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Graphic Narratives as Non-Fiction in the Late Middle Ages and Early Modern Era

By Dirk Vanderbeke


Investigations into comics and graphic novels usually start with a quick survey of their history since the first humans drew pictures on the walls of the cave at Lascaux. The usual stations to be touched upon are the Egyptian frescoes, Mayan Codices, Trajan’s Column, the Tapestry of Bayeux, and William Hogarth’s etchings before we come to the appearance of comics proper at the end of the 19th century and the subject of the respective discussion. In my paper, I want to argue that graphic narratives had a long history and played a major role in the transmission of information for adult audiences—religious, historical, political and sensational—before the written word was able to reach a larger part of the population. Only later did sequential arts turn to humor in caricatures and funny picture stories. What is now regularly hailed as the birth of comics, either Rodolphe Töpffer’s charming narratives or the Sunday Supplements of American newspapers, may also be regarded as the final division between information and entertainment. However, in the 1960s with the advent of Underground Comix the medium returned to mature topics and serious narratives, and it is from these works geared for adult audiences that comics developed the new forms of life writing, graphic histories, and comics journalism that have since paved the way for the acceptance of the medium in the feuilleton and scholarly research. In this article, I will look at the significance of graphic narratives in the period from the late middle ages to the early 19th century. The analyses of examples from very different media—the blockbook of the Canticum canticorum, prints, and broadsheets—demonstrates not only their importance for the transmission of serious information but also shows that they had already employed various features that were later regarded as defining elements of comics.

According to received knowledge, there are two possible origins of the medium presently known as comics. On the one hand, Rodolphe Töpffer, the creator of humorous graphic narratives in the first half of the nineteenth century, is celebrated as the “father of the comic strip” (Inge 11; and Kunzle, Father), on the other hand the publication of comics in the Sunday Supplements of American newspapers, and in particular the introduction of speech balloons in Richard Felton Outcault’s “Hogan’s Alley” in 1896, is regarded as the birth of comics (McKinney 53). In surveys on the history of comics, earlier forms and developments of graphic storytelling are usually summed up in a few words. Inge, for example, writes in “Origins of Early Comics and Protocomics:”

“Some scholars have located the origins of the comic strip in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in European broadsheets, large poster-like printed sheets of paper with a single-panel illustration on one or both sides. They were often religious in their subject matter but occasionally journalistic and even humorous. Usually depicting one scene, they sometimes formed story narratives of four or more sequential panels (Kunzle, “History”). By the eighteenth century, word balloons were not uncommon, especially in the illustrations in the increasingly popular periodicals that largely replaced the broadsheets.” (10)

Frequently, there are also some brief references to famous older and even ancient ancestors like the pre-historic drawings in the caves of Lascaux, Egyptian frescoes, Mayan codices, Trajan’s pillar, and the Tapestry of Bayeux; in the more recent past William Hogarth’s serial narratives like “The Harlot’s Progress” serve as important precursors to the comic strip. This genealogy indicates a kind of embarrassment that still needs to be remedied:

“[H]istorians of comics have found it necessary to establish this noble lineage through a discussion of these ancient precedents. Partly, this has to do with the general sense of inferiority from which all comics have suffered – the notion that they lack the aesthetic qualities of traditional art and literature.” (ibid.)

The same list of predecessors is presented in Randy Duncan, Michael Ray Taylor and David Stoddard’s introduction to Creating Comics as Journalism, Memoir and Nonfiction:

“Telling true stories with art is as old as humanity itself. Over 17.000 years ago, Paleolithic hunters depicted the animals they pursued in exquisite detail on the walls of Lascaux Cave in France. The Bayeux Tapestry, a visual history of events leading to the Norman conquest of England, stretches over 70 meters long and was woven in the 1070s. Despite the many ancient traditions of using art to share true stories, the widespread popularity of nonfiction comics is a new phenomenon. Until the turn of the 21st century, most nonfiction in comics form was published in graphic novels and traditional comics books.” (1)

In the second chapter of the volume on “The History of Nonfiction Comics,” the time from ancient Rome to the end of the eighteenth century is covered in one page, the nineteenth century in three pages followed by a fifty-year gap, and then the time from the 1960s to the present takes up forty-four pages.

