The title of this piece is a simple one; the aim, too. To deliver a potted history of the graphic novel should not be so very hard. There is, however, rather a lot of history to pot. We could take ourselves back to Palaeolithic cave paintings, ancient Egyptian tombs, or the Bayeux tapestry. All of these represent narratives in a pictorial form. Even when we limit ourselves to a slightly more recent history (which I’m afraid, for the sake of my keyboard, we must), we find that each country and area of the world has comics and illustrated books evolving entirely differently. Where in Japan Manga begun as pro-military, extremely nationalistic and quickly developed creative techniques of pictorial storytelling, America’s comics evolved primarily in newspapers as attractive but simple strips. Different areas of the world saw different readerships and target audiences.

We will focus our attention on the history of the graphic novel in the UK. This will necessarily include the evolution of comic strips and the illustrated book and hopefully come to an end where the two intersect.

Our story begins, albeit arbitrarily, with the beautifully illuminated (and rather cumbersome) manuscripts of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. These hand written, hand painted (and until 1500 vellum leafed) books combined word and image to embellish religious texts. They were not what one would call portable and certainly not accessible to any but the wealthiest commissioner.

The 1400s saw the development of the woodcut technique (a way to produced identical(ish) images en masse through printing) and the eventual establishment of Britain’s first commercially successful paper mill (by Spillman in 1588). These two coinciding developments meant that increasingly prints could be made cheaply in bulk and thus ready for a much wider market. Thus a kind of broadsheet print was born. Religious and current affairs were produced and flogged for very little to an ever-increasing market. These woodcuts made use of word balloons, speed-lines and juxtaposed image with text in a subtle manner. It is here, and not in the commonly-sighted nineteenth century magazines, that we can find the birth of the comic and so the narratorial form of the graphic novel.

The industry grew and grew, first through grimly popular (and distinctly inaccurate) depictions of public executions and then into caricatures of public figures and humorous illustrations. Comic and satirical captions were used; some of the illustrations even extended into strips (we’re getting closer!) and risky things were said. In fact, some of those riskily subversive illustrations resulted in the arrest, imprisonment and even assassination of artists. Here in Britain we can see political commentary and satire at the very route of the form.

As we continue rapidly on, and into theseventeenth century, we can see the growth and development of the novel and other bound forms of literature to include (and at times even focus upon) an illustrated element. These images (partly due to the new etching and printing methods necessitating separate sheets for image and text) remained distinct from their corresponding text. Although word and image were interacting with the same story, they were not together, playing off one another, interacting in that bound up way in which only the complete combination of them can muster.

At this point we must give a little bit of attention to the first chap to fully combine word and image: that rebellious bucker of trends, William Blake. His illuminated books combine word and image on one page (in fact the words are images). The meanings of the poems are created in the interplay between the two. This was an experimental (and quite ignored) step forward for the published book.

Moving into the eighteenth century and back to the ever developing magazine culture, three types of illustrated publication are beginning to emerge. We have the newspaper style Illustrated London News and its sleazier counterpart the Illustrated Police News; the ghastly and iconic penny dreadfuls; and the final (but most important to our history) humorous magazines, the most famous, and certainly the most successful of which was Punch. Established in 1841, Punch combined stories with comical illustrations and strips. Its satirical and comical tendencies drew a phenomenally large readership. In fact, upon telling my grandma about this blog article she told me that my very own grandpa was an avid subscriber. When asked what he was reading at university, he would omit the actual and reply with Punch.

There is no doubt that every addition to our pot leads us a little closer to the modern day graphic novel. But still we are lacking those two most important of elements in our modern graphic novel: a consistent and developed character/s and a sustained story line. Enter Gilbert Dalziel with Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday (first published 3rd May 1884). This black and white penny paper is still a periodical (so much more like a comic book than a graphic novel) yet it represents a significant move towards using sequential images to develop characters and narratives. Ally Sloper was a fictional (and relentlessly mocked) working class figure: lazy, social climbing and generally a bit useless; he bumbled through the papers and was read by thousands.

Ally Sloper marks the beginning of a true and relentless development and experimentation with the comic form in the UK. In the late 1960s and early 70s (and with an increasingly international community of influences) the comic form produces its first books. Though British audiences will have had access to American books, in the UK one of our first authors of the form is Raymond Briggs with both children’s and more mature works. We have now reached the promised point of intersection between the illustrated published book and the periodical comics. From this point, the form has grown and explored many genres. It has become a literature of autobiography, romance, social problems, and has even engaged with the adaptation of older written literature. The form may feel new and yet, as shown, its history is rooted in the development of both journalistic work and the literature of our country.


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