Explore a Big Archive of Vintage Early Comics: 1700–1929

The pop­u­lar­i­ty of graph­ic nov­els (and more than a few extreme­ly lucra­tive super­hero movie fran­chis­es) have con­ferred respectabil­i­ty on comics.

Hand­some reis­sues of such stun­ning ear­ly works as Win­sor McKay’s Lit­tle Nemo in Slum­ber­land, George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, and Frank King’s Walt and Skeez­ix sug­gest that read­ers’ appetite for vin­tage comics extends deep­er and fur­ther back than mere nos­tal­gia for the Sun­day fun­nies of their youth.

Artist Andy Bleck’s Andy’s Ear­ly Comics Archive is an excel­lent resource for those seek­ing to dis­cov­er ear­ly exam­ples of the form that have yet to be reis­sued in a col­lect­ed edi­tion. (Fair warn­ing: reflect­ing the atti­tudes of the time, the col­lec­tion does inevitably con­tains some racist imagery. Such imagery won’t be on dis­play in this post.)

Bleck, the cre­ator of Konky Kru, a beau­ti­ful­ly sim­ple, word­less series, as well as sev­er­al self-pub­lished mini comics, takes a historian’s inter­est in his sub­ject, begin­ning with the William Hog­a­rth engrav­ings A Harlot’s Progress from 1730:

The famous ‘pro­gres­sions’ by Hog­a­rth were not actu­al­ly comics. The images don’t lead into and don’t inter­act with each oth­er. Each shows a dis­tinct, sep­a­rate stage of a longer sto­ry. How­ev­er, because of their great pop­u­lar­i­ty, they estab­lished the very notion of telling enter­tain­ing sto­ries with a series of pic­tures and so became a high­ly influ­en­tial step­ping stone for future devel­op­ments.

He also cites the influ­ence of British polit­i­cal car­toons, Chi­nese wood­cuts, illus­trat­ed fairy tales and nurs­ery rhymes, and Hein­rich Hoff­man­n’s Struwwelpeter, a book that ter­ri­fied chil­dren into behav­ing by depict­ing the mon­strous con­se­quences befalling those who failed to do so.

Iron­i­cal­ly, Franz Joseph Goez’s Lenar­do und Blan­dine, an actu­al graph­ic nov­el­ette from 1783, “prob­a­bly had lit­tle influ­ence:”

 It was too ahead of its time as far as the com­ic struc­ture is con­cerned. In con­tent, it was delight­ful­ly very much of its time, full of out­ra­geous melo­dra­ma.

Things con­tin­ued to evolve in the sec­ond half of the 19th-cen­tu­ry, with pic­ture broad­sheets for chil­dren, such as the ones star­ring Wil­helm Busch’s wild­ly pop­u­lar Max and Moritz. (See an Eng­lish trans­la­tion here.)

Bleck traces the birth of mod­ern comics, whose sto­ry­telling vocab­u­lary con­tin­ues today, to the begin­ning of the 20th cen­tu­ry, with Amer­i­can news­pa­per strips and par­tic­u­lar­ly, the Sun­day fun­nies:

The news­pa­per for­mat was much larg­er and cheap­er, pro­vid­ing a lot more emp­ty space to fill. The audi­ence was less sophis­ti­cat­ed, but (pos­si­bly because of this) more open to a par­tic­u­lar type of exper­i­men­ta­tion, despite the dumb and low­brow humor… these Amer­i­can Sun­day pages became the breed­ing ground for some­thing new. Weird­er, rougher, slap­dashier. Also eas­i­er, for chil­dren, but not child­ish. More pop­u­lar. More … some­thingi­er.

Maybe it was that new type of human being, the urban immi­grant, who was most pre­pared and eager to pay for all this new visu­al goings on.

Andy’s Ear­ly Comics Archive can be searched chrono­log­i­cal­ly, or alpha­bet­i­cal­ly by artist’s name. Enter here.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Read The Very First Com­ic Book: The Adven­tures of Oba­di­ah Old­buck (1837)

Down­load Over 22,000 Gold­en & Sil­ver Age Com­ic Books from the Com­ic Book Plus Archive

Down­load 15,000+ Free Gold­en Age Comics from the Dig­i­tal Com­ic Muse­um

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.


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