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Frames Of Reference:

The Progress Of British Comics

Who could have imagined thirty years ago that some Geordie teenagers who had started a crude, rude magazine from their bedroom in 1979 would not only have their satirical scrawls on the walls of Tate Britain but would be invited to curate a whole room in Rude Britannia, the current survey of humor in British visual art?

The gallery’s invitation to Viz is yet another example of the acceptance, even ascendance, of the comics medium into this country’s cultural echelons. Within the traditional hierarchy of the high and low visual arts, cartooning, in the sense of the art of writing and drawing comedy, has tended to come low on the ladder of esteem, lower than illustration and lower even than advertising. What’s more, within cartooning itself the comics have usually been relegated to the very bottom rung below the somewhat classier categories, in descending order, of caricatures, political, social or gag cartoons.

Looking back along the road to supposed respectability, from the gutter to the gallery, modern comics have been beset by delays, detours and dead ends, taking two steps forward but often one step back. Nevertheless, however erratically, they have progressed in response to changing traditions, technologies, tastes and foreign influences. To explore how British comics seem to have arrived, let us examine a few chance turning points that they encountered on the way.

Hogarth: Plate 1 of A Harlot’s Progress

William Hogarth would seem to be pivotal, if not primary, by making a series of fateful decisions that led to him self-publishing his first of five suites of narrative engravings, A Harlot’s Progress, in April 1732. It might never have happened if he had not heeded the casual suggestions by visitors to his studio to turn his single picture of a pretty prostitute into a pair, a ‘Before’ and ‘After’. From there he would eventually transform the initial piece into the third in a sequence of six paintings and crucially marketed relatively cheaper engravings of them. Not that his Harlot’s and Rake’s Progresses are the Year Zero of comics. Hogarth had plenty of precedents and was consciously harking back, for example, to popular 17th-century genre engravings imported from Venice, which were posed, po-faced and edifying.

As in many cases of satirical humour, then and now, for anyone to get the full joke often requires an awareness of a repertoire of references, both to the times and to earlier sources. So Hogarth could count on his clients to share in the irony of ennobling such commonplace genre material first into imposing history paintings and then into carefully crafted engravings, where stiff classical types were recast as typical, topical Londoners, acutely observed from life. For all his avowed moralising, Hogarth also knew that he was scandal-mongering and serving up saucy sex to his male-only customers, so in the final sixth print he leavened the potentially gloomy wake for his deceased harlot with more prostitutes plying their trade.

Some have questioned whether these Progresses truly belong among the ancestors of comics. To Belgian comics historian Thierry Groensteen, for example, Hogarth ‘seems more decisive for the history of caricature than for that of comics, of which he is only one relatively marginal milestone among others.’ (1) Groensteen has a point, provided that the foundation of comics is to be defined, and confined, by ‘the sequential logic of action’, whereas Hogarth’s five main narrative sequences are made up of small sets of large pictures - four, six, eight, twelve at most - that are dense with meanings and separated by great leaps in time, place and story. They seem remote from the multiplicity and seeming simplicity of drawings, often neatly boxed into panels, in moment-to-moment modern comics, as in a ‘proper’ comic page of Sid the Sexist or The Bash Street Kids today.

In contrast, Hogarth’s images set out no one specific path to follow within them and, even with accompanying textual commentaries placed beneath in some cases, they operate more like cryptic visual puzzles that entice the eye and mind of the reader/viewer to wander at leisure through each picture, spotting clues, connections, references and differences within and between the prints. And that processing capacity is precisely what is needed still to navigate comics. Putting the Progresses into a broader perspective, Belgian theorist Thierry Smolderen emphasises the subsequent significance of Hogarth’s ‘arabesque’ digressions, adopted by such contemporary novelists as Laurence Sterne and Henry Fielding, and his invention of a ‘polygraphic language of irony and humour, capable of conveying the complexity, tensions and contradictions of the times’ (2) which clearly continues to underpin the medium.

