Ten of Australia’s best literary comics

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Tommi Parissh’s The Lie and How We Told It is one of a crop of new Australian comics appealing to adult audiences.

Gabriel Clark, University of Technology Sydney

With news that the Man Booker Prize long list includes a graphic novel for the first time, the spotlight is on comics as a literary form. That’s a welcome development; the comic is one of the oldest kinds of storytelling we have and a powerful artform.

Right now, the Australian comics community is producing some of the best original work in the world. Australian comics punch above their weight globally. Many have been picked up by international publishers and nominated for international and national literary awards – yet remain little known at home. Some are directed at an adult audience; some are for all ages. They tackle issues ranging from true crime to environmental ruin to life in detention.

As someone who has researched comics for years – and been a fan since childhood – I want to share with you some highlights from the contemporary Australian comic scene. Here are 10 Australian comics of note, in no particular order.

Reported Missing, by Eleri Mai Harris

Sue Neill-Fraser’s conviction for the murder of her de-facto partner Bob Chappell in 2009 polarised the Tasmanian city of Hobart. To this day, Sue has maintained her innocence. This piece of long-form comics journalism by cartoonist Eleri Mai Harris takes readers deep into the personal impact this case has had on the families of those involved.

You can read Reported Missing online here.

Reported Missing; cover page.

Reported Missing; inside page.

Bottled, by Chris Gooch

According to one study, mean friends can be good for you. The opposite may be true in this psychological drama, a tale of jealousy, friendship and narcissism. Bottled is a tense piece of suburban noir set in the suburbs of Melbourne, rendered stark and disjointed by Chris Gooch’s striking artwork.

Bottled; cover page.

Bottled; inside page.

A Part Of Me Is Still Unknown, by Meg O’Shea

Who is my birth mother? In this autobiographical story, Meg O’Shea travels to Seoul to find an answer to that question, armed with her sense of humour and imagination. This whimsical story of sliding door moments explores the emotional impact of not having solutions and the fatality of not knowing.

You can read A Part Of Me Is Still Unknown here.

A part of me is still unknown; cover page.

A part of me is still unknown; inside page.

Villawood – Notes from an Immigration Detention Centre, by Safdar Ahmed

Villawood is a Walkley award-winning piece of comics journalism about the experiences of being held captive in a Sydney asylum seeker detention centre. In sharing the stories and experiences of the detainees, it lays bare the harsh realities of indefinite detention. These stories are made even more real through the inclusion of artwork created by the detainees. Their images sit alongside Safdar’s tense line work, which illustrates the realities of this brutal system.

You can read Villawood online here.

Villawood cover.

Villawood inside page.

Home Time, by Campbell Whyte

Changes are on the horizon for a group of Year Six school friends who are looking at their last summer together. But their suburban world is transformed after a freak accident transports them to an alternative universe. The friends find themselves in an inverse world filled with creepy gumnut babies, cups of tea and a deceptively familiar Australian landscape. With Home Time, Campbell Whyte has created an intoxicating and visually stunning Australian Narnia.

Home Time; cover page.

Home Time; inside page.

Making Sense of Complexity, by Sarah Catherine Firth

Sarah Catherine Firth’s visual essay explores how we understand the complex systems that exist in the world around us. Through autobiographical anecdotes and humour, it covers the history of scientific thought, unpacks complex ideas and helps provide answers to complicated questions.

You can read Making Sense of Complexity online here.

Making sense of complexity

Making sense of complexity.

The Lie and How We Told It, by Tommi Parissh

The blurb says The Lie is about how “after a chance encounter, two formerly close friends try to salvage whatever is left of their decaying relationship”. But it’s much more that. Visually, Tommi Parissh’s disproportioned characters dominate the spaces and the panels they inhabit, their uneven bodies reflecting their unease with themselves and their shared history. The Lie is a beautifully poignant tale of confused identities, self-centeredness and regret.

The Lie and How We Told It; cover page.

The Lie and How We Told It; inside page.

Hidden, by Mirranda Burton

“Everyone sees the world in their own unique way.” That’s how Mirranda Burton introduces Steve, one of the intellectually impaired adults she teaches art to. But Hidden isn’t about how her subjects see the world. It’s about how Mirranda sees them – with care, respect and humour. Mirranda’s fictionalised stories reveal how engaging meaningfully with people can shift your perspectives in beautiful and unexpected ways.