The situation is similar when we turn to histories of printing, where usually the written word is of primary interest and images are relegated to mere illustrations of the text they accompany, if not frowned upon as a lesser medium. Robert Altick, in his book on The Common English Reader, describes the introduction of printing to England as a decisive turn towards literacy while the significance of pictorial information seems to have been on the decline:

“William Caxton set up his printing press in Westminster at a fortunate moment in history. Already the great cultural revolution with which his name is associated was under way. Though most Englishmen still depended upon their ears for their share of the common cultural heritage, or upon their ability to interpret the pictures and statuary they saw in the churches, by 1477 there were substantial hints that in the future the art of reading would have a greater role in their lives.” (15)

And while the images that were omnipresent in churches still had some artistic merit, other forms of graphic information do not meet the standard of genteel culture and were consumed only by the ‘great unwashed’ and riffraff of society:

“This was the lowest stratum of the literate population: the casual, unpurposeful readers, those who, in the phrase of Heming and Condell’s dedication in the 1623 Shakespeare folio, ‘can but spell.’ It was among these people—apprentices, common laborers, peasants, rivermen, and the rest—that the printers of broadside ballads and chapbooks found their chief market. The ballads were the precursors of a later era’s sensational newspapers: never was a celebrated highwayman executed or a catastrophe visited upon a hapless town but the event was described in crude language and cruder woodcuts.” (Altick 28)

This would indicate that the rest of society could more than just spell, and that illiteracy was only to be found at the bottom rungs of the social ladder. Barry Reay’s study in Popular Cultures in England 1550-1750, however, shows that literacy, defined as the ability to write one’s own name, increased rather slowly from 20% to 60% in the male population between the 16th and mid-18th century (40) with considerable lower rates among women and also significant differences between urban and rural environments and even between parishes of the same county (41). Of course, signature literacy would also include quite a few who could “but spell” their names and thus not belong to the avid readers of the time.

Indeed, Altick himself points out that limited literacy was still an issue in the 19th century, and that books with a strong pictorial content were quite successful. Charles Knight, publisher of Penny Magazine (1832-1845)

“seems to have consciously intended this emphasis upon pictures as a means of bringing printed matter to the attention of a public unaccustomed to reading. Even the illiterate found a good pennyworth of enjoyment in the illustrations each issue of the Penny Magazine contained. And these, perhaps more than the letterpress, were responsible for the affection with which many buyers thought of the magazine in retrospect.” (335)

Moreover, even texts that have since become hallmarks of canonical literature had their conceptual origins in picture books.

“When, early in 1836, Chapman and Hall first laid plans for the book that became The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, they had in mind the sort of thing that had become popular with William Combe’s Dr. Syntax’s Tours (1812-21) and Pierce Egan’s Life in London (1820-21)—a picture book issued in parts, with just enough letterpress to give continuity to the entertaining illustrations.” (279)

Thus, it is highly improbable that pictorial information was only relevant to the lower classes and that it consisted chiefly of works with little or no artistic merit. Leslie Shepard in The History of Street Literature suggests that “[i]n the first four centuries of printing, books were mainly for church dignitaries, noblemen, scholars, merchants and gentlemen with private libraries, not for the masses” (13), and Roberto Bartual Moreno points out that

“after the invention of movable type printing in the mid-fifteenth century, printers discovered that images were not only an efficient method of divulging moral teachings but also for raising their sales, by means of inserting prints between the pages of the books to illustrate certain passages, or printing single pages in Broadsheet format with brief stories accompanied by sequences of panels.” (23)

The strong bias for the written word that is usually found in histories of literacy, printing, and also journalism tends to neglect the fact that the middle ages and also the following centuries were saturated with pictures that transported and stored important information. From our perspective, quite a lot of this information no longer seems to be quite as significant, trustworthy, accurate, and thus relevant, but for the population that relied on visual and auditory input, images were the repository of knowledge. Foremost in this respect were the churches with their immense amount of graphic narratives depicting biblical tales, church history, the lives of saints, but also historical events of a more recent past in stained glass windows, pictures, altarpieces, triptychs, and woodcarvings. We have to keep in mind that these narratives were literally true for the believers of the time, and that these images thus were the equivalent of historical accounts, but also mnemonic aids to recollect the more extensive and detailed stories that were told and retold in the sermons and homilies.

