Debuted in 1825, The Glasgow Looking Glass (later renamed The Northern Looking Glass) was a satirical publication which lampooned the fashions and politics of the time. The Glasgow Looking Glass included most of the elements of a modern comic, such as images with captions which tell a continuous story, as well as speech bubbles, caricature and satire. Later, Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday which debuted in the British humour magazine Judy in 1867, became the first weekly comic to feature a regular character. In 1890, two more comic magazines named Comic Cuts and Illustrated Chips were introduced to the British public, thus establishing the tradition of the British comic as a periodical anthology containing comic strips.
Actual comic books first appeared in the 1930s. Although they initially also offered little more than reprinted newspaper strips, this was quickly replaced by more original content leading up to 1938 with the first publication of Action Comics in the USA which went on to change and elevate the medium to an integral part of the culture at the time. During the Second World War, superheroes and talking animals were particularly popular and led to the birth of more comic genres such as westerns, romances, and science fiction. Around the same time in Japan, manga became a major contributor in the country’s publishing industry. However, there is a much older history of comics which has taken many paths in different parts of the world.
The History Of Manga: From Telling Stories To The Birth Of A Whole New Genre
Mangas are Japanese graphic novels. The word manga is made up of two characters: Man (“whimsical”) and Ga (“Picture”). The continuation of Japanese cultural and aesthetic traditions is central to manga’s history. Toba-e hon, a book of drawings published in Japan during the Edo period (1603-1867), was perhaps the world’s first introduction to the concept of manga. Toba-e is a Japanese painting style based on works attributed to Toba Sojo from the 12th century. Toba Sojo (“Bishop of Toba”) (1053–1140) was a Tendai Buddhist high priest and artist-monk. He was skilled at both Buddhist art and satirical cartooning. His picture scroll Chj-jinbutsu-giga (“Animal-person Caricatures”) which can be found at Kyoto’s Kozan-ji temple. In the middle of eighteenth century Edo, Toba-e style images became popular as a commercial medium. Though their popularity did not last, Toba-e images have left an indelible mark on modern culture, particularly in manga.
Choju-jinbutsu-giga tells stories in sequential images with wit and humor, depicting monkeys acting out serious and comical human situations. It also includes early examples of fukidashi (speech bubbles) and other modern manga techniques such as figures appearing multiple times within a single illustration, a strong sense of visual progression, funny details within a larger scene, and the dominance of visual action over texts.
The term Manga was coined by Katshushika Hokusai, a Japanese artist during the Edo period. He was a Ukiyo-e painter and printmaker at the time. He has created over 30,000 works, the most famous of which was “The Great Wave off Kanagawa”. He has become inextricably linked with it because he chose the term “manga” for the title of a series of picture books which he published in 1814 which he named Hokusai Manga. However, these books are collections of various sketches instead of narratives telling a story that we recognize as comics today. Therefore, while Hokusai popularized the term manga, he defined the term differently than we do today. In the early 17th century, the most popular Ukiyo-e portrait of the “Floating World” made woodblock print popular and, by the late 1700s, Japanese artists were combining images and words in kibyshi (comic illustrated novels) that commented on, and sometimes satirized, aspects of modern society. These novels were widely distributed, primarily to the newly wealthy and literate urban audiences, and demonstrate that manga could contain political subject matters even early in its history.
Despite Hokusai’s use of the term, the term manga did not become popular until the late 18th century with the publication of Santo Kyoden’s picture book Shiki No Yukikai (“Seasonal Passersb y”) in 1798. Western-style satirical cartoons were introduced to Japan in the late nineteenth century by illustrated magazines for Western expatriates. New publications in both Western and Japanese styles proliferated and, by the end of the 1890s, American-style newspaper comics supplements, as well as some American comic strips, began to appear in Japan. The Jiji Manga first appeared in the Jiji Shinpo (“Current Events”) newspaper in 1900, marking the first use of the term “manga” in its modern sense, and it was here that Rakuten Kitazawa began the first modern Japanese comic strip in 1902. By the 1930s, comic strips were being serialized in high-circulation monthly girls’ and boys’ magazines and collected in hardback volumes.
Although Japanese comics and artists flourished in the 19th century, the Japanese government began to persecute artists and publishers in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Magazines would either cease publication or go out of business. Those who remain on the surface are apprehended quickly by the government. Because of the frequency of these arrests, the magazine was forced to hire new employees whose jobs entail little more than being a “jail editor” who was paid to take the government’s punishment, take all the blame and save his company.
