What If… Comics Began in the 16th Century?

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With this installment Extra Inks launches what we hope will be a recurring feature, tentative manifestos designed not to be definitive but to question some of our assumptions as a field in order to generate ongoing discussion. Send on suggestions for future “What Ifs?” to extra-inks@comicssociety.org


The definitions that have shaped comics studies emphasize formal features. Karin Kukkonen, for example, defines comics as “a medium that communicates through images, words, and sequence,” and Scott McCloud’s defines it as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” While these definitions come in many varieties, they share in common an insistence on sequence, juxtaposition and deliberate order.

A definition is only as good as the communication it facilitates about a shared object of inquiry, and clearly by this criterion, this definition of “comics” has been a success. But personally I find it less productive of late in terms of the kinds of questions the study of comics has led me to—and especially in terms of the kinds of historical connections I find myself wanting to be able to explain. And so I find myself inhabiting a kind of parallel universe to comics studies, one in which we define our object not as a form but a practice: comics defined as the products of the art of cartooning. In this parallel universe, what are termed “single-panel cartoons”—Far Side or Family Circus, editorial or gag cartooning—live alongside the longest of serial and multipage comics. In this world, comics is not born in the later years of the 19th century, but traces its origins in the West to the late 16th century, bound up with early modern print and the technological and market changes that would shape its evolution in the centuries to come.

There are terminological challenges with this definition, of course, before we even get to other problems it might raise. For one thing, the very category of “cartoon” is itself something of a neologism, first disseminated in the pages of Punch beginning in the 1840s (the profession of “cartoonist” follows a few years later). Nonetheless, I settle on the word because today most makers of “comics” identify themselves as cartoonists (even as few describe what they make as “cartoons”). It is a start, it seems to me, towards breaking the presentism of comics studies (and of comics in general).

John Leech, Punch, July 15, 1843

Of course, cartooning did not originate in the illustrated magazines of the 1840s, having circulated for more than two centuries under an earlier denomination: caricature. Caricature began as an attempt to break from the Renaissance idealization of the human form through the practice of “loading” a portrait such that something otherwise invisible about the individual might be revealed. As Ernst Gombrich put it, the earliest caricaturists did “not seek the perfect form but the perfect deformity, thus penetrating through the mere outward appearance to the inner being.” As the practice spread beyond its birthplace in northern Italy­, other characteristics came to be associated, including radical simplification—the use of the fewest possible strokes to arrive at an essence. Freedom of line did not translate easily to the technologies of early printing and so would not flourish until the more fluid engravings of Rowlandson and the lithographs of Daumier. But the ideals of iconicity, simplification, exaggeration, and alchemical insight were there from the start.

While all today would agree that this is an example of cartooning, most would resist my attempt to identify this or the work of, say, the 17th-century caricaturist Giuseppe Maria Mitelli (seen below) as “comics.” After all, our object of study involves “narrative” and the passage of time (which, we are told inheres necessarily in sequentiality); no story is told, no time passes in a single image. 

Giuseppe Maria Mitelli, from L’Arti per via (1660)

I would argue that this print of a peddler of quack medicines does indeed tell a story, just as surely as it represents the passage of time. The snake exiting stage left at the feet of the performer tells of dangers to come and of the threat to the public welfare the itinerant snake-handler represents once admitted into the town square. The onlookers pictured behind him reflecting a range of different responses to what is being sold from the stage, including two who seem to be ominously consulting behind his back. 

And what happens when we see this print as it was presented by Mitelli, not as an isolated image but as part of a series. This is one of forty such images from his Arts of the Streets published in 1660. Here is a small selection from the series, with our medical charlatan in his place in the procession:

There are many stories here. For example, the visual mirroring of the seller of ribbons and lace with the seller of patent medicines tells its own moral tale about luxury and fraud, while the pairing of the vendor of apples and cooked pears coming home from a long day by lantern light with the fisherman out at first light speaks to the rhythms of the day and the putrescence that awaits all our efforts in the end. Indeed, as a series, the forty portraits open up networks of narratives that seek to capture the insights that these most humble of trades grant us into the complex contingencies that shape the new urban life taking shape in the early modern era.