These images were not restricted to the sacred space of the church, but also to be found in various illustrated forms of scripture in which occasionally the pictorial content dominated the written elements. In the Biblia pauperum, a highly popular genre that flourished in the late Middle Ages, pictures about the life of Jesus are juxtaposed with events of the Old Testament and thus present a typological reading of scripture. They were printed in black and white but there are also various colored versions. Contrary to what the name might indicate, they were not intended for paupers who were certainly not able to afford the often very expensive volumes, but rather for those who were ‘poor in spirit’, and the books “were as likely to be found on the shelves of the clergy as of pious educated lay people” (Scribner 73). These publications were so successful that the blocks they were printed from were transported from city to city, and new copies were cut by local artisans when the originals were damaged (Adams Parker 125).

Of particular interest for the history of comics, is the Canticum canticorum (ca. 1465, fig. 1), a biblical blockbook that visualizes the Song of Songs and could be regarded as the first adaptation of a literary text into a ‘graphic novel’. It consists of 16 pages with two pictures each, presenting the usual medieval interpretation of the old-oriental love poetry as an allegory of the love of Christ towards the church as his bride. Again, there are black and white, but also colored versions.

In medieval manuscripts and blockbooks, word and image are usually juxtaposed, i.e. the text accompanies the picture, or the picture illustrates the text. In this, they resemble most early comics of the 19th century, but also some later works like Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant in which the text is restricted to captions above or below the panels. In most comics, however, the captions present an extradiegetic narratorial voice while speech bubbles contain the diegetic utterances of the respective figures. In the Song of Songs, there is no narration, it presents only the poetic monological or dialogical speeches of the lovers who express their affection and desire. In addition, there are a few passages spoken by the “daughters of Jerusalem” who act as a kind of chorus. In the blockbook, the utterances are presented in the medieval equivalent of speech bubbles, i.e., banners that some scholars named scrolls (Kunzle, “History” 3) and some phylacteries (Bartual Moreno 32). Bartual Moreno claims that “the function of phylacteries in medieval art was quite different from that of balloons in a modern comic. The purpose of a phylactery was not to represent a conversation; the aim of the words they contained was to identify the characters that pronounced them.” (33-34)

However, in the Canticum canticorum the biblical text and the speeches of the lovers are reorganized to make for a more dialogical exchange, and so the use of the banners already presents us with some of those features that were later seen as defining elements of the comic. In one of the very detailed and complex pictures, the dialogue is quite extensive. Moreover, it is divided into two sub-panels with scrolls and visual elements intruding from one to the other; quite obviously “the format, organization, and subtle visual cues in the scenes demanded extraordinarily active, highly literate and visually sophisticated responses from the historical viewer” (Petev n. pag.).

Fig. 1. Canticum canticorum, 6b.

In addition to sacred texts, historical and political information was presented in the form of sequential images, and in L‘Estoire d‘Eracles (ca. 1250), a French translation of William of Tyre’s Historia rerum in partibus transmarinis gestarum (ca. 1169-1186), a two-panel sequence shows how the author diagnosed Baldwin IV’s first symptoms of leprosy. Undoubtedly, these graphic narratives were used to transmit and preserve knowledge for an educated audience.