Because of the consequences of the Second World War, any criticism of the government was considered to be treasonous. Some artists willingly follow the government, while the majority are coerced into doing so. Those who cooperated with the Japanese government were rewarded and honored by the government. Those who deny and spend their careers criticizing the government risk detention, social exclusion, or even being barred from writing. During the war, one would have seen single panel strips about Japan’s enemies, family comic strips depicting the war, and propaganda.
What the Ancient World Reveals About Comic Books
Even if they have never been labelled as such, comic books and graphic novels have long been a powerful medium for reaching out to the masses. The stories told through ancient art have reached more people than most ancient authors, but they have never received the same level of respect as writers like Thucydides or Virgil. This is due, in part, to the belief that the written word and literacy are two components of a refined civilization. However, broadening our definition of literacy to include a more graphic lexicon not only elevates comics, graphic novels and other narrative art forms, but it also allows us to read the ancient world more successfully. While graphic storytelling has often been dismissed as less important than the liberal arts of epic poetry or historical prose, visual works were critical for developing complex narratives that could stand in for alphabetic literacy.
Although the origins of the term comic and graphic novels can be traced back to the late-nineteenth-century use of comical cartoon strips inserted into American newspapers. However, if comics are broadly defined as a series of artistic panels that form graphic narratives, one could argue that they originated as early as Paleolithic France’s cave paintings. An ancient tradition in India, possibly dating back to at least 700 BC, involved picture showmen narrating stories while painted pictures were displayed concurrently (also the origin of shadow play with jointed puppets).
The ancient Mediterranean world saw oral and graphic communication, or perhaps a combination of speaking, drawing and writing, as far more effective than just words alone. In antiquity, the literacy rate was estimated to be between ten to fifteen percent. However, the ancients view literacy as existing on a spectrum and often can be supplemented by graphics. Therefore, although literacy was often a sign of privilege in the ancient world, illiteracy should not be confused with stupidity or a lack of education. Later graphic novels and comic books have a somewhat unpleasant reputation as low-brow literature perhaps is that they are more democratic media in terms of accessibility. However, democratic does not mean simplistic.
The structure of antiquity’s narrative art was somewhat similar to that of modern comics. In the same way that contemporary artists use the strip layout to structure and frame their stories, ancient artisans used registers, architectural devices, and other visual boundaries to set off specific scenes or indicate spatial and chronological movement within a story. The Near Eastern “Standard of Ur” dates from 2600 BC and is derived from the ancient city of Ur, which is now located in modern-day Iraq. Using inlaid shell, stone, and lapis lazuli, the mysterious wooden box tells a continuous story of banquets and military campaigns across three distinct registers. Similarly, in order to depict the actions of a particular pharaoh, ancient Egyptian murals in temples and tombs frequently mixed hieroglyphs with graphic depictions.
Artists in ancient Greece frequently used temple friezes and ceramics to tell stories about religious ceremonies, military victories, or mythological tales. The Parthenon frieze, which was created in the mid-fifth century BC, depicts Athenians taking part in the Panathenaic procession, a religious procession honouring Athena. The frieze depicts worshippers moving towards the Parthenon on the Acropolis of Athens. Similarly, Greek vases with various paintings on them could be arranged in a sequence to tell the story of Hercules’ twelve labours or to recreate various scenes from the Trojan War.
Many of the surviving ancient graphic narratives were funded by the state and frequently ordered by a ruler, effectively making them propaganda in pictures. The elaborate scenes shown on the Columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius in Rome were used to convey a narrative about imperialism and warfare, as well as depicting the daily lives of soldiers on the empire’s frontiers. However, some narrative art was created by the general public. Pompeii and Herculaneum provide evidence of ordinary people using graphic narratives at home, in the amphitheater and in public places such as restaurants or bars through frescoes and graffiti. A series of them discovered in a Pompeii tavern tell us a story about dice players and drinkers at the local tavern.
Aside from frescoes, elaborate marble sarcophagi could tell well-known stories, as well as inserting biographies of heroes into the stories of the deceased. With the advent of Christianity, it became increasingly important to tell the religious stories that underpinned the new religion through graphic narratives. In his Lives of the Abbots, Venerable Bede (c.763 – 735 AD) noted that Benedic Biscop, a seventh-century Anglo-Saxon abbot working in Northumbria, intermixed scenes from the New and Old Testaments to demonstrate their agreement. Following a painting of Isaac carrying wood for his sacrifice, there was a painting of Christ carrying his cross. The art was important for explaining to newly converted Christians in early England how older Jewish stories supplemented newer Christian ones within the belief system.