I accept that for most of my readers, our definitions makes all of this still not “comics”®. However, what happens when we turn to another work by the same artist: 

Mitelli, La vita infelice della meretrice compartita ne dodeci mesi dell’anno (1692)

Is this, then, finally comics? It is sequential, it deploys “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” If this is not comics, what is? And if it is comics, does that complicate our desire to exclude Mitelli’s other work from the field? After all, Mitelli would have seen no difference in what he was doing here. Here he uses the structure of the calendar to tell a familiar story (one that Hogarth will adapt in his own Harlot’s Progress series a century and a half later), the months of the year serving to script the inevitability of the fate that awaits the fallen woman, as surely as December awaits us all at year’s end. When we find such formally-recognizable comics in early caricature we tend to regard them as anomalous ancestors, evidence for a developing genetic pattern that will eventually coalesce with the evolution of longer stories told via image and text. But what if what we are seeing as “evolution” of a form into its proper state is little more than the consequences of a change in media and market. 

From Mitelli’s time through the age of Rowlandson and Gillray in the late 18thcentury, caricature largely circulated in the form of prints, predominantly sold in print shops and book stores (as represented in the two images above). Sometimes these were sold in series, and in exceptional cases they were later bound together as an album. Periodicals only rarely published individual cartoons in the 18th century, generally reserving their limited engraving budget for maps, landscapes, and portraits of eminent personages. Printing images was not cheap. Hogarth in 1754 advertises the eight prints that make up his Rake’s Progress series at the price of £2.2s, or roughly three weeks’ earnings of a skilled laborer at the time. Recognizing that the price of his more elaborate earlier works were out of the reach of the broader market, Hogarth had begun to develop affordable prints directed at more humble audiences; thus one could acquire all twelve prints of The Effects of Idleness and Industry for only 12 shillings, but this still amounted to five days’ skilled labor. 

The radical innovation of the illustrated magazine that began to emerge in Europe in the 1830s and 40s was that for the first time such work could be acquired and enjoyed for 3 pence (the 1841 cover price of Punch). A range of technological developments had made the reproduction of images cheaper and faster, including steam-powered printing, lithography, wood engraving, and the rotary press.1 The end result was to effectively shift the circulation of cartooning wholesale from prints to periodicals—first magazines and later newspapers—where they would reside in various formats until the decline of print periodical markets in our own time. 

Shaped by the economies and formats of the periodical, cartooning underwent several changes. For one thing, laborious practices of traditional engraving and etching gave way to cheaper and faster techniques more compatible with the demands of industrial printing.2  Whereas in the 18th century, Hogarth’s day he could sell work out of his own studio, with the rise of the illustrated periodical cartoonists became employees of a periodical or freelancers vying to place work with various competitors. The costs of images in the 18th century had demanded work that offered evidence on the page of the labor and time invested (thus, for example, the meticulous engravings of Hogarth); the new economies of speed and scale in the 19thcentury necessarily led to the privileging of a style that was faster, looser—more “cartoony” (as we would come to use the term). 

But the basic principles were already centuries old. As with Mitelli’s 17th-century work, the fascination with the city and its attendant sights and sounds dominated cartooning in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And as with Mitelli’s La vita infelice or Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress, stories continued to be often told in a series of deliberately juxtaposed pictures. But now those series could increasingly represented on a single page. Nonetheless, many early examples of what we would identity as sequential comics in periodicals were dispersed across multiple pages, an approach inherited from the earlier print series. Take for example Charles Keene’s 1866 comic “The Adventures of Miss Lavinia Brounjones,” originally published in Punch in weekly installments, one panel at a time from August 18th to October 20th (and conveniently collected in one place at Andy Konkykru’s wonderful Early Comics Archive. Structurally it resembles many of the cartoon series of the 18th century: a story whose episodes cover a fairly broad range of time—from our protagonist’s determination to head out to Scotland in search of romantic sights to her eventual return home, disappointed and humiliated. 

