«Thesis presented to the Faculty of Arts of the University of Zurich for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy by Mark Staff Brandl of USA and ...»
Toepffer was born in Switzerland in 1799. His father was a regionally well-known painter, yet Toepffer was less gifted with technical drawing abilities. He became a teacher of French, yet had an amazing idea which manifested itself in his books published in the 1830s and 40s. These were the first true comics. What made his works different from previous narrative images was his invention of panels, closure, and the interdependence of the acts of reading and viewing. Furthermore, he knew what he had accomplished, writing about it in theoretical articles and even sending copies of his comics to Goethe, who, incidentally, loved them, encouraging Toepffer to produce more.40 In 1843, Rodolphe Toepffer formalized his thoughts on these picture stories in his Essay on Physiognomics.41 Thus, we have the necessary and sufficient conditions and self-awareness of his innovation which are essential for identifying him as the initiator of a new form. This is parallel to the information we have for Wassily Kandinsky which separates his imaginative creation of abstract art from earlier forms of patterning or decoration.
David Carrier, in his book The Aesthetics of Comics, maintains that comics have had no genuine progress, in the way that fine art has had. That is, "all of these changes in comics' content have not been accompanied by any dramatic developments in their visual technology."42 I disagree and would point out the ever increasing discussions in journals and books on comics concerning history (Golden Age, Second Heroic Age, Underground Period, etc.), and formal innovation (narrative techniques, Will Eisner, "camera" angles, Jack Kirby, etc.) Carrier, though, does not wish to denigrate comics, but rather highlight his belief that fine art as well no longer has, perhaps never exclusively had, a single historical tale solely based on sensational stylistic evolution. These two assertions, though, should not be combined. The sense of historical development is of utmost importance in a timeline model, albeit one without a teleological goal — and the fact that not having one clear goal and a straight line to it does not mean that no clear historical fruition has occurred. Additionally, although it is difficult to represent this in an illustration, it is important when teaching and presenting a representation of art history to explain the logic behind definitions and designations, including imparting a comprehension that epochs, periods, movements and the like have overlapping, blurry edges. Conceptions such as fuzzy categories, paradigmatic categories and so on must somehow have room within a model.
The model of comic history I refer to as Peaks and Valleys is not held to be true, at least openly, by many comic historians, but is important to describe, as I have met quite a few fans Goethe's enthusiastic reaction and encouragement is recorded by Johann Peter Eckermann in his Gespräche mit Goethe in den letzten Jahren seines Lebens, Tempel Klassiker (Leipzig:Tempel Verlag,
1958) in an entry dated 4 January 1831. Accessible in German on the web at www.wissen-imnetz.info/literatur/goethe/biografien/eckermann/3-1830ff/18310104.htm.
Rodolphe Toepffer, "Essay on Physiognomics," in Enter: The Comics — Rodolphe Topffer's (sic) Essay
on Physiognomy and the True Story of Monsieur Crepin, trans. Ellen Wiese (Lincoln, Nebraska:
University of Nebraska, 1965).
David Carrier, The Aesthetics of Comics (University Park, PA: Penn. State Univ. Press), p. 113.
Timelines 240 who believe it. These are primarily the same people who also hold to one of the two following models. This is the belief that there were better and worse periods for comics. It is much like the pendulum of Wölfflin, but more judgmental. Of course, if you hold to the belief that superheroes or alternative autobiographical comics are the epitome of the artform, then periods are qualitatively rubbish in any time such as the 1950s, with few superheroes, or before the 1970s, with virtually no autobiographies.
This is plainly a harshly restricted view of any artform, but it has a kernel of truth in it.
There do appear to be stronger and weaker periods of art, when one considers quality on the average at a given time, even if individual artists can be stronger or weaker in any timeframe.
