Dark Successions: Monstrous array

Posted by Dr David Annwn Jones on January 12, 2014 in Uncategorized tagged with

The Gothic comic strip excelled at depicting vivid forms of grotesque monstrification especially of those individuals ostracised from mainstream life as in the case of Carl Reinhardt’s fantasy Tailor Lapp (1848-51) where a local tradesman becomes an emaciated wild man of the woods overgrown with hair. In the panel above, the civic guard join the crowds of people flying from the uncanny creature.

Graphic sequences also updated several venerable forms of visual horror tale. Several sets of Alfred Rethel’s successive woodcuts such as the Totentanz sequence (1848) reveal the longevity of macabre motifs such as dance of death, scenes of the instructive torture of heretics and saints and damnation scenes familiar to us from 17th century cuts and engravings into the graphic narrative arts of the 19th century.

In England, James Gillray did experiment with three-panel comic strips but it is the static panels of his ‘Caricatura-sublime’ productions with their borrowings from and references to the nightmarish work of Henry Fuseli and Salvator Rosa which prepare the way for the darker side of narrative strip proper. Gillray’s parodies employed Gothic imagery in the form of perverse goblins, Phantasmagorical sabbats and skeletal assemblies in order to satirise corrupt politicians. It was George Cruikshank and Robert Seymour who consolidated in their art the darker elements of Gillray’s innovative caricatures and introduced the British to Gothic comic strip narratives.

In Rural Retirement (1829), using the popular scrapbook lay-out for his vignettes, Seymour offers a vision of the spectralisation of a lonely city-dweller’s mind as he is stranded in the countryside; blue devils and animated grave-stones cluster around him offering him ways to commit suicide.

George Cruikshank,‘the modern Hogarth’ who, as well as –so it is rumoured – literally inheriting Gillray’s desk, succeeded in transferring the older artist’s mordant and nightmarish visions into a vivid series of comic strips. It has often been remarked that Cruikshank’s cartoon Scorpio(1845), his illustrations for Harrison Ainsworth’s Rookwood (1834), and his apocalyptic etching, London Going Out of TownOrthe March of Bricks and Mortar! (1829), reveal a lively propensity for Gothic imaginings yet critics have stopped short of making similar claims for his comic strips. However, very few graphic sequences could strike one as authentically Walpole-esque as Cruikshank’s triptych Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream (1815), where, in the first panel, the slumbering Regent wakes to view a huge figure of himself encased in armour looming over the bed. His imagined face is bubbling out the steel collar, the letters of ROYALTY inscribed over his head. An excellent reproduction of this scene and the panels which follow can be viewed at:

http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=1646289&partId=1

Such a satirical updating of the Biblical story from the book of Daniel is handled in a way which powerfully reminds of the oneiric gigantism of The Castle of Otranto.

The Cruikshank family evidently had a penchant for bandes dessinées as George’s brother, Isaac Robert, produced the cover art for The Adventures of Mr Obadiah Oldbuck (1834), an Englished form Les Amours de Mr. Vieux Bois (1827), by the reputed father of the extended comic strip, Rodolphe Töpffer.

The first authentic graphic novel in European art, Lenardo und Blandine (1783), is a decidedly macabre Gothic ‘Melodram’ inspired Gottfried Bürger’s eponymous ballad. Created by Joseph Franz von Götz, ‘the German Hogarth’, an Austrian born in present-day Romania, this sequence of 160 images with accompanying captions, tells the story of two lovers threatened by a secret conspiracy of violent men. Eventually Lenardo is killed. The anxious Blandine is confronted by a series of mysterious veiled strangers who bring her Lenardo’s bloody ring, a letter and her lover’s heart in an urn. The horrified woman sees visions of corpses piled high, sheds her tears over the urn and is witnessed babbling and drifting into madness.

In France the Gothic comic strip perhaps enjoyed a later if more prolific and vigorous flowering in the hands of Cham (Amédée de Noé), Nadar (Félix Tournachon), and Gustave Doré. It is related that Doré first produced an illustrated story for his neighbours when he was eight and his interest in fairy stories, succubi and legends like that of the wandering Jew marked him out for interest in the ‘Gothick’ long before his famous illustrations for his edition of Dante’s Inferno (1861). In 1854 he produced the most vivid and disturbing Gothic graphic novel of the 19th century: his Histoire Pittoresque, Dramatique et Caricatural de la Sainte Russie (1854). This volume, created out of a mood of belligerent anti-Russian feeling in response to the Crimean war, is a scathing attack on the feudal and totalitarian forces rampaging, as Doré saw them, through Russian history. It is a tour-de-force of the graphic narrative art with an unrelenting and savage wit in evidence, crossing pictorial boundaries, punning and playing with meta-textualities and reflexive ironies.

 

The jaunty visual rhythms and cunning wordplay and punning serve to emphasise rather than detract from the shock of the vast array of beheadings, hangings, acts of dismemberment and torture which Doré depicts in styles as diverse as detailed portraits, panoramas of battles and match-stick figures. Wars over dynastic succession, terrifying and autocratic rulers, monks brooding in the towers of ruined monasteries, monstrous dreams and funeral processions with the mourners shown as headstones all reinforce a Gothic hallucinatory quality to the quality to this work. The cyclical violence and images of sadistic clerics reminds one of Alonzo Monçada’s depredations at the hands of monks in Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) and these visions easily rival those which Franz Potter or I might find in horror comics of the mid Twentieth century.

 The Gothic nightmares of Fuseli’s art were used by comic strip artists to furnish the most racist of colonial fantasies as in W.A. Wellner’s  The Black Side of Colonial Policies  (1896).

This scene shows a comic strip depicting rivalry between the European imperialistic powers as well as suppression of the natives in the background of the panel space. It is this feeling of being embroiled into costly overseas conflict which has led to the monstrified African crouched on Europa’s midriff.

 Léonce Petit’s The Asses of Saint Pardoux (1879), with its dark Breton gnome (korrigan), who grants the local teacher a wish to transform village children into animals is one of the first Gothic fairytales in graphic novel form.

In the panel shown, the king of the korrigans atop a menhir mocks the teacher’s imploring gestures as the schoolmaster pleads with him to reverse the magical spell. The pollarded trees to either side seem to join in with the mockery.  Petit’s  work anticipates Benjamin Read and Chris Wildgoose’s beautifully-realised and disturbing  Porcelain, A Gothic Fairy Tale (2013), by over 130 years and both narratives concern the uncanny transformation of unwanted children.

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