Sunday, August 10, 2014

Kunzle’s Pre-History of Comics: But Is It Really?

The scholar David Kunzle declared in 1973 that he was writing “a history or pre-history” of the modern newspaper comic strip. This enterprise has come to encompass a significant portion of his professional scholarship, including four major books with the term “comic strip” in the title: History of the Comic Strip, Volume I: The Early Comic Strip—Narrative Strips and Picture Stories in the European Broadsheet from c.1450 to 1825 (1973)[1]; The History of the Comic Strip, Volume II: The Nineteenth Century (1990)[2]; Rodolphe Töpffer: The Complete Comic Strips (2007)[3]; and Father of the Comic Strip: Rodolphe Töpffer (2007)[4]. These four volumes are preceded by one of Kunzle’s first published articles, a translation of Francis Lacassin’s “The Comic Strip and the Film Language,” which is augmented by almost 4 ½ pages of “supplementary notes” by Kunzle and amounts to a prolegomena to Kunzle’s own scholarship on pre-twentieth-century picture stories and their relationship with cinematic history.[5] Such a sizeable corpus of research and writing,[6] to say nothing of the publication of these sometimes cumbersome and profusely illustrated works, would be a worthy if not magisterial achievement for any scholar, particularly one working in such a pioneering area of graphic art as pre-twentieth-century printed picture stories. However, the twentieth-century term “comic strip” figures prominently in each of the titles mentioned, and Kunzle in his own right has become considered a father of sorts to scholars of comics, and has had a surprising and unexpectedly substantial impact on the way comics are being perceived today.

So it may seem impertinent to ask: is Kunzle's undeniable accomplishment really a history or pre-history of the comic strip? Does it do justice to the pre-twentieth-century material Kunzle studies to be considered primarily as comic strips or precursors to comic strips? What are Kunzle’s motivations for claiming the term “comic strip” as his rubric, and would his material have been better served by another term, such as “picture story”? What effect has Kunzle’s work, and his assimilation of his material to the modern comic strip, had on comics (both on its scholarship and the art form)? Would it be more productive, in fact, for comics scholars and artists to think, not of earlier graphic (printed) picture stories as latent comic strips (or comic books or graphic novels), but of comics as a particular formulation or solution to the problems presented by the graphic picture story? Would it be more productive for twenty-first century creators to consider the creative potential of combining words and pictures freely, with the entirety of the history of culture offering suggestion, rather than reducing the history of all previous words-and-pictures experiments down to a teleological, evolutionary drama narrowly concerned with the perfection of a specific, marketable form of picture story?

The reference room of the Frick Fine Arts Libary, University of Pittsburgh, which holds a copy of Kunzle’s History of Comics Volume I (not pictured).

An informal search Google N-Gram search and search of databases at my disposal suggests that the term comic strip did not emerge as a term of description for the American newspaper feature we now know by that name until probably the mid-1910s. All the material Kunzle studies in his four major works dates from prior to the twentieth century. The few times that Kunzle mentions twentieth-century newspaper comic strips throughout this corpus, it is with at least mild disdain; he seems to regard the more popular successors to his material as an attenuated if not fallen and debased artform when compared to the earlier material he finds more richly varied as to subject matter and political and social viewpoint and consequently so much more engrossing. So why does he so emphatically embrace the term comic strip by placing it firmly in the titles of all his works, and why does he so earnestly want us to view the narrative strips, picture stories, broadsheets, and other material under scrutiny as comic strips?

Kunzle acknowledges more than once that his project was inspired by the art historian Ernst Gombrich, who published his ground-breaking Art and Illusion in 1960 (which is still on some required reading lists).[7] Gombrich is the first to make the connection between early print picture stories (and specifically the work of Töpffe) to the modern newspaper comic strip form. Gombrich asserts, “to Töpffer belongs the credit, if we want to call it so, of having invented and propagated the picture story, the comic strip.”[8] Gombrich views Töpffer’s combination of words and pictures as especially prescient, “In view of what has happened during the last decades,” presumably a reference to the rising popularity of newspaper comic strips and children’s books (Gombrich was writing in the 1960s).[9] Gombrich, however, does not elaborate on the distinctions or definitions of the terms “picture story” or “comic strip,” let alone recount the evolution from one to the other. 