James Gillray: John Bull’s Progress

Hogarth’s heirs during Britain’s rumbustious Golden Age of Caricature, roughly 1770 to 1820, included James Gillray, who occasionally used the term and simplified the visual and narrative levels of the Progresses. For example, in John Bull’s Progress of 1793 Gillray combined four captioned pictures on one sheet, while his 1806 The Rake’s Progress at the University charted the faux pas which lead to a student’s expulsion and his 1810 Progress of the Toilet showed three fixed-view stages in a lady’s elaborate preparations, from ‘stays’ and ‘wig’ to ‘dress completed’. That said, such examples of sequential visual narratives were few and far between compared to the single cartoons, albeit with abundant billowing speech balloons.

Across the continent, however, the Genevan teacher Rodolphe Töpffer was evolving his seminal comic strip albums, true prototypes of today’s graphic novels, and invoked Hogarth’s considerable reputation by association to bolster their credibility. He claimed to have been particularly struck as a boy by Hogarth’s Industry and Idleness parable. Through what Töpffer called Hogarth’s ‘romans en estampes’ (novels in engravings), he identified the Englishman as ‘less a gifted artist than an admirable, profound, practical and popular moralist’ and as the ‘master of the genre’. (3)

Thackeray: ‘The Bandit’s Revenge or The Fatal Sword’

Töpffer had been anxious that his ‘trifles’ would undermine his academic advancement, so he took several years before plucking up the courage to self-publish, like Hogarth, the first of his extended satirical albums. The Swiss schoolmaster had been encouraged, however, over the winter of 1830-31 by none other than Goethe. Though nearing the end of his life, the great German writer and polymath wrote to Töpffer to express delight at an early draft of his Dr. Festus story. In fact, his drawing in this was inspired less by Hogarth and more by the greater lightness of line, refinement of detail and exaggerated faces and figures of Thomas Rowlandson, well-known for his character Dr. Syntax.

In another of those turning points, a nineteen-year-old William Makepeace Thackeray happened to be spending that same winter in Weimar and came into Goethe’s circle. Though Thackeray makes no specific mention, it seems highly likely that during these encounters he too enjoyed Töpffer’s manuscripts, because he was soon producing his own in a similar vein. Thackeray’s ‘two stories told in caricature sketches with captions’ (4) to entertain a young lady were later published in his Weimar Sketch-Book in 1830. Although Vanity Fair (1847-8) brought him fame as a writer, humorous drawing, often in narratives, remained a lifelong yet sidelined passion.

George Cruikshank: Plate No. 8 from ‘The Loving Ballad of Lord Bateman’

Significantly, Smolderen suggests that it was probably Thackeray who introduced his friend George Cruikshank to the first Parisian editions of Töpffer’s successful albums in London in the late 1830s (5). Cruikshank caught the bug and tried his own. The illustrator of Dickens wanted to be seen as a writer as well. In the multi-panelled, single-page skit The Loving Ballad of Lord Bateman in 1839, each of its eleven ‘Plates’ is counterpointed beneath by amusing text, all in the same hand. His attempt in 1844 at a comical album, The Bachelor’s Own Book; or The Progress of Mr Lambkin, (Gent), in the Pursuit of Pleasure and Amusement, and also in Search of Health and Happinness was an oddity. It looked back more to Hogarth a century before, as its title hints, than to Töpffer’s modern, wittier, looser comedy. The public did not get the joke and it was a flop. A discouraged Cruikshank dropped plans for a sequel. Once the crusade for temperance gripped him and literary limelight lured Thackeray away, neither would fulfil the promise of their early forays into comics, but the seeds were planted.

As literacy and the press burgeoned, newspapers and magazines offered other cartoonists more opportunity, immediacy and regular column inches. While Cruikshank refused to work for Punch magazine, launched in 1841, Thackeray would write for the weekly from July 1842. Early on, Punch‘s literary editorial committee indulged some recurring characters and serialised stories, such as Richard Doyle’s travelogue lampoon The Foreign Tour of Messrs. Brown, Jones and Robinson, John Leech’s bumbling amateur sportsman Mr Briggs, or George du Maurier’s diminutive Tom Tit. Most Punch cartoons, however, were originated by writers as lengthy, word-driven playlets for two or more actors, which artists would have to condense into one cramped scene, when they would have benefitted from being unpacked into several drawings to convey changing facial expressions and body language.

