British Comics at the Fin de Siècle

Guy Sessions

“The Guy of the Session,” Fun (1884)

Creator: James Francis Sullivan

This single-panel cartoon by Sullivan also appeared in Fun, about five months after “Only Keep It Long Enough.” The contrast between the two is a case study in the differences between strips and single-panel cartoons, especially in their use of image-text. “The Guy of the Session” is a fully interdependent panel, where each word and image contributes to its overall meaning. The image would not make sense without the words – both the caption and the placards within the picture – and vice versa.

With this cartoon, Sullivan is working out of a long tradition of interdependency in caricature. In integrating text and image, cartoons were about a century ahead of sequential comics. Back in the early 1800s, British caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson began to use speech balloons, a technique that finally caught on in American newspaper strips at the beginning of the twentieth century. Now speech balloons dominate the medium – in the United States, in England, and everywhere else comics are made. (A few artists, such as Andy Runton and Louis Trondheim, carry on the tradition of silent comics.)

Why did single-panel cartoons develop image-text interdependency so long before strips did? From a reader’s perspective, it is fairly easy to handle words and images when they inhabit the same space. “The Guy of the Session,” for instance, features not a single complete sentence. The reader does not feel that he is reading, but looking. His cognition of the image and the words – “hereditary legislator,” “franchise bill,” “the guy of the session,” and “carrying the franchise bill through the Commons” – is nearly immediate and does not require following a narrative. Also, when there is just one panel, the reader feels free to linger. Only when image-text interdependency is spread out over a sequence of images does the reader start moving quickly and juggling the tasks of reading and looking. However, as we will see, single-panel cartoons had an influence on the earliest attempts at image-text interdependency in sequential comics.

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