Comic Books and Sequential Art Through History

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15 May 13

Comic books have evolved over the past century from black and white single-panel cartoons to sprawling works spanning multiple bound editions. What you might not have learned in art history school is that the origins of comic books stretch as far as the Paleolithic era. Sequential Art, a term coined by Will Eisner, predates modern comics by millennia and is the origin of comic books as we know them today.

The Yellow Kid 1897

Comic books have their most recent origins in comic strips. Originally used as a method to sell Sunday editions of the newspaper, comic strips like “Hogan’s Alley” are the most recognizable ancestor to modern comic books. Created by Richard F. Outcault, “Hogan’s Alley” is one of the first comic strips to be run in an American paper. According to TheComicBooks.com, the first modern comic book, called “The Yellow Kid in McFadden’s Flats,” was published by the D. W. Dillingham Company In 1897. The book was a collection of comic strips featuring Outcault’s Yellow Kid, a reoccurring character from “Hogan’s Alley.” Printed on the inside of the back cover were the words “Comic Book,” making it the first incarnation of the modern comic book.

Photo: Cover of “Yellow Kid” Comic Book

William Hogarth’s Satire 1732-1745

The use of sequential images in “The Yellow Kid in McFadden Flats” is, however, predated by over a century in the fine-art world. Between 1732 and 1745, painter William Hogarth created several series of paintings to be reproduced as engravings. Hogarth meant to satirize contemporary behaviors and customs with his work. For example, “Marriage a-la-mode” is a tale of an arranged marriage that ends in murder and suicide for the groom and bride.  Every painting in the serial contains clues to the events that precede it, such as masks on the floor to indicate the previous nights debaucheries. The entire serial is collected in the National Gallery in London, an can be viewed online at TheNationalGallery.org.uk.

Photo: Scene from William Hogarth’s “Marriage a-la-mode.”

Bayeux Tapestry 1080 AD

Reaching further back in history, more examples of sequential image storytelling arise. The Bayeux Tapestry, embroidered by hand sometime around 1080 AD, is a 230-foot-long series of eight long strips of linen depicting the invasion of England by the Normans as well as the Battle of Hastings. Consisting of 72 scenes, the Tapestry uses captions to explain the scenes and to name characters, effectively serving as a narrator to the images. According to the Bayeux Tapestry Museum, the tapestry contains over 600 characters, as well as hundreds of horses, dogs and other animals.

Photo: Scene from Bayeux Tapestry.

Trajan’s Column 113 AD

Comic books and the ancestry of sequential story telling goes back to the ancient era. Trajan’s Column, built in 113 AD to celebrate the Roman Emperor Trajan’s efforts in the Dacian War, tells the story of two victorious campaigns in bas-relief wound upward along the column. In addition, the ancient Greeks and Mayans used sequence art to depict daily life on urns, flatware and pots. The earliest form of sequential art is the Lascaux Cave Paintings, a series of Paleolithic era paintings found in France in 1940. These cave paintings depict nearly 2000 figures of animals, humans and abstract signs. Some of the groupings appear to be depicting events in a chronological order. Humans have told their stories using images in sequence as long as we’ve had stories to tell. Comic books are the most recent (and perhaps most successful) of this ancient method.

Photo: Portion of Trajan’s Column.