Words and Pictures in PeriodicalsThe combination of words and pictures in British periodicals caught on quickly. The first issue of Penny Magazine hit stands in 1832, and soon had a circulation of 200,000. Other illustrated weekly magazines – the London Journal (1845-1906), Reynold’s Miscellany (1846-69), and Cassell’s Illustrated Family Paper (1853-1932) – had comparable success:
For most of these magazines, illustration, rivaled only by sensational fiction, was the main selling-point, and several weekly journals achieved impressive regular sales ranging from 80,000 to more than 400,000 copies per issue. (Anderson 1)
Illustrations were not just decorations in these publications: they were a veritable commercial force. Why did readers react with such enthusiasm to this new form of news? Patricia Anderson argues that, “it is clear that illustrated publications had the draw of greater novelty, and they accordingly found a readier market among a public whose taste was increasingly for new and varied sources of knowledge and amusement” (Anderson 2-3). In other words, when illustrated magazines became available, older periodicals, with their stern columns of text, began to look dull and lifeless.
However, illustrated periodicals were more than just a novelty. They represented a new way of receiving information, one that combined two forms of aesthetic experience – reading and seeing. This has obvious practical implications. Reading and seeing are impossible to do at once, and each activity offers its own set of sensations. For Frank Cioffi, seeing has a more visceral quality: “an image will conjure up something in the reader, something rather immediate and specific, insofar as it ‘represents’ an aspect of the so-called natural world, or something that could be part of that world” (Cioffi 98). So when a reader flips to a full-page illustration, the whole of the image strikes the eye, giving an immediate impression. The longer the reader looks, the more details emerge, but the feeling of that first impression remains. As David Carrier puts it, “even when looking at one isolated detail, I remain aware of the entire painting.” When reading, on the other hand, “my sense of the whole artwork is inherently diffuse. I may return to favorite passages, but my attention is directed at a long text, no single page of which I can attend to entirely all at once” (Carrier 62). Reading is a more sequential, left-to-right activity than viewing images, requiring consumption of abstract characters to make meaning. When flipping to a page full of conventional printed text, one cannot possibly register an immediate emotion. At first glance, all such pages look more or less the same.
In order to take in an illustrated periodical, the reader had to both read and see. Image and text crowded the page, sometimes haphazardly:
Newspaper design was not given to establishing hierarchy or categorization; the news was largely unsegmented, presenting an impression of an unmapped and perhaps unmappable world. At first, even the boundary between advertising and editorial content was not clearly demarcated. (Barnhurst and Nerone)
In order to make sense of this chaos, readers had to become adept at transitioning between words and pictures. But rather than finding this task too difficult, readers relished it. The illustrated periodical was not a novelty that ran its course. Rather, after its auspicious beginnings, it became even more popular, especially in the 1890s. The sheer number of illustrated periodicals founded in that decade testifies to their enormous and rising popularity: The Daily Graphic (1890); The Gentlewoman: A Illustrated Weekly Journal for Gentlewomen (1890); Black & White: A Weekly Illustrated Record and Review (1891); The Illustrated Police Budget (1893); Pear’s Annual (1893); The Sketch (1893); The Mirror of Life (1894); The Cigarette: The Saturday Popular Pictorial Journal (1898); Shurey’s Illustrated (1899).
As illustrated periodicals moved up in the marketplace, illustrations themselves rose to greater prominence. No longer submissive decorations, they became economic and artistic forces in their own right. As J. Reginald Tye tells us, “Illustration of periodicals in the nineties changed markedly, and its presence or absence often determined life or death” for the publication (Tye 25). Illustrated books from the period were especially sophisticated in their juxtaposition of image and text. Lorraine Kooistra has shown how book illustrators in the 1890s began to take some artistic initiative. Traditionally, Kooistra argues, the illustration played the female to the text’s male, provide “a charming embellishment, a graceful but inessential beauty”(Kooistra 9). At the fin de siècle, this relationship became more complex as the illustration asserted a measure of independence, interpreting and sometimes even distorting or parodying the text. In another article on book illustrations, Nicholas Frankel describes how Aubrey Beardsley’s famous work not only interpreted texts, but transcended them by “accentuating the material totality of the text or book as object” (Frankel 262). The overarching message is this: reading materials of all kinds, books and periodicals, began to depend less on words and more on the tension between words and pictures. Thus, the stage had been set for comics. - more