Friday, October 24, 2014

Or Something Else: Towards a History of the Printed Picture Story

In a previous post, I speculated on the reasons why David Kunzle so emphatically foregrounded the term “comic strip” in the titles of all his major writings on pre-twentieth century printed picture stories.[1] I surmised that he was motivated not only by a desire to make his historical research relevant to contemporary issues, and quite possibly to facilitate the publication of his rather elaborate, profusely illustrated, and undoubtedly expensive volumes. I noted that in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the first volume of Kunzle’s History of the Comic Strip (a.k.a. The Early Comic Strip) was being prepared for publication, the American newspaper comic strip, like jazz and cinema, was enjoying its first flush of scholarly attention, and several lavish publications were proving the material viable in the book market. Making one’s scholarship relevant to current debates and getting it published are eminently practical considerations that every career scholar faces merely to survive, and indeed becomes an intellectual obligation one owes to one’s work.

By 1968 Kunzle had already accomplished the herculean effort of unearthing, researching, and analyzing such uncommercial material as a series of broadsheets on the Popish Plot, a set of satirical playing cards, and Ruben’s monumental cycle of large-scale oil paintings on Marie di Medici that hangs in the Louvre. I speculated that his Introduction to volume one, the titling of the work itself, and a heavily annotated translation of excerpted material by Francis Lacassin for Film Quarterly,[2] each of which emphasize the term comic strip prominently, amounted to a pre-publication marketing campaign for The Early Comic Strip and a rather heavy-handed effort to tie his substantial but arcane scholarship to more seemingly fashionable contemporary discussions, particularly those concerning the American newspaper comic strip and film. This was not intended as a slight of Kunzle’s scholarship, a herculean accomplishment by any standard, but merely a questioning of the wisdom of retroactively placing that scholarship within the framework of the American newspaper comic strip, and my own personal rumination on what I view as the unfortunate precedent set for art historians and other scholars working anywhere in the field of printed picture stories.

Rather than revising that earlier post, I would like to elaborate on it here based on some new information, including a brief correspondence with Professor Kunzle himself, which he has kindly permitted me to quote.

Ernst Gombrich, Kunzle’s dissertation adviser, once criticized Arnold Hauser, author of The Social History of Art, for among other things of being “avowedly not interested in the past for its own sake,” but being engaged in historical research merely “to understand the present,” which Gombrich viewed as an egregious crime for an historian.[3] (Hauser had rather rhetorically asserted that “the purpose of historical research is the understanding of the present—and what else could it be?”[4]) Ironically, it had been Gombrich himself who had first pointed out that “to Töpffer belongs the credit, if we want to call it so, of having invented and propagated the picture story, the comic strip,”[5] in other words, of not appreciating the work Swiss graphic artist not for its own sake but in terms of its subsequent, present-day importance. To be sure, Gombrich never succumbs to the elision of referring to Töpffer’s work as comic strips per se, and it is left to his student Kunzle to formulate the bolder declaration that Töpffer is the “father of the comic strip.” Kunzle’s entire scholarly project as it regards picture stories, in other words, can be viewed as an elaboration of some of Gombrich’s intimations regarding the lineage of picture stories, while completely lapsing into the presentism Gombrich saw as such an egregious lapse in the work of other historians.

What I am suggesting, however, is slightly more generous to Kunzle. By 1968, he seems to have completed the body of The Early Comic Strip, and only chose to emphasize the term comic strip in the title, the Introduction and elsewhere, in the run up to its publication in 1974. In fact, as I point out in my earlier post, Kunzle expresses grave misgivings about the term comic strip even in the Introduction, and regrets employing the term in the Introduction to the second volume. He only seems to have become completely comfortable with referring to the work of Töpffer and other pre-twentieth century picture stories as comics strips much later, with the release of his two volumes on the “father of the comic strip” in 2007, by which point much of is scholarly reputation relied on his connection with emerging field of comics scholarship.

A figure study from 1988 by the author, illustrating this essay for no reason whatsoever.

