British Comics at the Fin de Siècle

british comics


Before the nineteenth century, the word and the printed image were like oil and water. The printing press reproduced words with relative ease, but not illustrations, and so most newspapers and magazines featured only text. Then, in the early 1800s, a flurry of advances in printing methods – mechanized paper-making, the steam-powered press, multiple-cylinder stereotype printing – made profitable the mass reproduction of images. Illustrated periodicals began to hit the marketplace and met with enormous success. Readers became accustomed not only to reading, but also to looking.This paved the way for comics*, which brought words and pictures closer together than ever before. Whereas illustrated periodicals put words and images side-by-side on the printed page, comics unified them in a single artistic organism. As the medium became more popular, artists began to experiment with sequential interdependent panels, in which text and image combined to tell a story that neither could tell on its own. These kinds of panels became more prevalent in the fin de siècle, training readers to balance the activities of reading and looking. Eventually, interdependent panels came to dominate the medium.

Of course, comics had been around long before the nineteenth century. If one defines the medium as broadly as Scott McCloud does – “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence” (McCloud 8) – cave paintings, Egyptian hieroglyphs, and the Chinese language qualify as comics. But those, like most early comics, are silent comics, lacking the tension between word and picture that came to define the medium in the 1800s. Also falling under the large umbrella of McCloud’s definition are the “novels in paint” of British artist William Hogarth, including his famous A Harlot’s Progress (1732), which consisted of six paintings, each accompanied by an explanatory caption. But reproducing and distributing Hogarth’s exquisitely detailed paintings proved too expensive, and his work reached merely a fraction of the audience that fin de siècle comics did. Furthermore, the panels of The Harlot’s Progress lack the moment-to-moment fluidity of later comics, and the words were largely unnecessary (Gravett 82-6). Not even an innovator like Hogarth challenged readers to handle words and pictures simultaneously. British and American comics creators would blaze that trail in the late nineteenth century. But first, illustrated periodicals had to clear the path. - more