British Comics at the Fin de Siècle

british comics

Words and Pictures in Comics

The links between illustrated periodicals and comics are not just aesthetic ones. Comics often appeared in illustrated periodicals, alongside the text of a story or an advertisement. They were treated as just another part of the newspaper or magazine. If a strip showed particular promise, the periodical might feature it in a pull-out supplement, as the Weekly Budget did with Funny Folks. Then, if the supplement proved popular, it might become an independent magazine – again, Funny Folks is an example.

Artists and publishers who worked in illustrated periodicals formed the core of the burgeoning comics industry. Creating comics has never been lucrative, so the comics pioneers of the fin de siècle, such as Tom Browne and James Francis Sullivan, paid the bills by illustrating and cartooning for a variety of pictorial newspapers and magazines. The first publishers of comics also kept one foot in the illustrated periodicals market.

Given these connections between illustrated news and comics, it comes as no surprise that the first comics “boom” coincides with the second wave of British illustrated periodicals. The first half of the 1890s alone saw the releases of Comic Cuts (1890), Funny Cuts (1890), Snap-Shots (1890), Joker (1891), Nuggets (1892), World’s Comic (1892), Funny Wonder (1893), Larks (1893), Picture Politics (1894), and Comic Home Journal (1895).2 At a half penny each, these comic books flew off the stands.

These comics varied widely in their formal adventurousness. Some kept words and pictures chastely separate, like early comics. In text-dominant narratives (see: “Temperance Rewarded” and “A Wild Night’s Adventure with Spring-Heeled Jack”), words told a complete, cohesive story while pictures provided decoration; in picture-dominant narratives, words added nothing to a visually-told narrative (see: “Ye Baron’s Daughter…”). Text-dominant and picture-dominant comics offered the opportunity to alternate between reading and seeing, but did not require it. Readers could either ignore the pictures or skip the text, and still grasp the meaning of the strip. Silent comics, still common during this period, dispensed with words altogether (see: “The Boa and Its Victim”). More formally innovative comics relied on both words and pictures to tell their stories (see “Some of the Mysteries of Loan and Discount,” “In the Spring…,” “The Pup – What Will He Become?”). These comics placed special emphasis on the skills of reading and seeing.

Scott McCloud has listed a number of ways that words and pictures can be combined in comics. In “word-specific” panels, pictures illustrate a text which is largely complete on its own. Conversely, in “picture-specific” panels, words provide a soundtrack to a sequence told in images. Words can also clarify or amplify pictures – and vice versa – or function as integral elements in a picture. Finally, in “interdependent panels,” words and pictures work together to convey an idea that neither could convey alone (McCloud 153-5). The main innovations of British comics of the fin de siècle are interdependent panels, which appear sporadically early on but eventually become de rigueur. Starting in the 1890s, comics did more than merely suggest that readers both read and look – they demanded it. But the readers, fortified by years of consuming image-text, were up to the challenge. - more

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