Hidden; cover page.

Hidden; inside page.

The Grot, by Pat Grant with colours by Fionn McCabe

If everyone you know is trying to get rich at everyone else’s expense, then who can you trust? In The Grot, the world is in the wake of an unnamed environmental catastrophe, technology and society have been reduced to simple mechanics, and everyone is rushing to Felter City to make their fortunes. With The Grot, Pat Grant and Fionn McCabe have created a stained and wondrously dilapidated alternative universe of Australian hustlers and grifters fighting to survive in a new Australian gold rush.

You can read The Grot online here.

The Grot; cover page.

The Grot; inside page.

So Below, by Sam Wallman

Sam Wallman’s comic essay So Below explores ideas of land ownership and its social and political ramifications. Sam’s poetic artwork guides the reader through complicated questions to reveal the communities impacted by the social construct of land ownership.

You can read So Below online here.The Conversation

So Below; cover page.

So Below; inside page.

Gabriel Clark, Lecturer, Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Marvel meets Mesopotamia: how modern comics preserve ancient myths

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Gilgamesh (right) in his first appearance as an Avenger in the Marvel comic Avengers Vol 1 300.
Marvel Database

Louise Pryke, Macquarie University

Ancient Mesopotamia, the region roughly encompassing modern-day Iraq, Kuwait and parts of Syria, Iran and Turkey, gave us what we could consider some of the earliest known literary “superheroes”.

One was the hero Lugalbanda, whose kindness to animals resulted in the gift of super speed, perhaps making him the literary great-grandparent of the comic hero The Flash.

But unlike the classical heroes (Theseus, Herakles, and Egyptian deities such as Horus), which have continued to be important cultural symbols in modern pop culture, Mesopotamian deities have largely fallen into obscurity.

An exception to this is the representation of Mesopotamian culture in science fiction, fantasy, and especially comics. Marvel and DC comics have added Mesopotamian deities, such as Inanna, goddess of love, Netherworld deities Nergal and Ereshkigal, and Gilgamesh, the heroic king of the city of Uruk.

Gilgamesh the Avenger

The Marvel comic book hero of Gilgamesh was created by Jack Kirby, although the character has been employed by numerous authors, notably Roy Thomas. Gilgamesh the superhero is a member of the Avengers, Marvel comics’ fictional team of superheroes now the subject of a major movie franchise, including Captain America, Thor, and the Hulk. His character has a close connection with Captain America, who assists Gilgamesh in numerous battles.

Read more:
Guide to the classics: the Epic of Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh and Captain America are both characters who stand apart from their own time and culture. For Captain America, this is the United States during the 1940s, and for Gilgamesh, ancient Mesopotamia. A core aspect of their personal narratives is their struggle to navigate the modern world while still engaging with traditions from the past.

In the 1992 comic Captain America Annual #11, Cap is transported to ancient Mesopotamia.
Marvel Database

Gilgamesh’s first appearance as an Avenger was in 1989 in the comic series Avengers 1, issue #300, Inferno Squared. In the comic, Gilgamesh is known, rather aptly, as the “Forgotten One”. The “forgetting” of Gilgamesh the hero is also referenced in his first appearance in Marvel comics in 1976, where the character Sprite remarks that the hero “lives like an ancient myth, no longer remembered”.

In Avengers #304, …Yearning to Breathe Free!, Gilgamesh travels to Ellis Island with Captain America and Thor. The setting of Ellis Island allows for the heroes’ thoughtful consideration of their shared past as immigrants. Like Gilgamesh, Thor is also from foreign lands, in this case the Norse kingdom of Asgard.

In the 1992 comic Captain America Annual #11, the battle against the villainous Kang sends Captain America time-travelling back to Uruk in 2700 BCE. Captain America realises that the his royal companion is Gilgamesh, and accompanies the king on adventures from the legendary Epic of Gilgamesh.

Conan the Barbarian, featuring the goddess Inanna.
Marvel Database

In the original legend, Gilgamesh finds the key to eternal youth, a heartbeat plant, and then promptly loses it to a snake. In the comic adaptation, the snake is an angry sea serpent, who Captain America must fight to save Gilgamesh. The Mesopotamian hero’s famous fixation on acquiring immortality is reflected in his Marvel counterpart’s choice to leave Captain America fighting the serpent in order to collect the heartbeat plant. This leads Cap to observe his ancient friend has “a few millennia” of catching up to do on the concept of team-work!