Another example from Punch around this time offers something closer to this form as we might it recognize it today. In “The Philosopher’s Revenge” by George du Maurier, published in two installments (March 13 and 27, 1867), the events take place over a much more compressed period, the temporal gaps between panels (despite their demarcation as “chapters”) being quite small, at times moment-to-moment. If the latter feels more like a “comic” than the former, it is due primarily to this growing compression of implied narrative time between images. But this compression is not a change in the form: it is a change in the medium. The “to be continued” comic was quickly displaced from periodicals by comics complete in one issue. As the serial time and real estate space allotted to individual images (or what we would come to call panels) are both compressed, fairly quickly narrative time becomes similarly compressed. Where Hogarth series often narrated years and even decades of a protagonist’s career over the course of a handful of images, increasingly the cartoon series (what we now call the “comic strip” or “comics”) narrated a much more compressed period in time. Here is one from one of my favorite cartoonists from the 1880s and 90s:

F. M. Howarth, Life (December 12, 1889)

This surely, we can at last all agree, is comics. But what makes us willing to accept this as comics and less comfortable with giving to Mitelli’s La vita infelice or Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress the same name. There are in fact only two features that differentiate this “comic” from those earlier presumptively non-comics: style and narrative time. The style looks to our eyes more like modern comics than the engravings of earlier centuries, and, more importantly, the moment-to-moment transitions narrate a compressed story that takes place over no more than a matter of a handful of moments, as the would-be typist quickly finds himself defeated by the new technology. Both the visual style and the compressed narrative are shaped by the conventions and demands of the periodical format. But of course we accept as comics countless cartooning from the 20th and 21st century that share neither Howarth’s style nor the predominance of moment-to-moment transitions. So, do we really know it when we see it?

R. Crumb, A Short History of America (1979)

If we are determined to preserve sequential comics of a certain kind as a thing apart from Hogarth or Mitelli, then we must accept, I believe, that the “comics” we wish to study is a subset of cartooning, a circumscribed category that emerges with (and because of) the rise of industrial printing and the illustrated periodical. Since even these early decades of the illustrated periodical provide only intermittent examples of the form we wish to read, we are better off waiting until the rise of the newspaper supplement and the birth of the industrial syndicated comic strip after 1900. In other words, we are scholars of 20th– and 21st-century comics. This is a fine thing to be. After all, we have scholars of 20th– and 21st-century novels; why shouldn’t we have scholars of the same in comics (although, for another soapbox sermon, it would be nice if more time were spent with comics from the early decades of the century).

But no one who is a scholar of the 20th– and 21st-century novel imagines they are studying all of novels. Our definitions define “comics” as the form exists after certain industrial conditions and practices have developed to a certain uniformity, and this cuts our object of study off from a broader history. The inability of comics studies to address the vast history of cartooning that does not do the right kind of sequentiality is ultimately detrimental for the long-term health of the field. At the very least, we can agree, I hope, that doing so cuts us off from history and from productive conversations and discoveries that might remind us—at a moment when comics (as a form and a practice) is undergoing significant changes—of all that remains possible and all the roads that remain unexplored.


  1. Similarly, and just as crucial to the new market for affordable comics, was the development of paper-making machines that took hold in the early 19thcentury, finally moving paper manufacture from a pre-industrial to an industrial scale. Indeed, at this time, most aspects of the formerly artisanal work of printing and book making began to industrialize and automate rapidly, leading to dramatically lower costs and faster output. Typesetting remained a bottleneck in the process, however, as breakthroughs in this area of book manufacture would not happen until the later decades of the century, so images also served a function in relieving some of the time pressures from the typesetters.
  2. Although woodcuts are among the oldest of all printing techniques, it was the development of end-grain boxwood engraving that would prove most crucial to the rapid and affordable dissemination of cartooning and illustration in popular periodicals. Here the same tools used in steel and copper engraving could be deployed, but the finished blocks could be set alongside type in the industrial press, as opposed to traditional engraving which required entirely different printing techniques and the tipping-in of images into bound volumes.