A Historical Focus on Comics

in European Comic Art
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  • 1 University of Glasgow
  • 2 University of Southern Denmark
  • 3 University of Leichester

Comics history has been an integral part of comics research from the outset, but from the late 1980s and well into the 2000s, a historical focus seemed to live a more anonymous existence. This was largely due to the burgeoning and exciting interest in close analyses of comics as ‘works’, emphasizing the medium's potential as an art form. Over the past ten years, however, research interest into comics history has regained momentum, but this time combining classic comics history with a heightened awareness of the medium's aesthetic dimension and with some of the newer trends within historical research at large. The historical interest has been furthered by theoretical and methodological trends that reach beyond comics research. Inspired by anthropology and the linguistic turn, much historical research now has a pronounced focus on cultural products (such as comics) as part of society, and not only in cultural history in a strict sense but also in interaction with broader societal and political processes and conflicts. Within the comics field, this focus most obviously lends itself to some of the comics genres that have boomed within the past fifteen years, such as memory, documentary and ‘activist’ comics, but it is not limited to these. In its updated form, comics history research also follows another general trend within historical research, namely that of transnational studies, which questions a default national framework for understanding comics history and instead follows interaction and inspiration across national borders of industries and publications, as well as individual artists. As a third feature, the field has moved beyond the most widely studied countries and time periods and thereby questions the comics canon that usually evolves around North America and a limited number of European (and Asian) countries. All in all, comics history research is back from the margin, in a new and updated format.

Charles Forsdick's article, an extended version of his keynote lecture at this year's IBDS conference, concerns the renewal by comics artists of representations of one particular historical institution, the penal colony, or bagne, which still reverberates in the popular imaginary as a synonym for a fearsome place. Forsdick notes that cultural memories of these sites, given their geographical location predominantly in far-flung colonies, are necessarily indirect and highly mediated, often through fictionalised and sensationalised accounts. He refers to work by recent historians that has established the role played by the bagne not only as a way of expelling the politically and socially troublesome but also as a basis for a colonial enterprise that required settler populations, until, amid concern over wretched conditions, the practice of deportation was ended in 1938. The article goes on to identify several visual tropes that recur in portrayals of the bagne across media including illustrations in novels, postcards, film, convict art and photography. Forsdick suggests that while mainstream comics have sometimes replicated aspects of this frequently gruesome iconography and have, moreover, perpetuated racist stereotypes, several more recent comics have challenged and reshaped it. He emphasises the capacity of comics to link time frames and spatial locations, and to relate individual stories to wider contexts, including previously muted histories of slavery and slave rebellions. The potential of comics to juxtapose the artist's graphic line with material from other sources allows for layering and nuance, while the choice of colour palette and drawing style can convey the relentlessness of a brutal regime. Forsdick draws particular attention to the work of Stéphane Blanco and Laurent Perrin, which avoids any tendency to consign the bagne to the past by tracing the continuing legacy of the imprisonment and execution of ancestors in the present-day lives of a family a continent away. It is through the weaving of just such connections, he contends, that comics has been able to counter a reductive visual language of picturesque misery and establish the bagne as a lieu de mémoire, whose meanings in a postcolonial era continue to be explored.

Marco Graziosi's article on Edward Lear focuses on national and transnational influences: those that shaped his work and those that he exerted on the development of the comics form. Graziosi shows how Lear's nursery rhyme illustrations, full of visual puns, drew on English artists like the satirist George Cruikshank and the parodist Tom Hood, while subsequent graphic narratives took the form of a Hogarthian mock-moral ‘Progress’. In addition, Lear's production in the 1840s of a series of Töpfferesque adventures leads Graziosi to speculate that the English artist may have encountered the work of the Swiss schoolmaster during a spell in Geneva, or later when the strips began to appear in English translation: there is no direct evidence to support this, but Graziosi enumerates several stylistic similarities, like the perpetual motion that propels the characters from one panel to the next. However, he also notes that that Lear is indebted to Thomas Rowlandson's Dr Syntax and, crucially, to visual travel diaries by John Ruskin and Alfred de Musset. For, unlike Töpffer's hapless heroes, the protagonist of Lear's adventures is an autobiographical avatar, and the construction of a textual self raises issues that have recurred in discussions of the late twentieth-century genre of comics autobiography, such as the lack of resemblance to the extra-textual original. Graziosi concedes, though, that Lear's influence on subsequent artists arises not out of this autobiographical work, which had only a limited circulation, but out of his Book of Nonsense, first published in 1846, a collection of limericks accompanied by sketches. He notes that that Lear's work follows Töpffer's famous dictum, according to which text and image are interdependent, neither meaningful without the other, and argues that that in this work Lear actually goes further than the Swiss artist in the shedding of detail to leave only essential features. Moreover, the fact that his work has never been out of print, unlike that of Töpffer, which fell into obscurity until its relatively recent resurrection, gives Lear a serious claim to the ancestry of a lineage of comics artists: from A. B. Frost, Marie Duval, even Wilhelm Busch through to George Herriman, Charles Schulz and Chris Ware.