Enter Kunzle, Gombrich’s student, who does explore this terrain, and also assumes the elder scholar’s identification of Töpffer as a key figure in the development of the form(s). Kunzle also, at least at the outset, also assumes Gombrich’s terminological ambiguity (“the picture story, the comic strip”). Kunzle himself claims to “use the terms picture story and comic strip indifferently,” although he frequently refers to “the development of the picture story and comic strip,”[10] along with other terms, quite often, as if they were separate and distinct forms demanding the covering of all bases.

Kunzle establishes his use of the term comic strip in the Introduction to History of the Comic Strip Volume I, although he never justifies or explains his choice, or indeed, that he is making a choice. In the opening section, Kunzle considers a range of terms used to describe the twentieth century newspaper feature, particularly foreign variants such as Italian fumetti, the French bandes désinées (drawn strip), and the German term Bilderstreifen and Bildergeschichte (literally, picture strip and picture story, respectively), and the French term bande dessinée. Kunzle blandly asserts, “Of all these terms, ‘comic strip’ is the most commonly used for the newspaper strip,” which he describes as “an artistic phenomenon.” He writes,
All over the Western world, the comic strip has become a major form of mass communication, a potent force in molding public opinion, an international language […] understood and enjoyed by the literate and semi-literate alike.
But Kunzle offers no rationale as to why the term “comic strip” should be favored in describing this phenomenon, let alone why it should be applied retroactively to graphic material prior to the advent of the American daily newspaper. 

The clear inference is that Kunzle is saddled with the term “comic strip” whether he finds it appropriate or not for the pre-twentieth-century material he is studying. And indeed, he finds in completely inappropriate, arguing, “only the English language […] insists that ‘drawn strips’ are comic,” while in fact
the truly comic strip [Kunzle’s emphasis] does not emerge until … late eighteenth-century England. At this stage of its development, however, I have preferred to use the phrase “caricatural strip” …. [Therefore] I never refer to the pre-caricatural (i.e. pre-1780) strip as the “comic strip,” even when it contains an element of humor. I generally use the terms “narrative strip” or “narrative sequence,” “picture story” or “pictorial sequence” (depending on the format involved) in order to stress the narrative role of the medium, which I consider primary.[11]
Kunzle finds formal similarities between the material of his study and twentieth-century newspaper comic strips sufficient to justify the connection previously made by Gombrich, and constructs a definition of the term “comic strip” broad enough (most notably by not being dependent on the word balloons) to justify its application to his material.[12] However, Kunzle never again employs the term “comic strip” in History of the Comic Strip Volume I following the Introduction.

Further, Kunzle’s anachronistic application of the term “comic strip” to the material of his study is all the more puzzling, since he seems to have little knowledge or interest in twentieth-century material, or in discussing “comic strips” per se. Indeed, Kunzle rarely discusses twentieth century newspaper strips throughout his oeuvre, and then only generally and vaguely, usually only with broad reference to their popularity, and often with a good deal of disdain for what he sees as an artistic devolution from the rich social commentary and propaganda of his favored era into banal soap opera and gags of the time of his writing. Kunzle is also dismissive of the historically uninformed “Compilers of books on the twentieth-century comic strip” and their “potted” histories.[13] For example, Kunzle blasts a biography, “that modern stalwart, Milton Caniff,” for the name-dropping pretentions of its subtitle (“Rembrandt of the Comic Strip”), and the author’s ignorance in conflating Renaissance cartoons (preparatory drawings for paintings or tapestries) with the modern graphic form.[14] Kunzle expresses no interest in extending his own research into twentieth century material, to write a corrective history of twentieth century comic strips, or even to compare examples of the pre-1896 material of his study with more recent examples. 