Gilgamesh is not the only hero to feature. Marvel’s 1974 comic, Conan the Barbarian #40, The Fiend from the Forgotten City, features the Mesopotamian goddess of love, Inanna. In the comic, the barbarian hero is assisted by the goddess while fighting against looters in an ancient “forgotten city.” Marvel’s Inanna holds similar powers to her mythical counterpart, including the ability to heal. It is interesting to note the prominence of the theme of “forgetting” in comic books involving Mesopotamian myths, perhaps alluding to the present day obscurity of ancient Mesopotamian culture.

Read more:
Friday essay: the legend of Ishtar, first goddess of love and war

Myth literacy

A possible image of Gilgamesh from 700BC in Iraq.

It’s tempting to think that Captain America’s 1992 journey back to Ancient Mesopotamia was a comment on the political context at the time, particularly the Gulf War. But Roy Thomas, creator of this comic, told me via email his portrayal of Gilgamesh reflected his interest in the legend from his university days, and teaching students ancient myths at a high school.

Thomas’ belief in the benefits of learning myths is well founded. Story-telling has been recognised since ancient times as a powerful tool for imparting wisdom. Myths teach empathy and the ability to consider problems from different perspectives.

The combination of social and analytical skills developed through engaging with mythology can provide the foundation for a life-long love of learning. A recent study has shown that packaging stories in comics makes them more memorable, a finding with particular significance for preserving Mesopotamia’s cultural heritage.

The myth literacy of science fiction and fantasy audiences allows for the representation in these works of more obscure ancient figures. Marvel comics see virtually the entire pantheons of Greece, Rome, and Asgard represented. But beyond these more familiar ancient worlds, Marvel has also featured deities of the Mayan, Hawaiian, Celtic religions, and Australian Aboriginal divinities, and many others.

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The Conversation

The use of Mesopotamian myth in comic books shows the continued capacity of ancient legends to find new audiences and modern relevance. In the comic multiverse, an appreciation of storytelling bridges a cultural gap of 4,000 years, making old stories new again, and hopefully preserving them for the future.

Louise Pryke, Lecturer, Languages and Literature of Ancient Israel, Macquarie University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How The Beano survived war and the web to reach its 80th birthday

David Anderson, Swansea University

The British economy was in a volatile state 80 years ago, as the world teetered on the brink of war. Business was tough for all, and yet printing and publishing was expanding with Dundee-based DC Thomson & Co, publisher of newspapers, magazines and comics, especially prominent.

Spurred on by the success of weekly newspaper comic strips Oor Wullie and The Broons, and its “big five” action story papers for boys, Thomson decided in 1937 to create another quintet of comics for boys and girls, this time focused on humour.

The Dandy became the first of these comics to launch in December 1937, featuring characters Korky the Cat, Keyhole Kate, Hungry Horace and the enduring Desperate Dan. Under the editorship of the indomitable Albert Barnes (whom the square-jawed Desperate Dan is said to be modelled on), The Dandy introduced a new style of comic drawing to generations of schoolchildren. Taking inspiration from existing British and American styles, such as the use of hand drawn speech bubbles, The Dandy’s team of experienced scriptwriters and talented artists developed a humour that celebrated slapstick and derided authority figures.

The following summer, a “great new fun paper” arrived – The Beano. Now close to publishing its 4,000th edition, the very first issue of The Beano came complete with a free whoopee mask when it was released on July 30, 1938. Deriving its name from a 19th century colloquialism for celebration, party, or other merry occasion, The Beano was intended to be a feast of fun.

The 28-page publication was a mixture of mostly black and white comic stories, short comic strips, and text stories. With characters such as Big Eggo (an inquisitive ostrich), Lord Snooty (and his pals), and Pansy Potter (the strong man’s daughter), The Beano enjoyed an immediate readership, with 442,963 copies of the first issue sold.

V for victory, B for Beano

It wasn’t just about the laughs. During World War II, The Dandy and The Beano became important propaganda tools in the fight against Nazism and Fascism. Adolf Hitler, Hermann Göering, and Benito Mussolini were lampooned in each comic, and copies of The Beano were sent to soldiers serving overseas to boost morale.

