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PANEL BUSTING: Early cartoons

panel busting nicholas rombes

Photo-illustration by Madeline Rombes

Discussed: St. Nicholas Magazine

(Scribner’s, 1873–1940)

Before the ascendency of comics in newspapers, there was an inventive, anarchic play between text and image in late 19th-century publications like the children’s monthly St. Nicholas Magazine, whose first issue appeared in 1873. The early cartooning in these magazines is often overlooked in studies of the evolution of comics, and yet they provide a striking glimpse into the development of a genre that has moved swiftly, since the publication of Art Spiegelman’s Maus in 1986, from pop to art.

Generally considered to be the first modern cartoon, Richard Felton Outcault’s “Hogan’s Alley,” featured “The Yellow Kid” (a happy, bald, slum-dwelling boy in a yellow nightshirt who poked fun at the increasingly commercialized era) in Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper The World in 1895 (the same year the Lumière Brothers projected their motion pictures for the first time). And Rudolph Dirks’s “The Katzenjammer Kids,” appearing in 1897, was among the first to employ word balloons attached to individual speakers, a process that integrated words and images in a more sophisticated and indelible way than silent cinema could, which relied on separate intertitles to convey dialogue and narrative exposition.

By the 1920s, according to Daniel Raeburn in his excellent monograph Chris Ware:

you will see overall a near-catastrophic decay of craft, quality, and style. One of cartoonists’ earliest blunders was trying to compete with the cinematic language on the cinema’s terms. As the popularity of movies began to eclipse that of comics, more and more cartoonists began to ape a cinematic look and cinematic techniques. The result was comic strips, then comic books, that behaved less like comics and more like storyboards to a swashbuckling, superheroic action film.

In works like Quimby the Mouse and Jimmy Corrigan, Ware—an American comic artist whose intricate work has expanded the possibilities of medium in ways that put him on the same level as Spiegelman and Robert Crumb—pays homage to and expands on the visual inventiveness of comics before they were de-fanged by talkies.

I bought some old St. Nicholas Magazines several years ago, and they mesmerize me not only with individual illustrations but with the inventive, humorous, and boundary-breaking ways they interact with the surrounding text. So here, below, are a few image-texts from issues that appeared in 1895 and 1897.

st nicholas magazinest nicholas magazinest nicholas magazine

“In July” was a two-page counting game (the first page is reproduced here) whose very title—rendered in firecrackers—literally (at least visually) explodes out of the frame. The page is divided into three unmarked vertical columns that allow for great freedom in choosing where to look and how to read them. The widest column—on the left—depicts the firecrackers in well-ordered and managed activities, activities that inevitably end in explosion in the right-hand column.

st. nicholas

It’s the formula for all great comedy: the unanticipated wreckage of things falling apart. The middle column, meanwhile, is textual, providing veiled warnings for children who faced different sorts of dangers in that era. “Nine little fire crackers,” reads box nine, “walking very straight. One caught an engine spark, then—There were eight.”

Ware has said that visually inventive comics from earlier eras “made me realize that the mood of a comic strip did not have to come from the drawing or the words. You got the mood not from looking at the strip, or from reading the words, but from the act of reading it. The emotion came from the way the story itself was structured.”

Although comics came to be known as “comics” only after they began appearing in mass-circulation newspapers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the genre evolved, and its narrative practices were honed in weekly and monthly magazines like St. Nicholas and Wide Awake Magazine, which reveal the gradual development of sequential storytelling through multiple panels, almost like...movie frames.

In “Tommy’s Home Run,” the space is divided into three panels, the first two suggesting frozen moments in time, followed by the larger panel beneath them, conveying a sense of speed.

st. nicholas

Here, the elongation of frame space directs the reader not just visually but also emotionally: we feel the thrill of the chase that the elongated frame allows, as there is real tension in the gap between Tommy and the crazed old man with the hoe, who (in the enlargement below) looks like a mad scholar whose brain springs have sprung.

st. nicholas

In “The Fox Terrier and the Squirrel—A Tale without a Moral,” from the May 1895 issue, the panels are numbered at the bottom to guide the reader, offering a remarkable example of just how new the experience of reading sequential comics were to some. The panel sequencing seems, at first glance, to be commonsensical and intuitive: a dog chases a squirrel, gets swarmed by bees, and is forced to jump into a river.

st. nicholas

And frames 1, 2, and 5 confirm a certain logic of movement from left to right: as time moves forward so does the action in the frames. But this movement is interrupted in frames 3 and 4, where time keeps moving, but the framing does not. The action is still sequential, but because the frame has stopped moving, the same basic image—the log with the tree in the background—is repeated twice. The dog, however, keeps the motion within the panel moving, as it enters the log on the left in panel 3 and exits the log on the right in panel 4. 

st. nicholas

In a sense, “The Fox Terrier and the Squirrel” is a primer on how to read sequential, narrative-building images, a primer that ends with the final panel—which is larger than the others—centered at the bottom of the page, a visual punctuation mark to the story.

Finally, a moment of quiet beauty, from the July 1897 issue. A girl reading, presumably St. Nicholas, lost in thought. “Oh, Dear!” the caption reads, “The serial stories all end in this number!” She is young, her life before her. She is just a drawing, a fiction, and yet in her hands she holds a magazine that is real, perhaps even the very magazine that readers in July 1897 were holding at the same time. She is their surrogate reader.

st. nicholas

There is something secretly sad about her, the sort of tar-pit-trap sadness that takes us in during the quiet moments. As Cathy N. Davidson notes in her book Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America, in the early republic:

the flood of print was perceived as threatening to an established social order. Readers were increasingly eager to participate in the creation of meaning, of public opinion, of culture. And the novel...is par excellence a genre that “authorizes” the readers as an interpreter and as a participant in a culture’s fictions.

In 1897, commercial radio was still decades away. The world remained un-networked in our sense of the term, and stories and novels—and increasingly drawings and sequential comics—provided a sort of private space for readers to create their own worlds. If we are fortunate, we today can find ourselves in the same place as the girl from 1897: lost.

Which is sometimes the best and happiest place to be.

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