In fact, Kunzle seems to have regretted his choice of placing the term “comic strip” in the title of his history of broadsheets and picture stories. In the Preface to History of the Comic Strip Volume II (1996), Kunzle goes on an extended, unscholarly rant about the problems the term “comic strip” has created for the reception of his scholarship in the intervening two decades.
As a respectable academic I have, I suppose, sought to give the comic strip academic respectability. I doubt that I have succeeded yet. The “scientific literature” of my discipline (art history) has tended to pass by Volume 1, The Early Comic Strip, no doubt because of its frivolous title, which has not convinced even the (nonacademic) celebrants of the genre in the 20th century that there is indeed a comic strip worthy of the name before the Americans “invented” it in 1896 or so. I was recently sent a script for an ambitious television series on the (20th century) comic strip, for which funding was being sought and to which I was nominated a “scholarly advisor.” The script started with the assertion that the first comic strips appeared in American newspapers at the end of the 19th century. Of course. By now I should have learned that to deny in the face of the U.S. media that the United States invented the comic strip is about as pointless as denying that the United States invented freedom and democracy. So I look once more to academe, which should understand that the real title of the present volume is “The acquisition and Manipulation of New Sites of Comoedic [sic] Narrative Discourses and Significations by Volatility-prone Social Sectors.” A big book should have a big title anyway.[15]
Kunzle further laments that his two-volume prehistory of the comic strip “has been a lonely endeavor in many ways, just how lonely I can now measure, in retrospect, as I enter the well-established field of 17th century Dutch art.”[16] More well established, and presumably more academically respectable. 

Fischer von Erlach’s Entwürf einer Historischen Arkitektur (inventive history), 1721, showing the Halikarnassus plate.

Nonetheless, Kunzle retains the term “comic strip” for the title of his second mammoth volume, and more freely and boldly uses the term in discussing nineteenth-century material, even while acknowledging its anachronism. He muses,
 The comic strip in the 19th century, for all its popularity, is without a recognized name. Töpffer called his comic albums either “picture novels” or, deprecatingly, “little follies.” In the trade they were called “caricatural albums,” or the “série Jabot,” after the initiating title. Töpffer himself pretended anonymity, which the pirates all too scrupulously observed. It is as if Jabot, the social upstart, having forced himself and his upstart graphic genre upon the public, was forever to be denied the dignity of a distinct literary or artistic category.[17]
Kunzle, to his credit, would stick with his guns, and even more boldly assert the term “comic strip” in the titles of his two subsequent publications on Töpffer.

But why did Kunzle initially adopt the term “comic strip” in the early 1970s? Kunzle seems to have made the pragmatic calculation that labeling his research on broadsheets and picture stories a “history or pre-history of the comic strip” would be of benefit to his scholarship both academically and in terms of landing a publisher for what was no doubt a prohibitively expensive undertaking. In the post-war era, after cinema and jazz, the comics strip seemed next in line as the American art destined for academic validation and publishing success. Several decades had elapsed since Coulton Waugh’s The Comics (1947), but in the first half of the 1970s, the first of a new wave of comic-strip histories were beginning to appear, or were being readied for publication. These included Dick Lupoff and Don Thompson’s anecdotal anthology All in Color for a Dime (1970)[18]; Les Daniels’ Comix: A History of Comic Books in America (1971)[19]; Marvel artist Jim Steranko’s two-volume The Steranko History of Comics (1970, 1972)[20]; Arthur Asa Berger’s sociological study The Comic-Stripped American: What Dick Tracy, Blondie, Daddy Warbucks and Charlie Brown Tell Us About Ourselves (1973)[21]; and Jerry Robinson’s The Comics: An Illustrated History of Comic Strip Art (1974)[22]. Kunzle may even had been aware of Maurice Horn’s The World Encyclopedia of Comics (1976), then in preparation.[23]


An important hint may lie in the fact that the Preface to History of the Comic Strip Volume I, dated 1968, contains no reference to or use of the term “comic strip” all, only “picture story” (twice).[24] But the volume was not published by the University of California Press until 1973, a five-year interval encompassing not only the publication of most of the comic strip histories listed above, but also Kunzle’s translation of the Lacassin article for Film Quarterly, also a UC publication (1972). The titling of the History of the Comic Strip Volume I and the writing of its Introduction, which uses the term “comic strip” more than 30 times (nowhere else in the volume does the term appear) may have taken place only after the Preface and body of the volume had been complete in 1968. The foregrounding of the term “comic strip,” for which Gombrich had already paved the way, may have belatedly occurred to Kunzle or been suggested by his publisher in recognition of  a “comic strip” trend in publishing that had emerged since 1968. Such a move would not have been merely a cynical ploy to make the publication of the mammoth volume more feasible, but could have also been a sincere effort to connect Kunzle’s rather obscure study of broadsheets and picture stories to more current (and more sexy) scholarly discourses, particularly cinema.