“The Comic Strip,” Kunzle’s article for the 1970 Art News Annual, appeared after the body of The Early Comic Strip had been completed and while it was being prepared for publication.[6] In fact, “The Comic Strip” reads like a rough draft of what will become his Introduction to the volume, offering a more detailed view of the publishing climate of the time, and perhaps more insight into Kunzle’s motivation for framing his research in terms of the modern comic strip. Kunzle dismissively notes, “A dozen or so [annotated albums of reproductions of twentieth century strip classics], in various European languages, constitute the bulk of the comic strip ‘literature,’” which “accept as the ancestors of the modern strip such diverse monuments of art as Assyrian reliefs, Parthenon sculptures, Trajan’s column, the Bayeux embroidery, Mexican codices and medieval illuminations.” Kunzle insists that the “any useful definition of the comic strip” must include the following: “The medium in which the strip appears and for which it was originally intended must be reproductive, i.e. printed, a mass medium.” Kunzle further elaborates, “The true ancestors of the modern ‘comic’ are of two kinds: the narrative strip (a subdivided image) and picture story (series of interconnected, but physically non-contiguous images). Both are children of the printing press.”[7] This is a clear argument that the burgeoning publishing and scholarly attention currently focused on the comic strip should be conceptually widened enough so as to accommodate the broadsheet and picture story (material coincidentally included in the forthcoming History of the Comic Strip Volume One, which the article’s biographical note touts), but not become so indiscriminate and unwieldy (or meaningless) as to include all of art history.

“The Comic Strip” then proceeds to sketch out a brief history of the material that is the object of Kunzle’s primary interest, noting a general debasement and decline of these earlier picture stories that begins when “the modern comic strip [enters] journalism.”[8] This tendency culminates in the “simple farce and […] familiar domestic situations demanded by the readers of the Sunday supplements,” by which point “Töpfferian surrealism and [Töpffer’s] delicate psychology seem to have been left far behind.” Kunzle elaborates,

The draftsmanship too will soon tend to the mechanical, and over-production on the part of individual artists will be the rule. The [word or dialogue] balloon, long resisted as an esthetic obtrusion, now reigns uncontested, to eke out a basic pictorial inadequacy as much as to flesh out the story-line.[9]

In other words, the picture story form, in the guise of the American newspaper comic strip, will only become watered-down, debased, and hacked out, and for the most part falling well beneath Kunzle’s scholarly consideration. “This is not the place even to outline the daunting proliferation of the comic strip in our own century,” Kunzle concedes, as if he were even sincere about undertaking such drudgery.[10] It is only when, in conclusion, he turns his attention to the underground comix of Crumb, Moscoso, and Zap that Kunzle betrays any optimism for the picture story form, although he regards much of the work to be merely inventive “psycho-erotic fantasies.” In order to qualify as truly “radical protest,” Kunzle declares, “the comic strip requires no more than a return to the role it played in earlier centuries, and [a return to] a comparable degree of stylistic realism.”[11]

Like Kunzle’s subsequent 1972 translation of Francis Lacassin for Film Quarterly as well as the Introduction to the first volume itself, “The Comic Strip” seems rather an afterthought to Kunzle’s scholarship on “broadsheet picture stories,” and part of a conscious pre-publication campaign to rather superficially and insincerely tie his scholarship to more current contemporary debates in film and comic strips that seemed fashionable at the time. As I remarked in my previous post, Kunzle’s view of twentieth-century comic strips, i.e., of comic strips properly so called, is almost entirely condescending, sketchy, and dismissive, and dubbing his scholarship a “history or pre-history” of the comic strip seems to have been a strategy that Kunzle came to regret by the time he wrote the Introduction to his second volume of The History of the Comic Strip in 1990.

What I find sad about the situation is that Kunzle in fact seems initially to have observed Gombrich’s admonition to study the past for its own sake, and seems only to have betrayed it after the fact in an effort to make his work more relevant and publishable. Kunzle’s scholarship on pre-twentieth century broadsheets and picture stories succeeds in appreciating them on their own terms, and itself forms a substantial contribution to art history on its own terms. It is only after the fact that Kunzle seems to have played up the lineage of this material to the American newspaper comic strip in the titling of his book and in articles mentioned above. It is true that Professor Kunzle has stubbornly stuck to his guns since then, which I find commendable, but this has only served to compound an original poor judgment.

One commenter to my previous post suggested that perhaps Kunzle employed the term comic strip simply because he viewed the objects of his study as comic strips. This ignores the fact that Kunzle for the most part eschews the term in the body of his work, demonstrating an instinctive preference for picture story or broadsheet whenever it is more appropriate (and considering he is concerned with material that predates the emergence of the term comic strip circa the 1910s, picture story or broadsheet is always more appropriate). It also suggests that it is somehow unreasonable to expect a scholar to examine his terminology, a particularly striking prohibition since Kunzle goes to the trouble of formulating a concrete definition for the term comic strip (one that could just as easily fit the term picture story) on more than one occasion.