Scripts and advertisements followed patriotic themes, too, urging readers to aid the war effort on the home front by gathering waste paper for recycling. Lord Snooty’s storylines often reminded children of the importance of gas masks for protection against chemical attack during air raids. Thrilling adventure stories, such as Tom Thumb, and Jimmy and His Magic Patch, enthralled war-weary readers with fantastic escapist tales in far flung, fairytale locations.

The war scattered Beano artists and writers far and wide, while paper rationing and ink shortages forced a smaller page count. Yet publication continued, albeit fortnightly, alternating with The Dandy.

A third pre-war Thomson comic, The Magic, which launched a few weeks before the outbreak of hostilities, ceased publication in 1941 because of paper scarcities. Thomson’s ambition to create another big five was never fully realised.

Dennis, the world’s wildest boy

After the war, The Beano staff returned with renewed energy and enthusiasm, successfully taking on new comics such as The Eagle (1950), also published in Britain, and the competing medium of TV. Circulation increased dramatically – in April 1950, The Beano reached the peak of its popularity, recording a weekly sale of 1,974,072, the highest to date, for issue 405.

In 1948, Biffo the Bear ousted Big Eggo from the front cover after market research indicated children preferred their cartoon strip characters to more closely resemble people. It was an important moment in the comic’s history, when many of The Beano’s longest running stories, focused on child characters, full of tricks and tomfooleries, began to appear for the first time in all their mischievous, madcap magnificence. One such character was the “world’s wildest boy”, Dennis the Menace, who burst onto the pages of The Beano in 1951.

In 1953, artist Leo Baxendale brought to life The Bash Street Kids, Little Plum, and Minnie the Minx, with Roger the Dodger, by Ken Reid, also debuting that year. In the 1960s and 70s, further new characters were introduced, including Billy Whizz (“the world’s fastest boy”) and Baby-Face Finlayson (“the cutest bandit in the west”).

Since the 1980s, Beano storylines have increasingly reflected shifting social trends, and adjustments have been made to the language and look of characters. Dennis, for example, is no longer known as a menace and his nemesis, Walter, is no longer a “softy”.

While the digital age has undoubtedly impacted sales, The Beano has, for the most part, embraced the challenges, and is now available online as well as in print. Now the world’s longest running weekly comic (following the demise of The Dandy in 2012), The Beano has endured because it celebrates its past, while evolving to survive the future.

The ConversationThe comic has entertained children and adults for more than three generations, a riotous celebration of comic art, anarchy and absurdity. It is part of Britain’s individual and collective memory, part of the fabric of its social and cultural history. Happy Birthday, Beano!

David Anderson, Senior Lecturer in American History, Swansea University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Superman at 80: How two high school friends concocted the original comic book hero

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In 1938, a cultural icon was born.

Brad Ricca, Case Western Reserve University

Superman – the first, most famous American superhero – turns 80 this year.

The comics, toys, costumes and billion-dollar Hollywood blockbusters can all trace their ancestry to the first issue of “Action Comics,” which hit newsstands in April 1938.

Most casual comic book fans can recite the character’s fictional origin story: As the planet Krypton approaches destruction, Jor-El and his wife, Lara, put their infant son, Kal-El, into a spaceship to save him. He rockets to Earth and is taken in by the kindly Kents. As he grows up, Kal-El – now known as Clark – develops strange powers, and he vows to use them for good.

But the story of the real-life origins of Superman – a character created out of friendship, persistence and personal tragedy – is just as dramatic.

From villain to hero

When I was a kid growing up in Cleveland, my dad would regale my brother and me with stories of Superman’s local origins: The two men who had concocted the comic book hero had grown up in the area.

As I became older, I realized I wanted to understand not only how, but why Superman was created. A 10-year research project ensued, and it culminated in my book “Super Boys.”

In the mid-1930s, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were two nerds with glasses who attended Glenville High School in Cleveland, Ohio. They worked on the school newspaper, wrote stories, drew cartoons, and dreamed of being famous. Jerry was the writer; Joe was the artist. When they finally turned to making comics, a publisher named Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson gave them their first break, commissioning them to create spy and adventure comics in his magazines “New Fun” and “Detective Comics.”