Back dustjacket flap of Kunzle's History of the Comic Strip Volume I: The Early Comic Strip—Narrative Strips and Picture Stories in the European Broadsheet from c.1450 to 1825, at the Special Collections room, Hillman Library, University of Pittsburgh.

This is most emphatically suggested by Kunzle’s 1972 translation of Lacassin for Film Quarterly. The introduction to the article, set in large bold italic that upstages the body text, presents the article not only as a precursor but also an unprecedented plug for Kunzle’s forthcoming History, and explicitly ties Kunzle’s work to the “intellectual respectab[ility]” belatedly emerging for comics that had been established for film “three or four decades ago.” The notes added by Kunzle, “which qualify some of Lacassin’s findings,” are half as long as Lacassin’s text.[25] Kunzle begins,
This is not the place to quarrel with Lacassin’s assumption, which is so widely shared, that the comic strip and cinema were born at the same period. Since the material has simply not been available hitherto, critics cannot know that, in fact, the narrative picture strip reached a certain maturity in German, Dutch, and English broadsheets in the seventeenth century. In my book, which the University of California Press will shortly publish, I reproduce an extensive corpus of these remarkable early picture stories, which will thus become available for analysis and discussion. Nor need we at this point question by what feat of logic Lacassin makes the “birth” of the comic strip postdate by two generations one of the recognized “fathers” of the art (for Gombrich, the father), Rodolphe Töpffer.[26]

Whatever his reasoning or motivation for declaring his work “a history or pre-history” of the comic strip, Kunzle stuck to his guns, using the term “comic strip” in the title of two more scholarly publications on Töpffer. It is now common, in fact, to see references in academic art historical publications and museum exhibition catalogs to Töpffer as  father or inventor of the comic strip.[27] But as Geoffrey Batchen reminds us in the case of the history of photography, such determinations are suspect. He remarks that historians
continue to squabble over which of them was the first to discover the one, true inventor of photography. […] [T]his is invariably an argument as much about virility and paternity as about history, as much about the legitimacy of both photographer and historian as historic primogenitors as about the timing of the birth itself.[28]
To the extent that Kunzle’s work is seen as foundational to comic strip and comic book scholarship, his legacy is a mixed bag. The unfortunate example of Kunzle’s snarky Preface to Volume II, mentioned above, as well as its Introduction which dwells at length on the status of nineteenth century picture stories as a “childish genre,”[29] suggests that a cloying desire for “academic respectability” has been passed down to more recent scholars who continue to openly bitch, “Why Are Comics Still in Search of Cultural Legitimization?”[30] On the positive side, as David Carrier attests, “I admire Kunzle, a bold and original scholar, for gathering these materials, without which my own philosophical study [on comics] could not have been conceived,” but departs from Kunzle on the issue of word balloons.[31] The more substantial implication being that Kunzle’s scholarship is not about comics at all, but something that predates comics historically, and if anything chronicles part of a pictorial and textual tradition that is larger than comics.

To the extent that Kunzle’s scholarship is a rebuke of twentieth and twenty-first century comic strips, comic books, and graphic novels (and there is plenty of ammunition for such an argument throughout Kunzle’s four major works on pre-twentieth-century picture stories),[32] and a prompt to live up to the larger pictorial and textual tradition that is Kunzle’s concern, this admonition might be stated in a more effective way. Instead of saying comics should be better than they are, one could simply say, stories told in words and pictures don’t have to be comics. Perhaps that is the far greater lesson to be derived from Kunzle’s work.

