Out of the Dark: Kindred Media

Posted by Dr David Annwn Jones on January 19, 2014 in Uncategorized tagged with

There are various factors which may have contributed to the marginalisation of the Gothic comic strip and, indeed, 19th century sequential art in general. The ephemeral nature and frequently cheap production values (and hence disposable status), of such material may have proved to be decisive factors. Various perceptions of this medium as a genre associated predominantly with children’s reading may also have played a part with the accompanying sense of this art as trivial or inconsequential, unworthy of study. It must be remembered that Gothic novels themselves often fell foul of such prejudice.

There is also no doubt that caricaturists like Cruikshank, Doré, Petit and Nadar were formidable artists whose dark parodies were often deeply serious as well as comedic creations. Their narrative strips reveal fascinating offshoots in the reception and creation of Gothic motifs and images. Some critics might conclude that comic visual narratives designate a watering-down of Gothic tensions perhaps in the manner of chapbooks and bluebooks and others might argue that sequential strips are only Gothic spasmodically. Yet we need only consider Von Götz’s and Doré’s major graphic novels to realise that such estimations are untrue. In fact, bluebooks, broadsides, single-panel caricatures and graphic strips all add to our appreciation of the longevity and dissemination of the Gothic.

In many ways, the frequent exclusion of the 19th century comic strip from discussions of Gothic visualities is reminiscent of the magic lantern’s contested status as Gothic medium. Despite the fact that Hester Piozzi, the Marquis de Sade and many other writers of the early 19th century linked the ‘lantern of fear’ shows with Gothic literary production and many horror writers cited the phantasmagoria prominently in their work, this medium of projection has only begun to receive due recognition in this regard over the last decade. No sooner did Charles Nodier enter the ‘chapel’ of E.-A. Robertson’s Phantasmagoria show in 1801, than he started to associate the phantoms whirling around his head with Ann Radcliffe’s novels. This is worth mentioning here because, at each stage of their evolution, there was often intense synergy between magic lantern shows and comic strips, graphic caricatures being painted onto glass slides and the techniques of the lanternists being routinely imported into comic strip form.

Some sequential visual narratives, like George Du Maurier’s Suggestions for Aerial Navigation (1871), featured macabre changes from human into bizarre animal forms in the manner of slipping-slides. 

 Such lantern-inspired transformations are easy to locate in Gothic literature. Madame de la Rougierre in Sherdian Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas  is described as ‘like a magic lantern figure’ and can change in a twinkling into a ‘great gaping reptile’. As I wrote in my first blog, we can sometimes track a threefold intermedial influence: the lantern-shows of Johann Carl Enslen are cited in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s ‘A New Year’s Eve Adventure’ and the same hallucinatory shifting in the contours of figures is found in Wilhelm Busch’s comic strip, Krischan with the Pipe.

 

The vacuous man of smoke who emerges to knock Krischan flat is cognate with the lantern-of-fear’s projections onto smoke.

 Such comic strips are as bound up with the history of inter-medial Gothic horror as the undead hero of James O’Barr’s modern gothic novel The Crow (1981) who quotes macabre lines from Baudelaire and Rimbaud’s poetry and Mike Mignola’s necrophagous villain of The Ghoul (2005), who obsessively recites Thomas Warton ’s The Pleasures of Melancholy (1745), and Robert Blair’s The Grave (1743):

‘hush’d as the foot of night./ Again the screech-owl shrieks’. 

Mignola’s cannibal of corpses follows in a long tradition of such disturbing figures. William Makepeace Thackeray’s comic strip  in his notebook version of Fitzboodle’s Confessions (early 1830s), features a monstrous woman: Ottilia von Rosenthal, stealing out to the churchyard at night to gorge herself on dead bodies. Thackeray’s rumbustious image could not have been more emphatically Gothic in atmosphere. A devil perched on railings watches the unholy feast. A nun sitting on skulls nibbles the meat from human bones.

I’d like to revisit Franz Potter’s words regarding chapbook illustrations and comic books:  ‘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.’ This is, of course, true and Victoria Nelson in her Gothicka (2012), makes such an association more forcefully:

      Comic books of the mid-twentieth century had much in common  with the blue-covered Gothick chapbooks hawked on London and New York street corners 150 years earlier […] Historically, the origin of comic books lies in pulp fiction “picture novels” of the early twentieth century[…] The fifties horror comics in particular, as comic book historian Jim Trombetta put it delicately, “slap[ped] the raw archetype on the reader’s plate.” In a word, the comics were Gothick.

Indeed they were, but, as we have seen, historically, ‘the origin of comic books’ doesn’t just lie ‘in pulp fiction “picture novels” of the early twentieth century’. Moreover, to argue that Gothic horror comics originated in the 1930s is ultimately as misleading as stating that Gothic visual projections and screenings started with the advent of cinema. Both statements elide the the collective labour and inspiration of the myriad comic book artists and magic lanternists of the 19th century. Following James Gillray’s example in his single-panel caricatures, George Cruikshank consciously created his more expansive comic strips and graphic narratives with Gothic conventions to the fore. Thackeray consistently emphasised the relation of his visual ‘Romantic Drama’,  The Bandit’s Revenge or the Fatal Sword (1835),  to Gothic novels. This playful comic strip features the hero Vivaldi wasting away in a bandit’s cell and surrounded by skulls, snakes, toads and bats. He escapes on horseback, his emaciated body giving him the appearance of Benjamin West’s painting ‘Death on a Pale Horse’. Thackeray clinches the association in his portrayal of a newly rotund Vivaldi with his beloved Bertha on their wedding day, the marriage feast knowingly crammed into a ‘Gothic Cupboard’.

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