But Jerry and Joe had been working on something else: a story about a “Superman” – a villain with special mental powers – that Jerry had stolen from a different magazine. They self-published it in a pamphlet titled “Science Fiction.”

While “Science Fiction” only lasted for five issues, they liked the name of the character and continued to work on it. Before long, their new Superman was a good guy. Joe dressed him in a cape and trunks like those of the era’s popular bodybuilders, modeled the character’s speedy running abilities after Olympic sprinter Jesse Owens, and gave him the bouncy spit-curl of Johnny Weissmuller, the actor who played Tarzan. It was a mishmash of 1930s pop culture in gladiator boots.

When they were finally ready, they started pitching Superman to every newspaper syndicate and publisher they could find.

All of them rejected it, some of them several times. This continued for several years, but the duo never gave up.

When Superman finally saw print, it was through a process that is still not wholly clear. But the general consensus is that a publisher named Harry Donenfeld, who had acquired the major’s company, National Allied Publications (the predecessor to DC Comics), bought the first Superman story – and all the rights therein – for US$130.

Was Jerry trying to create a Superdad?

The first issue of Action Comics featured Superman on the cover.
Philipp Lenssen, CC BY-NC

The world was introduced to Superman in “Action Comics” No. 1, on April 18, 1938, with the Man of Steel appearing on the cover smashing a Hudson roadster. The inaugural issue cost 10 cents; in 2014, a copy in good condition sold for $3.2 million dollars.

When the comic became a runaway hit, Jerry and Joe regretted selling their rights to the character; they ended up leaving millions on the table. Though they worked on Superman comics for the next 10 years, they would never own the character they created, and for the rest of their lives repeatedly filed lawsuits in an effort to get him back.

But there is another more personal piece to the puzzle of Superman’s origins.

On June 2, 1932, Jerry’s father, Michel, was about to close his secondhand clothing store in Cleveland when some men walked in. Michel caught them trying to steal a suit, and ended up dying on the spot – not in a hail of gunfire, but from a heart attack.

Jerry was 17.

Jerry Siegel pictured while serving in the U.S. Army.
Wikimedia Commons

Some believe Jerry may have created Superman as a fantasy version of his own father – as someone who could instantly transform from a mild-mannered man into a hero capable of easily overpowering petty thieves. Indeed, some of the early Superman stories feature Jor-El out of breath (as Michel often was from heart disease) and show criminals who faint dead when confronted by Superman. As many victims of childhood trauma often do, Jerry may have used Superman to re-enact his father’s tragic death over and over in an attempt to somehow fix it.

In Superman’s never-ending battle of good versus evil, this same story is repeated again and again on the page, in cartoons and in movies. It’s seen in kids who pretend to be Superman, tucking towels in at their neck and playing out battles in their backyards.

The ConversationWhy is Superman’s 80th birthday important? It isn’t just about celebrating a “funny book” about a guy who has heat vision and can fly. It’s about using fantasy to make sense of the world, plumbing personal tragedy to tell a story, and using art to envision a more just and safe society.

Brad Ricca, Lecturer of English, Case Western Reserve University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How comic books help us to relive our childhood

Benoit Peeters, Lancaster University

Traditionally, comic books have been aimed primarily at children – to such a degree that they are often identified with them. Regardless of the recent evolution of the genre, particularly given the growing popularity of more adult graphic novels, to me the link between comics and childhood continues to be very profound.

There are certain regressive aspects to our love of comics and “bandes dessinées” (or BD) – as they are known in French, my native language. For example, collectors often pay incredible prices for figurines and old editions. They also have a remarkable desire to keep alive mythical characters after the death of their creator: from Batman and Astroboy to Spirou and Blake and Mortimer, characters continue to be resuscitated, with varying degrees of success. It’s as if the readers who were comforted in their childhood by these heroes can’t bear to see them disappear.

This seems to be something particular to the medium of the comic book. Of course, we remember the novels that we loved during our childhood, but we don’t read and return to them as often as our favourite comics.

A thirst for innocence

It’s also possible to admire great works of literature, philosophy and art without the need to return to them compulsively or to spend thousands on first editions. But there is a kind of archaic drive behind our relationship with comics, an inconsolable nostalgia mixed with an irresistible desire to not completely grow up. We dismiss this phenomenon by talking about childishness. But it’s more about a thirst for innocence or permanence that we keep carrying around inside us, and which comics allow us to satisfy easily.