[1] David Kunzle, History of the Comic Strip, Volume I: The Early Comic Strip—Narrative Strips and Picture Stories in the European Broadsheet from c.1450 to 1825 (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1973).
[2] David Kunzle, History of the Comic Strip, Volume II: The Nineteenth Century (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1990).
[3] David Kunzle, ed., trans., Rodolphe Töpffer: The Complete Comic Strips (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007).
[4] David Kunzle, Father of the Comic Strip: Rodolphe Töpffer (Jackson : University Press of Mississippi, 2007).
[5] Francis Lacassin, “The Comic Strip and the Film Language,” trans. with additional notes by David Kunzle, Film Quarterly, vol. 26, no. 1, (Autumn 1972), pp. 11-23. Kunzle’s footnote on p. 11 reads as follows: “Translated from Lacassin’s Pour un neuvième art: la bande dessinée (Paris: Union Generale, 1971) and his preceding article “Bande dessinée et langage cinematographique,” Cinema ‘71, (September1971), by permission of the publishers. The material has been slightly abridged from its longer version in the book, but incorporates the refinements Lacassin made in the book.” Kunzle’s additional notes occupy the final 4 ½ pages of the article, set at the same type size as translated text, pp. 19-23.
[6] For brevity, these works will be referred to hereafter as History I and II, Complete, Father, and “Lacassin.”
[7] See Kunzle, History vol. 1, preface, and Father, p. ix.
[8] Ernst Gombrich, Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, 3rd ed. (Princeton: Bollingen, 2000 [1960]) p. 336.
[9] Gombrich, p. 337.
[10] Father, quotes from pp. xi and 53 respectively.
[11] History I, p. 1.
[12] History I, p. 2-3. David Carrier, among others, takes issue with Kunzle, claiming “The speech balloon is a defining element of the comic [strip].” See David Carrier, The Aesthetics of Comics, (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000), pp. 3-4; quote p. 4.
[13] History I, p. 1.
[14] History I, p. 2.
[15] History II, p. xix.
[16] History II, p. xx.
[17] History II, p. 6.
[18] Dick Lupoff and Don Thompson, eds., All in Color for a Dime (New Rochelle NY: Arlington House, 1970).
[19] Les Daniels, Comix: A History of Comic Books in America (New York: Bonanza Books, 1971).
[20] Jim Steranko, The Steranko History of Comics, vols I and II (Reading PA: Supergraphics1970, 1972).
[21] Arthur Asa Berger, The Comic-Stripped American: What Dick Tracy, Blondie, Daddy Warbucks and Charlie Brown Tell Us About Ourselves (New York: Walker, 1973).
[22] Jerry Robinson, The Comics: An Illustrated History of Comic Strip Art (New York: Putnam, 1974).
[23] Maurice Horn, The World Encyclopedia of Comics (New York: Chelsea House, 1976).
[24] History I, Preface [n.p.].
[25] The introduction or abstract of the article reads, in bolder and larger type than the article, “The comic strip is now becoming intellectually respectable in somewhat the same way that film did, three or four decades ago. Studies of contemporary strips abound; serious artists are using the form for their own purposes-often, of course, satirical purposes. As the French historian Francis Lacassin argues in the pioneering article below, the “language” or syntax of the comic strip shows many similarities to (and certain historical priorities over) the language of film. The article has been translated by David Kunzle, author of the forthcoming The Early Comic Strip: Narrative Strips and Picture Stories in the European Broadsheet, c. 1450-1826—a sociocultural history of the first mass medium’s origins—and he adds notes of his own which qualify some of Lacassin’s findings and extend them even further back in time.” See Lacassin, p. 11.
[26] Lacassin, p. 19. The Lacassin article and its influence on comics scholarships merits a discussion of its own, which in fact I first essayed on an earlier incarnation of this blog around 2005. I plan to revisit that article and repost soon.
[27] See for example Laura Hoptman, Drawing Now: Eight Propositions (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2002), p. 129.
[28] Geoffrey Batchen, Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1997), p. 35.
[29] History II, pp. 2-4.
[30] Thierry Groensteen, “Why Are Comics Still in Search of Cultural Legitimization?” in Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester, eds., A Comics Studies Reader (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi Press, 2009), pp. 3-11. [I discuss this article in a previous post on this blog.]
[31] Carrier, pp. 3-4; quote p. 3.
[32] Not to mention Kunzle’s translation of Dorfman and Armand Mattelart’s 1973 Para leer al pato Donald into English as How to Read Donald Duck in 1975, suggesting that if Kunzle were to regard modern comics at all, their status as capitalist commodities would be foremost in his critique.

Back dustjacket flap of Kunzle's History of the Comic Strip Volume II: The Nineteenth Century, at the Special Collections room, Hillman Library, University of Pittsburgh.

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