Narrative art continued to provide people with access to both new and old stories well into the early Middle Ages. Illuminated manuscripts, woven narratives like the 11th century Bayeux Tapestry, and many other artisan works combined text and pictures during the Middle Ages.
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, prints began to satirize and caricature aspects of political and social life. Prints would occasionally include multiple images to relate multiple scenes of a narrative, as in Frans Hogenberg’s depictions of the Spanish Fury (1576) and the murder of Henry III of France (1589).
William Hogarth (1697–1764) was one of the first British artists to create a sequential series of satirical art. Hogarth created seven sequences of images on “Modern Moral Subjects.” A Rake’s Progress, one of his works, was composed of a number of canvases, each of which was reproduced as a print, and the eight prints together created a narrative. Magazines and newspapers arose as printing techniques advanced as a result of the industrial revolution’s technological advances. The first two plates in William Hogarth’s “Marriage à la Mode” series of six already tell us a sequential story. The first plate depicts the wealthy Lord Squanderfield and the bride’s poor merchant father signing a marriage contract and the second plate depicts the couple’s morning after a night out. Because the wife is already wearing a bonnet, the dog pulls a bonnet from the husband’s pocket, which may allude to infidelity. Since 1842, these publications have used illustrations to comment on political and social issues, and such illustrations have come to be known as “cartoons.”
Visual Storytelling: Ancient Tool of Propaganda
In 2016, archaeologists in Jordan discovered an extremely ancient incarnation of pictorial storytelling. There are nearly 260 figures featured in narrative scenes painted on the walls of a 2,000-year-old Roman-era tomb, with many speaking via comic-style speech bubbles. Since then, Jordanian and foreign experts have studied the tomb which is thought to be part of a necropolis. The tomb is located on the site of Capitolias, an ancient city that was founded in the late first century AD and was part of the Decapolis, a region that brought together Hellenized cities in the Near East’s south-eastern region, between Damascus and Amman.
Although there is evidence that the tomb was looted before it was discovered, the figures on the wall are in good condition. The vibrant images depict a thriving city on the outskirts of the Roman Empire, with Olympus gods feasting and being served by humans, peasants tending their fields and grapevines, lumberjacks cutting trees, and detailed panels of architects and workers building the city. The ceiling paintings depict the Nile and frolicking cupids.
The small captions that appear next to some of the figures are perhaps the most striking feature for modern viewers. There are around sixty black-painted texts written in the local language of Aramaic while using Greek letters. The inscriptions are similar to speech bubbles in comic books in that they describe the activities of the characters, who explain what they are doing. For example, “I am cutting (stone)”, “Alas for me! I am no longer alive!”
As a whole, the comic strip tells a story. The panels document the city’s founding, with the first banquet scene depicting the gods deciding where to locate Capitolias. The following panels depict people clearing land for the city, constructing its walls, and celebrating their efforts with a sacrifice to Jupiter Capitolinus, the city’s patron deity.
In ancient Rome, the story of Emperor Trajan’s victory over a powerful barbarian empire is also told in 155 scenes carved on a monumental column in a spiral frieze. Between 101 and 106 AD, Emperor Trajan mustered tens of thousands of Roman troops, crossed the Danube River on two of the ancient world’s longest bridges, defeated an empire twice on its mountainous home turf before wiping it off the face of Europe.
Trajan’s war against the Dacians, a civilization in what is now Romania, was a watershed moment in his nineteen-year reign. The conquest yielded a half million pounds of gold and a million pounds of silver, as well as a fertile new province. Trajan commissioned a forum to commemorate the victory, which included a large plaza surrounded by colonnades, two libraries, a grand civic space known as the Basilica Ulpia, and possibly even a temple. A 126-foot-tall stone column crowned with a bronze statue of the conqueror towered over it. A narrative of the Dacian campaigns spirals around the column like a modern-day comic strip, with thousands of intricately carved Romans and Dacians marching, building, fighting, sailing, sneaking, negotiating, pleading, and dying in 155 scenes. The column, which was completed in 113, has stood for over 1,900 years.