COMICS CRASH COURSE – EPISODE #3: “Print Culture Gets Going

COMICS CRASH COURSE – EPISODE #3: “Print Culture Gets Going

Hi, and welcome to Episode Three of
Comics Crash Course. History marches on, and so do we; right to the birth of print
culture. Which leads us to the cusp of modern comics. So, if we’re going to talk
about print culture that means we need to discuss one of the most significant
moments in history: Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1440
CE. Now Gutenberg wasn’t actually the first
person to invent a printing press, or even the first person to invent a
movable type, Wood block printing existed in China for
at least, well, 700 years before this and it had been popular in Europe for over a
hundred years before Gutenberg. But where wood block printing only allows printing
of one pre-carved page or a section of text at a time; moveable type is
different. The printer sets individual letter pieces into words and lines to
create a form, and then sets this into a press. Once the project is done those
letters and the press can be reused for different projects. But even movable type
had been invented before Gutenberg in China (again!) around 1040 CE. So why does
Gutenberg get the credit? Well, for one thing white folks tend to ignore
everything happening outside of Europe. But there are genuine innovations in
Gutenberg’s press. He combined the reusability of movable type with a newly
mechanized version of the screw press to create a new printing -process-. Therefore
multiple pages set with movable type could be prepared ahead of time, one page
could be inked printed and then switched out to the next page quickly. and
relatively easily, and the results on the culture were MASSIVE. Because books were
now much more widely available due to being much easier to print, and not the
one-of-a-kind creations of scribes. More people could read them and since more
people could more people DID, leading to a huge leap in literacy rates. Hand-in-hand with this increase in literacy was a movement away from Latin towards the
increase of local vernacular languages, meaning that people would read and write
in English, French, German, Italian, etc. instead of just in Latin.
This rising literacy led to the creation not just books but of other kinds of
print media…particularly, for our purposes, newspapers.
The first newspaper in Europe appeared in Germany in 1605 and this was followed shortly by
successful papers in the Netherlands, France, Portugal, and Spain. Amsterdam in
particular became a hub for printing newspapers, and it was where the first
English-language paper was printed in 1620. In fact, the first recorded daily
newspaper printed in England wouldn’t debut until 1702, and first regularly
published US newspaper, THE BOSTON NEWSLETTER, appeared in 1704. Now,
alongside, newspapers broadsheets, or broadsides, became a popular form of
print media. These were, like newspapers, ephemera: they were meant to be consumed, read and thrown away, not kept like books. These were large, often 2 x 2.5 feet. Some were printed on a single side and meant to be posted, these were
broadsides; and others were printed on both sides, these were broadsheets. Unlike
newspapers, they were frequently used for Royal announcements or governmental
edicts, but often ended up becoming places for political discourse like, oh, say this one. And often as well for sensationalist propaganda. Aometimes they
were even used for folklore, to record ballads, and song lyrics, and the like. So why
are we talking about broadsheets? Well, because of their size and often extreme
nature in content, broadsheets and illustrations were natural companions. And
as David Kunzle well points out in a ton of detail in his book THE EARLY COMIC STRIP, many of these illustrations ended up looking very much like comic strips.
Take for example Francis Barlow’s 1682 broadsheet, A TRUE NARRATIVE OF THE HORRID HELLISH POPISH PLOT. It has panels, captions and boxes, and even early
versions of speech balloons which were often called banderoles at this point.
Now this is tabloid stuff. Anti-catholic sentiment in particular inspired a lot
of propaganda throughout the 16 and 1700s,
but there’s stranger stuff too like this piece inspired by the Mary Toft affair. In case you don’t know, this is a woman who had convinced the King’s own doctor
that she had been giving birth to litters of rabbits. That particular story
was salacious enough to inspire the print maker William Hogarth as well.
Now Hogarth was an insanely popular artist at the time, whose work was
satirical and often politically tinged. He was known for works like– and I’m
sorry for the title–A HARLOT’S PROGRESS–a series of sequential paintings he made
that became so popular he decided to engrave them in 1731 and sell them as a
series of prints. The engravings were so popular people started forging them, and
as a result Hogarth lobbied Parliament to change copyright laws to extend to
engravings. He would go on to do two nearly as popular sequels and one of
them, A RAKE’S PROGRESS, the painting set still hangs in the John Sloan Museum in
London… a kind of one-of-a-kind comic strip: paintings in sequence. Now Hogarth
was satirical and often politically tinged, but he saw himself primarily as a
fine artist. However, between the politically explicit illustrations in
the broadsides and Hogarth’s politically satirical prints, the first explicitly
political cartoonists (as we think of them today) begin to appear around 1750,
particularly in prints and in humor magazines. These satirical and explicitly
political illustrations begin in the latter half of the 18th century and are
spearheaded in particular by English cartoonists like James Gillray,
Thomas Rowlandson and eventually George Cruikshank. Editorial cartooning would be
cemented in newspapers as a way to comment in particular on the French
Revolution. But political editorial cartooning truly found its home in humor
and satire magazines, which would be founded in the 1830s. One of the most
important early titles was a French magazine called LE CHARIVARI, but
perhaps the most influential humor magazine is PUNCH, OR THE LONDON CHARIVARI, founded in 1841. What makes it so important? Well, for one I’ve been using
the word cartoon haven’t I? That’s thanks to PUNCH.
Tou see in 1843 the English Parliament was going to hold an exhibition of
paintings and murals as a way to celebrate having been rebuilt after a
big fire in 1834. Artists were supposed to submit cartoons from the Italian word
cartone, the original meaning of the word was, “a preliminary drawing for a
work of art.” They would then choose the final works of art to exhibit from those
“cartoons.” At the time the most popular part of PUNCH was a full-page satirical
drawing known as “The Big Cut” entitled “Mr. Punch’s Pencilings.” But in July of
1843, “The Big Cut,” was replaced for the week by the magazine’s own cartoon. John
Leech decided to make fun of parliament because London at the time… if you’ve
read any Dickens…was a city that was struggling with extreme poverty. He
wanted to contrast the sumptuousness of the parliamentary exhibit with the
miserable poverty of the starving population, claiming that the government
had quote, “determined that as they cannot afford to give the hungry nakedness the
substance which it covets at least it shall have the shadow. The poor asked for
bread and the philanthropy of the state accords an exhibition.” The word cartoon
stuck and has become associated with political satire, and eventually with any
kind of humorous drawing. And now we use it for that exclusively, and not in the
previous sense of the term. The popularity of PUNCH signaled the
beginning of a huge industry of satire magazines, and not only in the UK. It
spread to the USA. By the latter half of the century the creation of magazines
like HARPER’S WEEKLY which was founded in 1857,
PUCK in 1877, JUDGE in 1881, and LIFE MAGAZINE which was also founded as a
humor and satire magazine in 1883. Now while all this was going on, a teacher in
Switzerland started publishing some of his funny books that he’d been making to
entertain his students…books many scholars call the first comics. But
that’s what we’ll start next week. See you then! you

2 thoughts on “COMICS CRASH COURSE – EPISODE #3: “Print Culture Gets Going

  1. So far so good. But still no sign of anything remotely resembling The 1933 Comic Book.
    At least MAD is in the same (jugular) vein as the first satirical publications.

    BTW: All things being equal, c15 China knew very little about Germany.
    Meanwhile, back in Europe… not many people could read.

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