Marie Duval: An Ally Sloper escapade, Judy

Comics were let out of the box in the pages of Judy, one of Punch‘s undisguised imitators, when Charles Henry Ross introduced the bulbous-nosed East End scoundrel Ally Sloper, his Dickensian name referring to his tendency to slop down an alley to evade his debtors. Sloper debuted in five scams from August 14 1867, and then disappeared until December 1 1869, when Ross was joined by Marie Duval, pen-name of his young Parisian wife, Isabelle Emilie de Tessier. After the first two weeks, Duval took over the drawing and in nearly sixty yarns during the next two years established British comics’ first anti-hero, a loveable, lower-class rogue.

Duval, probably the first woman cartoonist in Europe, imported some of Töpffer’s faux-naïf line mixed with the latest slapstick physicality of Germany’s Wilhelm Busch, creator in 1865 of the mischievous boys Max & Moritz. Sloper took on a life of his own: admired for his brazen cheek as if he really existed, widely merchandised and brought to life in fairs, music halls and other venues across the country (6). In 1873, the Sloper comics were compiled into the first such book collection, subtitled ironically A Moral Lesson, and in 1884 he was awarded his own weekly, Ally Sloper’s Half-Holiday. On its front pages, however, the childlike vitality of his comics was replaced by more polished but non-sequential, single tableaux, another retrograde step back to Hogarth.

H.M. Bateman: The Missing Stamp, Punch, January 11, 1922.

Nevertheless, by this time, Victorian comics for the newly literate masses were flourishing and artists were experimenting with a wider range of styles. Phil May’s Cockney types and Tom Browne’s tramps Weary Willie and Tired Tim would declutter the decorous rendering and streamline a crisper, more expressive approach, better suited to cheap printing and swifter deciphering. Starting in 1888, the weekly pages of Pick-Me-Up showcased short, simple, wordless comics, most from France and Germany. Synthesising the work of Russian emigré Caran d’Ache in Paris, H.M. Bateman established ‘silent’, purely visual strips as a successful homegrown format in, of all places, Punch.

Posy Simmonds: Tamara Drewe

With all the elements in place, the twentieth century saw British humour comics wildly diversify in style, subject and voice as newspaper strips, children’s weeklies, underground comix, fanzines, graphic novels and now webcomics, blogs and apps. In the twenty-first century comics’ inherent multidisciplinarity is seeing them connect and interact with all the other media, adopted and adapted by their diverse practitioners. Beyond this very exhibition, if one turning point can sum up their arrival, it may be the election in 2005 of Raymond Briggs and Posy Simmonds, the first graphic novelists (not counting Thackray of course) into the Royal Society of Literature. (7)

In the same way that Hogarth sent up those earlier high-minded Venetian prints or Viz undermined The Beano, The Sun and the Photo Love stories in Jackie, so works like Briggs’ When The Wind Blows, by no means a children’s picture book, or Simmonds’ Tamara Drewe, more than an update of Thomas Hardy’s Far From The Madding Crowd, draw on many frames of reference, literary and artistic, to subvert expectations. Rather than resting on their laurels, both authors are at work on their next projects. They are not alone. More tipping points in the ‘polygraphic’ progress of comics lie ahead.


(1) Thierry Groensteen, Neuvième Art Blog, Angoulême, France, 2010

(2) Thierry Smolderen’s Naissances de la Bande Dessinée: de William Hogarth à Winsor McCay (Births of the Comics: From William Hogarth to Winsor McCay), Brussels, Belgium, Les Impressions Nouvelles, 2009

(3) Thierry Groensteen & Benoît Peeters, Töpffer: L’invention de la bande dessinée (Töpffer: The Invention of Comics), Paris, Hermann, 1994

(4) Catherine Peters, Thackeray’s Universe: Shifting Worlds of Imagination and Reality, London, Faber & Faber, 1987

(5) Thierry Smolderen, ibid.

(6) Roger Sabin, Ally Sloper on Stage in European Comic Art Volume 2, Number 2, Liverpool University Press, Autumn 2009

(7) The Royal Society of Literature Review 2006, London, 2006

Posted: July 11, 2010

This essay was published in the exhibition catalogue Rude Britannia: British Comic Art by Tate Publishing, June 2010.


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Rude Britannia:
British Comic Art

9 June to 5 Sept, 2010

Ally Sloper
George Cruikshank

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