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Forms of artistic expression

Much like many other forms of artistic expression that have achieved great popularity in modern times, comics also originated and evolved during the period of Renaissance that swept through continental Europe in the late 15th and 16th century A. D. Although, these early pictorial caricatures differed widely from the modern-day comic strips, as we know them, nonetheless, they became a powerful medium for cultivating public opinion on diverse subjects. Quite naturally, the earliest comics drew heavily from social and political themes prevailing in Europe at that time.

In the late 15th century for example, woodcuts depicting contemporary religious, moral, and political themes became quite popular in Germany. In neighboring Holland, another early version of the modern day comic, called centsprent or mannekesprent, also began to receive considerable public attention with their depiction of the lives of holy men and themes from the Aesop’s fables etc. etc, However, with the development of letterpress printing and engraving techniques in Europe, in the wake of the industrial revolution, subsequently these illustrated works came to be fashioned in a more sophisticated manner.

It was also around this time that ‘speech balloons’, a mandatory element of comics, made their first appearance in England, in the propaganda banners prepared by Francis Barlow in ‘The Horrid Hellish Popish Plot’. The winds of change that had upended the traditional social and political order in Europe found their way into the themes of these illustrations and in no time at all, the satirized representation of social ills present in the above, began to attract many admirers in a diverse European society.

Soon after, there began to originate in Italy , a more simplified and slapstick form of social caricatures that enjoyed a brief period of popularity before being eclipsed by more lucid illustrations, using newly developed printing tools, that followed soon after. As a precursor to the modern day ‘comic strip’, there also appeared in England in 1809, the first serialized cartoon character, ‘Dr. Syntax’, developed by Thomas Rowlandson. Owing to the unique attributes of its central character, this strip soon became widely popular and was subsequently translated and reproduced in various other languages.

Despite the aforementioned developments, it was not until the mid 19th century that comics began to resemble its modern day avatar. Partly inspired by the French translations of Rowlandson’s ‘Dr Syntax’ and William Hogarth’s ‘A Harlot’s Progress’, Rodolphe Topffer, a Swiss teacher, began to write and publish novels in the form of boxed illustrations. Owing to his immense contribution to comic prose, Rodolphe Topffer is recognized in some circles as the father of modern comics. In fact, with respect to the theme, he was the first writer to deviate from social satire to fictional worlds filled with oddities.

This style of comic writing received appreciation from various quarters and Topffer’s comics soon had a number of followers. Cartoonists such as George Cruikshank was greatly inspired by Topffer’s comics, in particular, ‘Les Amours de M. Vieux Bois’, and the former even brought out an English adaptation of this comic novella named ‘The Adventures Of Obadiah Oldbuck’. Elsewhere on the Continent, Topffer’s works inspired the noted French cartoonist ‘Cham’ , who was a pioneer in his own right, to produce ‘History of M.

Lajaunisse’, in 1839, which is regarded as the first album of original comics in France. Curiously enough, Cham’s later works, ‘Histoire de M. Jobard’, ‘Histoire de M. Vertpre’ and ‘Deux vieilles filles vaccinees’, created a whole new mode of storytelling, so much so, that even Topffer himself was influenced by it. Cham was also instrumental in assisting Topffer to create ‘Histoire de Monsieur Cryptogramme’, published in 1945, and widely regarded as the first comic novella of Topffer to have attained widespread international acclaim.

Naturally, Cham is held in high regard in both France and the world of comics in general, and many of his successors, who have gone on to become stalwarts in their own respective ways, have followed his storytelling technique in the creating of their own respective illustrated prose. In The Netherlands too the illustrations of Jan Linse and J. Holswilder around 1850 , had begun to attract considerable attention and the former is often considered the first Dutch comic artist. In Germany, Topffer’s works proved to be a great influence upon the brilliant Wilhelm Busch, whose comic literature is held in great awe to this day.

Busch’s caricatures and cartoons are unique in the sense that he used rhyming text to relate to the drawings and his bold, animated style won great renown. His most famous works, ‘Max and Moritz’ (about a pair of mischievous boys) and ‘Fipps the Monkey’ influenced cartoonists not only in Germany and Europe but also the earliest comics in America and Japan. By the 1880s comic caricatures had started to appear in periodicals and humor magazines, and characters like ‘Ally Sloper’ , ‘Weary Willie and Tired Tim’ etc.

etc. depicting the working class lifestyle through a series of humorous anecdotes, became massive hits on both sides of the Atlantic. These were pioneering publications in the sense that till that time no magazines or periodicals were published that comprised entirely of comic caricatures. This trend caught on in Europe and in the United States, and by the 1900s United States had a number of popular magazines that were fashioned after the likes of Judy and Ally Sloper.

