- The Origins of Comics from William Hogarth to Winsor McCay by Thierry Smolderen
by Thierry Smolderen, translated by Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen. University Press of Mississippi.
2016. $35.85 hardcover; $34.06 e-book. 168pages.
Histories of the comics often stay within a national framework, situating an artist or comic strip in the visual or literary traditions of a particular country. Thierry Smolderen’s The Origins of Comics from William Hogarth to Winsor McCay constructs the development of comic art within a broader cultural and linguistic framework that connects work done in England, France, Germany, and the United States.1 He explores the contributions of artists who are well known to historians of the medium, such as William Hogarth, as well as those who are discussed less often, such as Rodolphe Töpffer and Arthur Burdett Frost. In the process Smolderen brings to light the creative and imaginative work that has helped develop the transgressive attitudes and visual innovations for which comics continue to be admired.
Thierry Smolderen is a Belgian writer, musician, and critic who has coauthored several comic-book series, including Gipsy (Europe Comics, 1993–2002), with art by Enrico Marini, and Sonic Adventures (1994), featuring the video-game hero, with art by Mister B. Most recently he collaborated with Dominique Bertail on the series Ghost Money (2008–2016).2 In addition to his creative work, Smolderen has published many critical essays on the history of comics. The Origins of Comics appeared in France in 2009 and is now being published in translation by the University Press of Mississippi as part of its important series on comics and popular culture.3 [End Page 165]
Smolderen works within the tradition of French criticism of the past several decades, discussing graphic art as a form of writing, or écriture. He traces the roots of comics back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when graphic artists such as William Hogarth and novelists including Henry Fielding and Laurence Sterne developed new forms of storytelling that incorporated both visual and written elements. In the process of reevaluating the systems of representation of their time, they also critiqued the social and political structures of their day—critiques that comic books continue in the present era.
Hogarth’s popular engraved series A Harlot’s Progress (1732) and The Rake’s Progress (1735) continue to impress viewers because of the way they create multilayered visual texts that incorporate different kinds of representation and commentary. Taken as a whole, each series is usually read as a morality tale, a warning of what happens when a woman or man embarks on a life of indulgence and dissipation. In each of the panels that make up the series, we see stages in the harlot’s or rake’s “progress” that point to her or his eventual downfall. Smolderen draws on the work of art historian Ronald Paulson to note how the engravings also critique systems of representation that dominated art at the time, such as history painting or classical allegory. Hogarth includes allusions to these traditions in each of his panels to demonstrate that they are inadequate to explain the degeneration of these characters. In this way his engravings attack the social systems that supported the dominant art forms of his day.
Hogarth’s works were widely admired in his time because of their vivid depictions of contemporary characters: beggars, prostitutes, moralizing clergy, gamblers, and thieves. Since childhood he had roamed the streets of London and observed the various levels of society that interacted there. His engravings and paintings attempted to incorporate more naturalistic movements than the artists of his time learned when they studied classical models. A century later, the Swiss artist Rodolphe Töpffer also explored very different traditions of visual representation: primitive forms of expression such as graffiti, children’s drawings, and even stick figures. Smolderen argues that Töpffer’s “doodle men” celebrated the individuality and expressiveness of simple line drawings whose minimalism still managed to convey the essence of a movement or facial expression. Like Hogarth, Töpffer also critiqued the formal systems of representation of his time...