Another commenter suggested that I simply ask Kunzle himself. I did write to Professor Kunzle, who was kind enough to respond collegially in brief and cordial exchange consisting of a couple of emails. He expressed more than once his current preference for the contemporary term graphic novel, which he regards as a more apt translation of Töpffer’s term “romans en estampes,”[12] and noted that the term “comic” in any case had always been problematic, since much of the material that has taken picture story form in any era has been anything but humorous. But he did not consider the scholarly let alone Gombrichian implications of regarding the broadsheets and picture stories prior to 1900 as comic strips, other than to say,

My only regret on the title of my Early Comic Strip is not to have called it Hogarth—Before and After, which might have got it reviewed in the bigger art history journals and saved it from the total blackout in the subsequent pullulating Hogarth literature.[13]

This only reinforces the misgivings he expressed in the introduction to the second volume of his two-volume History. Further, it tends to support my assertion that the decision to emphasize the term comic strip the titles of his scholarship and in the supporting articles noted above was something of a marketing move that backfired.

My larger point is not to psychoanalyze Kunzle’s motivations for framing his scholarship so emphatically within the term comic strip but rather to consider the implications of that framing on subsequent scholarship. Kunzle is widely regarded as a pioneer of the scholarship that emerged around the American newspaper comic strip and comic book. His influence has been so great that the material that originally formed the objects of Kunzle’s study are now commonly referred to oxymoronically as early comics. Meanwhile the American newspaper comic strip as a feature has already all but disappeared from our culture, not only receding within the space of newspapers but also as the newspaper itself has increasingly receded from the contemporary media landscape. The term comic book, likewise, has already given way to the graphic novel, a problematic term that will inevitably be succeeded by something else in the future. The question therefore is not which contemporary term should Kunzle have used in 1968 or might have chosen in retrospect now, but on the wisdom of choosing any contemporary term at all.

In case it is not yet clear, I would prefer that the entire field of study of broadsheets, picture stories, comic strips, comic books, et al be known by another name: the history of printed picture stories. (Although, by the same token, I am not as averse to tracing precedents to earlier, non-reproduced forms of picture story in art history. The question is always where to draw the line. Are not hand-copied Asian hand scrolls a form of reproduction?) To continue to refer to the study of the modern comic strip and comic book as comics studies, and the study of broadsheets and picture stories that are the subject of Kunzle’s scholarship as early comics, is to implicitly perpetuate the presentism that Gombrich inveighed against, the study of the past only for its current (and worse, momentary) importance, rather than for its own sake.

To stress the present importance of the matter: such a grounding of the field in a larger tradition of the printed picture story (rather than reducing that larger tradition to the narrower straightjacket of a particular contemporary manifestation) would enable twenty-first artists and scholars to see themselves not as enslaved to this or that particular commercial form (the comic strip, comic book, graphic novel, web strip, et al), but as embracing a larger artistic and communicative tradition. In such a case, artists would not have to return a debased and diluted comic strip or comic book vehicle to the more substantial social and political role it may have played in previous centuries (a tortured and illogical construction in any case), nor would scholars have to fight to culturally legitimize a stigmatized form. Instead, artists and scholars could simply realize that they have been perpetuating and studying a greater art form, and inhabiting a more substantial literary and pictorial tradition, all along.

Note: My intention is to revise and integrate both this essay and the previous posting to form a publishable article. Any comments are welcome.
[1] The titles are 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); The History of the Comic Strip, Volume II: The Nineteenth Century (1990); Rodolphe Töpffer: The Complete Comic Strips (2007); and Father of the Comic Strip: Rodolphe Töpffer (2007). It also includes Kunzle’s translation of Francis Lacassin, “The Comic Strip and the Film Language” (1972). See previous post for bibliography. Another article, “The Comic Strip,” is discussed in this posting.
[2] 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.
[3] Ernst Gombrich: “The Social History of Art,” Meditations on a Hobby Horse and Other Essays on the Theory of Art (London: Phaidon Press 1963), pp. 86-94; quote p. 93.
[4] Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art, Volume 4: Naturalism, Impressionism, The Film Age (New York: Vintage Books/Random House, 1958), p. 3.
[5] Ernst Gombrich, Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, 3rd ed. (Princeton: Bollingen, 2000 [1960]) p. 336.
[6] David Kunzle, “The Comic Strip,” Art News Annual, volume 36 (1970), pp. 133-145.
[7] Ibid, p. 133.
[8] Ibid, p. 139.
[9] Ibid, p. 142.
[10] Ibid, p. 142.
[11] Ibid, p. 145.
[12] David Kunzle, email to the author, August 22, 2014.
[13] David Kunzle, email to the author, October 10, 2014.

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