However it is noteworthy that even at this stage, most comic strips and caricatures did not contain text in the from of speech balloons but in the form of captions or bylines underneath. It was not until a few years into the 20th century that speech balloons became more and more prominent in published comics. A few noted comic strips that were popular in Europe at the turn of the century were ‘Becassine’ in France (that also heralded the birth of the ‘bande dessinee’ – the Franco-Belgian comic) and Daniel Hoeksema’s ‘De Neef van Prikkebeen’ (the cousin of Prikkebeen), the latter being modeled on the ‘Monsieur Cryptogame’.

Nevertheless, barring the appearance of the bande dessinee comic style, there were no other significant changes in the European comic literature till the end of the First World War. But the period starting from the end of the First World War leading to the start of the Second World War saw a renewed vigour in European comic literature circles. To this end, European cartoons were also influenced by the evolution of the comic strip in America, and for the first time, taking a cue from American comic strips like the detective ‘Dick Tracy’ by Chester Gould, ‘The Yellow Kid’ by Richard F.

Outcault and the spaceman ‘Buck Rogers’, “speech ballons” came to be universally included within boxed diagrams in European comics. The very popular cartoon series, ‘Zig et Puce’ (The Adventures of Zig and Puce), created by renowned cartoonist Alain Saint-Ogan was one of the first European comic strips to have word balloons and very soon the trend caught on. Similarly, in 1921, John Millar Watt’s cartoon series ‘Pop’ was the first series to incorporate the speech bubble in the British Isles.

Owing to the immense popularity of some cartoon characters and to whet the public appetite, publishers began to consider bringing out entire series’ of caricatures and cartoons in the form of booklets – a sort of precursor to the moden day comics-book. It was around this time, (1929 to be precise) that the cult comic character ‘Tintin’ made his first appearance in a black and white cartoon strip with the story, ‘Tintin in the Land of the Soviets’ . However Herge’s first sketches of Tintin differed widely from the later, more well-known episodes both in terms of content as well as character attributes.

Nonetheless, Herge is credited with having introduced a new format of comic imagery known as ‘ligne claire’ or ‘clear line’ that was widely adopted by many other leading cartoonists of that era. Although the theme of storytelling of each of these ligne claire cartoonists varied from each other, their pictorial representations all bore a common unique artistic attribute. All of this culminated in the publishing of the first ever European comic book in the year 1934 in Hungary, by Paul Winckler, who managed to get rights from King Features Syndicate to publish ‘Journal de Mickey’.

By this time of course comic books and comic book characters like Superman and Batman had become a rage in America, but it was still difficult to come across a truly contemporary European comic book. Feeble attempts were made in the United Kingdom to come up with a similar concept during the 1930s but it was not until the onset of the Second World War, that two comics series – ‘The Dandy’ and ‘The Beano’ published by D. C. Thompson and Co. that popular comic books began to appear on bookshelves.

1938 proved to be a pivotal year of sorts for European comics in particular, with the launch of the wildly succesful and popular cartoon magazine ‘Spirou’, published by Jean Dupuis, that effectively ushered the comic book culture in the Continent. With the heavy censorship over artistic expression during and in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, comics went through something of a lull period in Europe, only to be rejuvenated in the 1950s with the launch of the Asterix series, created by Rene Goscinny and published in the French magazine Pilote in 1959, as well as the works of Willy Vandersteen.

The Franco-Belgian comic era reached its zenith in these years and characters from Spirou, Tintin and Pilote has since become etched in European literary consciousness. The latter half of the 20th century saw numerous new themes being introduced into the world of comics. Partly influenced by popular culture and also partly by the evolution of the Japanese school of comic book storytelling, comic literature in Europe began to explore beyond the traditional themes of social satire.

Thus a wide range of topics ranging from popular science fiction to folk tales became the focal point of many a comic series. In fact, by the late 80s there had begun to appear comic book characters with distinctly dark and sinister undertones – a far cry from the light-hearted content that gave comic books its name. More recently, there has been a sharp increase in the demand for “graphic novels”, a form of pictorial representation of stories with mature, often macabre, themes, underlining the fact that comic books are in the process of constant reinvention.

There is no doubt that comic book characters have left an indelible mark on the collective social consciousness of entire generations. To this day Herge’s ‘The Adventures of Tintin’ serve as a reliable and enjoyable gateway into different worlds and at the same time gives readers a peek into the social climates prevailing in Europe at that time. Comics have provided a lot of inspiration to artists, filmmakers and musicians alike and in its own inimitable way, it has helped shape the social consciousness of entire societies. References (1) Gravett P. ,“Comics.

Graphic Novels. Manga” retrieved from the URL http://www. paulgravett. com. (2) Forsdick C. , Grove L. , McQuillan L. , ‘The Francophone bande dessinee’, Rodopi Publishers, 2005. (3) Lent J. , ‘Comic art of Europe: An International, Comprehensive Bibliography’, Greenwood Press, 1994. (4) Kenneally C. , ‘Comics Characters Beloved by Brussels’, published on September 29, 1991 in the New York Times, retrieved from its official website http://www. nytimes. com/1991/09/29/travel/comics-characters-beloved-by-brussels. html? scp=1&sq=european%20comics&st=cse.

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