But of course, this direct link with childhood is only one aspect of graphic fiction. Comics have also been evolving.

Winsor McCay: Little Nemo in Slumberland

In many modern comics since the 1970s, for example, the heroes are no longer invincible – they are affected by age or their own fragility. Comic book characters increasingly are caught in linear time, which affects and transforms them, just like it does every one of us. Links with others are made and remade, injuries cause real suffering, people, including the heroes themselves, die. They have abandoned the mythic to enter the romantic.

This new relationship with time is at the heart of many celebrated graphic novels, particularly the two volumes of the Pulitzer prize-winning Maus, which reimagines the Holocaust, casting mice as the Jews and cats as the Nazis. But Art Spiegelman’s masterpiece doesn’t just deal with the Holocaust and its survivors. It is concerned with a lot of other issues: the relationship between father and son, the difficulties of communication and of forgiveness. With the death of Vladek, the narrator’s father, in the middle of the story, memory changes function and gives a new sense to the work: mourning and history are inseparable.

In another way, Japanese manga such as My Father’s Journal or A Distant Neighborhood by Jirô Taniguchi pose similar questions. So too do the extraordinary biographical works accomplished by Emmanuel Guibert in The Photographer and Alan’s War. Mixing personal and universal elements, those stories are subtle and complex as the best novels.

A particularly striking example is proposed by Lint, one of the recent books produced by Chris Ware which describes the life of an ordinary man, from his birth to his last breath in 70 pages. The graphic and narrative style is codified to the extreme, far removed from any apparent realism. Ware’s designs are on the edge of a diagrammatic style. And yet, when we read this book – in which each of the years of Lint’s life is reduced to a single page – we are plunged into a story that deeply moves us.

This book moves us, not just because we identify with a character, as we might when watching a film, but because we identify with the medium itself. The pages of Chris Ware’s book evoke a mixture of emotions, primitive and childlike and sophisticated and adult at the same time, that appeal to a whole spectrum of experiences.

This highly sophisticated graphic novel can help us to understand how comic book art is connected with childhood, even in its most subtle and modern evolutions.

Could a child recognise it?

Drawing donkeys

The simplicity of comic books is another key feature. Around 1840, Rodolphe Töpffer, inventor and first theorist of the comic book, had already started questioning the manner in which a child recognises a donkey illustrated in a linear drawing. When a donkey is represented in a picture in the middle of the countryside accompanied by a play of light and shadow, a young child can’t always immediately identify it. But if the donkey is suggested only by a few lines, the child doesn’t hesitate to recognise it. Even if a tree trunk is placed in front of the donkey in this simple linear drawing, so that only a few fragments of it are left, the child still sees it for what it is.

This tells us something about the specific way we perceive caricatures, such as those in comic books. When it’s a light touch design, a caricature fixes an image in our minds which cannot be erased, as if it has unveiled somebody’s true character. Through this we can see another essential quality of the comic book: its ability to stick in our memory.

In the midst of the flux of images and art surrounding us, comic books have a special and unforgettable place. They have a remarkable capacity to prolong the life of images well beyond the time of reading. The most remarkable sequences of images continue to live with us, accompanying us for years.

In this regard, the nearest thing to the comic book is perhaps the song. I don’t think there is any song that we fall in love with immediately: we have to listen to it again and again – sometimes obsessively – until it has infiltrated us and accompanies us in our daily life. To me, comics are similar to this: they live where we dream to live. There is something unique and profound here, comic books are a privileged way of renewing the buried emotions of our childhood.

It’s Asterix versus Tintin in a Clash of the Toon Titans for the Lakes International Comic Art Festival’s opening night (Friday, October 14). The Festival team have joined forces with Lancaster University to stage a battle of comic superstars. Putting the case for Tintin is Lancaster University’s new professor in Graphic Fiction and Comic Art, Benoît Peeters. Asterix is being championed by Peter Kessler, BAFTA award-winning producer and author of The Complete Guide to Asterix.

The Conversation

Benoit Peeters, Professor of Graphic Fiction and Comic Art, Lancaster University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Inside the pages of the oldest comic in the world

Laurence Grove, University of Glasgow

Here’s a good pub quiz question: what was the world’s first comic?