At the highest quality level of achievement, no artist is truly better than another: e.g., Picasso is not better than Michelangelo. Nevertheless, the Renaissance, Baroque, Modernism, the High Classical period of ancient Greek art — all appear much more creative and selfconfident than Mannerism, Rococo, Postmodernism and Hellenism, for example. Likewise, popular music from 1960 to 1968 appears more resourceful and confident than, say, that from 1974 to 1980. Or the Marvel Comics "age" in the 60s can be, and has been, so compared to the comics of the 50s at DC. A useful model of an art history timeline needs to suggest this, yet allow for open disagreement about value judgments.
There is also a version of the history of comics which focuses only on heroic fiction, envisioning superheroes as the end and epitome of comic art. While it is true that superheroes may be the only genre completely original to comics and actually one of my personal favorites, it is only one of many possibilities, and as it is a highly popular subgenre, it has often been far too mediocre. People who support this version of comic history often conflate the comic book industry and the medium. Instead of Toepffer, such histories usually begin with adventure pulp magazines. A similar limitation of vision is also present in Germany where they tend to see comics as coextensive with the "Ducks," (the Disney adventures of Donald, Scrooge McDuck and other related figures), nothing more, nothing less. Certainly, Carl Barks was a genius, the artist, author and creator of many of these characters. Returning to superheroes, in my opinion Jack Kirby holds a position within comics comparable to a combination of Michelangelo and Picasso in fine art. However, either superheroes or Donald Duck alone hopelessly restricts the medium, keeping it in a self-made ghetto.
For an example of such a conception of comics history in practice, there is Gary Scott Beatty on the Comic Arts Direct website. He has "A Brief History of Illustrated Stories (Comic Books)" which, as he claims, "concentrates, not on my own favorites, but on defining movements that shaped our industry." After the revealing use of industry as a metonymy for artform, Beatty lists as important comic events: Gilgamesh, the Bible (no pictures!), The Shadow, Mad magazine, Giant Sized X-Men No. 1, "Crisis on Infinite Earths," and, Timelines 241 fortunately, Zap No.1. 43 Some of the earliest books on comics promoted the superhero timeline. These include two of my childhood favorites, The Steranko History of Comics by James Steranko,44 and The Penguin Book of Comics by George Perry and Alan Aldridge.45 The most notorious magazine catering exclusively to fans of superheroes is Wizard Magazine.46
This model is favored by a comics public similar to the superhero cadre, yet the two are avowed enemies. Alternative comics means non-mainstream comics from smaller publishers, yet has in many minds come to be identified almost solely with autobiographical works such as the graphic novel David Chelsea in Love.47 As Wikipedia wittily describes this phenomenon, by the 1990s "the autobiographical genre had turned into English-speaking alternative comics subculture's 'signature genre' in much the way that superhero stories dominated the American mainstream comic books, the stereotypical example recounting the awkward moment which followed when, the cartoonist sitting alone in a coffee shop when his ex-girlfriend walks in."48 This timeline is generally identical to that of the superhero idea above, but goes on to culminate in autobiographical graphic novels. The chief proponent of this worldview is The Comics Journal magazine, from Fantagraphics, which, however, publishes a far wider range of creative works.49 The truth is that in addition to superheroes, comic books have traditionally featured a great variety of storytelling genres. There have been comics about crime, cowboys, romance, horror, war, funny animals, magic, science fiction, true adventures, sports, teenagers, pornography, religious comics, biography, TV and film adaptations, and more. Varieties of alternative comics include, besides autobiographical books, also underground, hippie, punk, social criticism, music adaptations, thrillers, drama, African-American themed, fantasy, abstract comics and more.
Gary Scott Beatty, "A Brief History of Illustrated Stories (Comic Books)," the Comic Arts Direct website, http://www.comicartistsdirect.com/, last accessed 1 January, 2010.
James Steranko, The Steranko History of Comics, (Reading, Pa.: Supergraphics, Vol.1 1970, Vol.2 1972).
George Perry and Alan Aldridge, The Penguin Book of Comics (London: Penguin Books, 1971).
Wizard Magazine, Congers, New York.
David Chelsea, David Chelsea in Love (New York: Reed Graphica 1992, 2003).
