Dark Successions: Gothic sequential art and the 19th century comic strip

Posted by Dr David Annwn Jones on January 01, 2014 in Uncategorized tagged with

I’d like to open this post on Gothic sequential art, comic strips and related media by thanking Dale Townshend, for inviting me to guest blog during January.
The face of a sinister Frankenstein-like imp skulking in a forest is taken from Nadar’s graphic sequence: Mossieu Réac (1849), and is a caricature of Adolphe Thiers who is supposedly hiding after having two horses shot out from under him, (a reference to his rapid changes in political affiliation.)

In his fine article ‘Gothic chapbooks and Horror Comics’ for The Gothic Imagination which can be viewed in full here:
Franz Potter and his respondents make some very interesting connections between Gothic chapbooks and their illustrations and 1930s-50s horror comic strips. It needs to be remembered that Franz is recounting those associative links which occur most readily to himself and, indeed, myself and writers of our generations.

He writes:

For many students this type of illustration establishes a clear link between the ‘hasty and relentless horrors’ of chapbooks to horror comics of the 1940s and 50s. In 1943 Comic Classics released the first horror comic with their adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde setting into motion a series of comic books which adapted old tales of terror that included Poe’s ‘The Black Cat’ and ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’[…]

I’d place the origin of American horror comics per se a little earlier in Dick Briefer’s New Adventures of Frankenstein (1940), yet I believe that the connections suggested in this article are far from chance or fleeting ones. It is notable that that which remains unmentioned in the article is the burgeoning, vast market for horror and related comic strip and sequential narrative graphic art that flourished over the late 18th and 19th century coinciding with peak periods of Gothic production.

This omission is, I believe, quite natural because these earlier works are not as familiar to us as the garish, exciting cover art of our early and then retrospective reading of American and British comics. However, when we consider that Martin Myrone’s anthology Gothic Nightmares, Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination (2006), produced to coincide with the exhibition of the same name at the Tate Britain, incorporated most visual media associated with the early Gothic period including broadsides, statuary, the Phantasmagoria and static caricatures, (especially Gillray’s work), yet excluded strip cartoons, we might begin to question this situation more deeply.

Why is it, for example, that James Gillray’s famous single panel caricature Tales of Wonder (published 1802) with its familiar tableau of four women shivering over a reading of Gothic texts warrants inclusion here whereas the comic strips also parodying the genre were excluded? A fine late example of this type of strip is The Legend of John Belin (1874) by George Montbard, (Charles Auguste Loye ).

This cartoon reveals a skilful running parody of Gothic tropes where the ‘painter of the beheading of John the Baptist’ is shown travelling to exotic lands in order to sell his paintings and witnessing, in the process, real depredations and beheadings. This gangly protagonist stumbles through hair-raising and horrible adventures seemingly oblivious, in his entrepreneurial quest, to the suffering around him. At one point he is so impoverished, he survives by eating his paintings. The panels of Montbard’s illustrations are strewn with Medieval ornament and architectural capriccios. Belin is shown inadvertently crushing his rivals with his vast canvas and sleeping with his lanky frame crammed into the base of an ornate, tiered Gothic bell-tower.

We can also consider works such as Diversions of Old Nick in Bell’s Life in London (1831), depicting the devil leading different young people into damnation and torturing them, George Cruikshank’s The Drunkard’s Children (1848), involving themes of violence, madness and suicide and Carl Reinhardt’s Tailor Lapp (1848-51) in which monstrous bodily transformations drive the plot. These were horror comics indeed. Wilhelm Busch’s Krischan with the Pipe (1874), features as vivid a somatic hallucination as E.T.A. Hoffmann’s ‘A New Year’s Eve Adventure’ (1814) and might have been influenced by this story.

These strips and graphic novels were consumed in their millions by the mass of the literate and semi-literate populations in Britain, France, Italy and Germany. Mostly produced in the form of ephemeral publications in the form of woodcut-prints and cheap engravings, they manifest a major aspect of Gothic visual culture which is still largely unappreciated and I intend in future blogs to take a closer look at this medium. It is true that some of the newer Gothic graphic novels such as Neil Gaiman’s Sandman (1989-96), and the David Finch’s Batman The Dark Knight series (2012-), are being discussed at conference and appearing on the margins of Gothic Studies courses yet these earlier graphic productions seem largely forgotten.

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