Amadeo Gandolfo and Pablo Turnes contend that the history of Argentine comics is most usefully viewed as transnational rather than national, subject to influences from Europe and from the United States. Although this interaction was largely unidirectional, Gandolfo and Turnes argue that it was not a matter of mere imitation by Argentine comics artists but of cultural reappropriation, since they integrated Argentine political and social material in ways that were frequently innovatory. Throughout, Gandolfo and Turnes show how reading practices can be related to rising levels of literacy and to social class background. In the early part of the twentieth century, satirical journals modelled on European publications intended for the upper classes, newly prosperous with the growth of agricultural exports, gradually spawned more down-market imitators that used translated material from US comic strips, adapted to include relevant Argentine content and embellished with the speech balloons that characterised the dynamic US version of the comics medium. This period has been overlooked by comics historians, Gandolfo and Turnes maintain, because it does not fit into a narrowly national narrative that focuses on the post-1920s production when, with the arrival of syndicates and the introduction of daily strips into Argentine newspapers, local characters with continuing stories became established among the expanding mass readership. The transnational determinants on the Argentine comics industry become more complex as from the 1940s, with the foundation of the Abril publishing house by a group of Italian émigrés, which began by importing Disney characters. However, in the anti-US climate fostered by the national populism of the Peronist era, it was home-grown characters such as those featured in Dante Quinterno's magazine Patoruzito that were most in demand. They were, though, produced within the shop system adopted from the US comics industry, along with the US-style comic book, albeit with the Italian landscape format. As Gandolfo and Turnes demonstrate, the development of the rich comics culture of Argentina can be accounted for only by detailed tracking of the tensions, and inextricable associations, between national and US and European traditions.

Like Gandolfo and Turnes, Anna Nordenstam and Margareta Wallin Wictorin look back to a period of comics history that has been under-researched. They investigate Swedish feminist comics of the 1970s and 1980s, which laid the ground for later, better-known work by artists such as Liv Strömquist. Nordenstam and Wallin Wictorin also point to transnational influences: Swedish female comics artists were reading Claire Bretécher's satirical take on everyday life, Franziska Becker's radical feminist cartoons and the work of US underground artists like Aline Kominsky, groundbreaking in its frankness about the body and sexuality. They argue that feminist researchers have neglected the important contribution to the Swedish women's movement made by comics artists: the very fact of using humour as a weapon undermined the stigmatising of feminists as humourless, and comics played a key role in the dissemination of feminist ideas in these decades. Nordenstam and Wallin Wictorin point to the radical feminist stance of these comics, which went beyond liberal demands for equal rights. They included critiques of romantic love (using, for example, parodies of fairy tales) and of the imbalance of gender roles within marriage, with a starkness of visual style, a de-idealisation of the body and a use of everyday settings that made these dissident views all the more conspicuous. The authors emphasise the significance of the representation of lesbians in some comics, at a time when homophobia was the norm within society and when, even within the women's movement itself, gay women were silenced and invisible. A strand of radical feminism focused on class as well as gender oppression, and the authors show how comics artists deployed biting satire to denounce the failure of Social Democratic politicians to tackle structural inequalities around wages and childcare. Nordenstam and Wallin Wictorin also discuss the concern of some feminist reviews to act as a repository for a history of feminist activism, through coverage of, for example, the origins of International Women's Day, as a way of motivating contemporary women to continue the struggle. Their article is itself a contribution to this historical endeavour.

The publication of a new book about Marie Duval by Simon Grennan, Roger Sabin and Julian Waite prompts David Kunzle to reflect on the career of the first European female caricaturist, who was rediscovered by comics historians only towards the end of the twentieth century, her work having long been misattributed to her male editor, Charles Ross. The popularity of Duval's work for Judy magazine, including most notably her (probably solo) creation of the disreputable Ally Sloper in 1867, may be related, Kunzle argues, to an increase in working-class prosperity and leisure time, leading to a desire for more flippant and less worthy reading material. Kunzle tracks Duval's artistic development through the chapters of the book. Her earliest drawings were fashion plates designed to appeal to the magazine's predominantly female readership. The tight-fitting and revealing costumes offer an early indication, suggests Kunzle, of the decline of the demure Victorian lady, and the variety of perspectives from which they are drawn, as if viewed from different positions in a theatre, qualify her for consideration as a pioneer of the new visual language of graphic narratives. Moreover, she depicts the human body as infinitely malleable and liable to sudden fragmentation and transformation, a kind of distortion that prefigures twentieth-century modernism, Kunzle maintains, while also pointing to the conspicuous influence of the German artist Wilhelm Busch, upon whose work Duval drew extensively, and to that of the English George Cruikshank and the French Léonce Petit. Kunzle finally draws attention to a standalone work by Duval, a mock-heroic history of kings and queens of England, that reveals her as a skilled exponent of nonsense genre, thereby confirming the line of descent sketched out by Marco Graziosi in our second article, and coincidentally bringing this issue to a close with a suitable subversion of the notion of history as the story of nations and élites.

—The Editors


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