Wikipedia, (author " Ria777") s.v. "Autobiographical Comics," 20 September 2006, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autobiographical_comic, accessed 30 December 2009.
The Comics Journal magazine (Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics).
Timelines 242 fig. 113 Covers displaying some of the wide variety of genres which have been featured in comics.
Timelines 243 Both of these cases, the Superhero and the Alternative Comics models, are significant to consider when envisioning a potentially new timeline: we see that in truth there has been an extraordinary variety of artistic approaches existing concurrently, while not falling into a pluralistic chaos; however, this multiplicity is often straightjacketed into one or the other of two false teleologies.
This model of comics history is a duplicate of the Dantoesque fine art timeline, also ending in pluralism. I have discussed the difficulties with this well enough already above. Let me add, though, that akin to the 7 examples I described of pluralist periods throughout fine art history, there have been at least 4 times when pluralism appeared to rule the history of comics: at the end of the Golden Age, at the end of Silver Age, during the so-called Blackand-White-Explosion, and now. Obviously, since their inception, comics have been multigenre, multi-style, multifaceted, diversified, and yet do not lack certain strands of development. Hence pluralist and yet not, at all times.
This is a solipsistic conception of history peculiar to comics. There are those who suggest that comics should ignore larger art and cultural history and simply concentrate on itself, as a unique entity. I refer to this model of comics history as Sectarian, as it promotes a rather stand-offish separation of comics from mainstream culture. Jason Ramos offers the
most cogent argument for this position that I have read, although I do not agree. He writes:
I would offer that those who are as intrigued by the idea of trying to make sense of the overall historical / theoretical narrative of comics (like me), should try to begin to create new language for it. Comics continually come off as an "insecure" medium, forever seeking the validation and attention of the art-world discourse. There are models for mediums that hold their own with their own history, language, and legitimacy, Venn-diagramming into the fine art world to varying degrees (photography, architecture, film).50
Ramos is of course wrong about architecture, which has long been an integral part of standard art history, and about photography, which has been incorporated into art history for a few decades. He is right to an extent about film, but this has not always been advantageous for the medium. I agree with him that there is "an advantage to be gained, artistically, from comics retaining something of its culturally illegitimate status." Also, comics scholarship does need to develop its own vocabulary for elements peculiar to the form; for instance, two terms I have personally brought to the study of comics are iconosequentiality and comigraphic.
Neither comics' cultural status nor having new vocabulary precludes envisioning a more complete timeline for comics, for art history and for the integration of the two.
There is no "symptomatic" conception of history in comics yet. The scene has not been invaded by poststructuralist doubt. The comics canon has just begun to be consolidated.
Perhaps the first important attempt was Art Spiegelman's "Masters of American Comics," of 2006-2007 with in-depth presentations of 15 influential artists: Winsor McCay, Lyonel Feininger, George Herriman, E. C. Segar, Frank King, Chester Gould, Milton Caniff, Charles M. Schulz, Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, Harvey Kurtzman, R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Gary Panter and Chris Ware. This immediately elicited extensive discussion about who was missing, including an entire exhibition "Out of Sequence: Underrepresented Voices in American Comics" in 2008-2009. Curated by John Jennings and Damian Duffy, the exhibition showcased, as they said, "areas of sequential art that might otherwise be overlooked or underappreciated. These areas include the work of women and minority artists and small press and webcomics creators," and abstract and gallery comics artists. It explored "alternate histories of American comics" and suggested "some of the limitless possibilities for the medium in the past, present, and future."51 Instead of maintaining a rigid canon or rejecting the idea in toto, comics currently has the enviable position of having a canon in a constant state of dialogical construction. I label this model, or more exactly stated modelbuilding activity, Disputes about the Canon / Building the Canon.
The Braided Rope Model
After this study, analysis and debate, both with others and myself, came the real work:
proposing a solution for the problems I critiqued. This contemplation of models for the history of comics and the concomitant comparison of them to those in the history of fine art brought up the question, what kind of model could I create? What form would this take if it incorporated history as I have described it, characterized by ruptures; simultaneous paths;