If you’ve no idea, don’t feel too foolish. It wasn’t even recognised by experts until a few years ago and is still debatable today. But long before Viz, The Beano, Eagle and even Punch, I can answer with reasonable confidence that the accolade goes to the Glasgow Looking Glass of 1825.

Issue 1 front cover
Looking Glass

The fortnightly publication, which ran over 19 issues for a year starting in June 1825, offered a satirical view of politics and all aspects of life in the city – before broadening to become the Northern Looking Glass from issue six. The cover of the first issue includes a panoramic cartoon that pokes fun at the world powers of the day, including images of John Bull (personifying England) alongside the likes of the King of Prussia and Charles X of France. Next to this is a cartoon entitled “Fashions for June”, which mocks the excessive styles that people were wearing.

The comic was the brainchild of the English satirical cartoonist William Heath, who had reached Glasgow after fleeing from London to escape debts. Often published under the nom de plume Paul Pry, Heath teamed up with lithographic printer Thomas Hopkirk and his print manager John Watson to produce the publication after meeting Hopkirk in one of the city’s drinking dens.

The Looking Glass contained the world’s first comic strip, namely the History of a Coat, whose adventures from owner to owner ran over three episodes. There were many examples of speech bubbles, such as the heated one below between “Billy the Bully and Ranting Dan”.

Billy the Bully and Ranting Dan.
Looking Glass

Well before the environmental movement as we know it was a cartoon entitled: “The Consumption of Smoke”, which gives a futuristic before-and-after imagining of city life without factory smoke. Also eye-catching is the hard-hitting cartoon in the lead image that accompanied an essay on the problem of grave robbing; and the one below that depicts English banks crumbling around a fat John Bull next to thrifty Scotsmen – ironic after the banking crisis in our era.

Banker satire.
Looking Glass

Other contenders

The Looking Glass was a soaring success, sharply increasing the number of outlets in the first few issues both across the Scottish central belt as well as to Liverpool and London. Its undoing seems to have been its celebrity, with its biting satire making enemies for Heath, who fled back to London at the height of its popularity. He was said to have run up drinking debts. He started a London version of the title but it folded after a few months.

Despite being a trailblazer, the Looking Glass’s claim to be the world’s first comic was overlooked by virtually all historians of the graphic novel until the end of the 20th century. The main previous contender was the Histoire de M. Jabot, which was launched in 1835 by Geneva schoolmaster Rodolphe Töpffer. Jabot tells the story of its central character’s search for love. The tone is burlesque and caricatural, with humour often provoked by the discordance between the pseudo-lofty tone of the text and the slapstick nature of the accompanying images.

Jabot in action.


Although only intended for Töpffer’s pupils and close friends, the cartoons were popular enough to engender numerous pirate versions and spin-offs. This included North America’s first comic, The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck of 1842 – a year after Punch arrived in the UK.

When I said at the beginning that the Looking Glass’s status as the first comic was debatable, it means ignoring previous examples of narrative heroes like Rowlandson or Hogarth; the speech bubbles used by Isaac Cruikshank and Biblia pauparum; and before-and-afters like the manuscript of Petrarch’s Visions. Depending on how you define “comic”, any of these might be able to stake a claim.

But judging from our 21st-century viewpoint, where we see a comic as something to fold up and take home – something featuring picture stories and available to a mass market – it is hard to argue against the Looking Glass. Jabot is perhaps the world’s first modern graphic novel, though it was not available to the masses of course.

Whatever your point of view, we’re running a four-month exhibition in Glasgow that contains examples of everything I have mentioned – as well as the first copy of Punch and various other artefacts dating as far back as Ancient Egypt. Thanks to a loan from the Kunzle Collection of Los Angeles, we’ll also be able to show the first editions of Oldbuck and Jabot and the original Jabot manuscript side by side for the first time ever.

Töpffer felt that his comics were not worthy of serious attention, let alone academic analysis or gallery displays. This was the way that most people viewed comics until the end of the 20th century. Thankfully the world has now seen the light. Publications like these give us a unique view of society in the early 19th century, and are invaluable in helping us understand how the modern comic came about. Long after the laughing has stopped, they continue to be incredibly important.

The Conversation

Laurence Grove, Professor of French and Text/Image Studies, University of Glasgow

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