It could, of course, be argued that the invention of the printing press marked a caesura, a radical shift to the written word, leaving pictorial narratives of rapidly declining artistic merit to the uneducated and illiterate substratum of society. However, literacy increased only slowly, making such a claim highly improbable. As will be shown, graphic narratives remained an important medium for the transmission of serious information for the centuries to come. The introduction of printing not only offered the possibility to publish books on a previously unimaginable scale, it also allowed for the production and distribution of decidedly cheaper printed material that could transmit information about, and respond to recent events—be they of political, religious, social, astronomical, criminal, or simply entertaining nature. Often, it is quite impossible to distinguish between these domains as politics and religion were almost inseparable, meteorological events were interpreted as political or religious omens, and information about sensational crimes was part of religious and moralistic propaganda but also, as today, a form of entertainment. Be that as it may, the birth of printing also gave rise to the pamphlet, the tract, the broadsheet and ballad sheet, formats that could be produced quickly and which, because of the fairly low price, could reach all levels of society. The so-called broadsides were chiefly text-based, while the broadsheet also included images and occasionally graphic narratives (Kunzle, “History” 4). For the history of journalism, broadsheets and ballad sheets are of particular importance, and over centuries they were among the most momentous media for the distribution of news and information to the general public. It is, of course, impossible to offer even a short survey of the history of this medium in a paper of this scope, so I will focus on some aspects and a few works only.

What I want to demonstrate is the variety of products and formal elements of narration which at the time were not yet codified. For this, I first want to present four visual narratives of one single event, the assassination of Henri III of France on August 2, 1589, and then look at one particular broadsheet about a murder and the subsequent execution of the culprit. All four graphic accounts of the assassination were produced within the year when it had happened, indicating the immense interest in the highly momentous murder and its medialization in various formats which at the time were used for the transmission of newsworthy information.

Kunzle distinguishes between two techniques for visual narratives, the strip of two or more pictures and “single-setting narratives,” in which a succession of events is presented within one picture (ibid.). The two techniques can be combined, and Frans Hogenberg’s well-known depiction of the assassination of Henri III in 1589 (fig. 2) consists of four panels each of which shows more than one action (Bartual Moreno 28).

Fig. 2. Frans Hogenberg, The assassination of Henri III. Etching. Source: / Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Interestingly, the order of the images was not yet standardized, and if we follow the succession of events given in the rhymed caption under the pictures—the plot is planned, the assassination takes place, the murderer is killed, his body first drawn and quartered and then burned, and finally, on the next day, the king dies after having named his successor—we should read them in a circle from top left to right and then bottom right to left. The first and last images showing the plotting and the ultimate consequences are thus brought together. Moreover, there are graphical and thematic parallels as they both show a blessing. Similarly, the actual deed and punishment are juxtaposed.

Within the single images, the succession of events may be open to interpretation. Bartual Moreno argues that in the first panel the three levels of narration move from the back to the front: “The first one, on the background, shows Jacques Clément strolling in heavy meditation (he is framed again by a column and a wall); on the second level Clément is praying or confessing to soothe his guilt; and finally, in the foreground, Clément is receiving the sacrament of communion as a blessing for his mission.” (28)

I would suggest a reverse order which fits the circular direction of reading: Clément first receives communion, then the blessing of his superior, and finally leaves to commit his crime. This would indicate that Clément was not only absolved of his guilt, but that his mission was condoned and blessed by the ecclesiastic authorities of the Catholic Church.

Hogenberg’s work was not printed as a broadsheet, and neither was my next example, an anonymous etching (fig. 3). Interestingly, the direction of reading varies between the different images. Here, it is again circular, but this time starting at the top right of the center with Clément receiving the communion and blessing or absolution before the deed which takes place below. He is then killed by the guards coming from the left, his body is pulled away further on the left, and finally, it is drawn and quartered on the top left of center. Plan and punishment are, thus, brought close to each other. While the narrative is not divided into different panels, architectural elements serve as frames, in particular, the arch through which we see the mutilation of Clément’s body. The focus of the account is on the assassin—the king is only shown once, and the succession is neither part of the image nor mentioned in the text—but we are informed that Clément thanked God for his mercifully swift death.

Fig. 3. Anon., Etching, Source: / Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The next example is a broadsheet created by Bartholme Käppeler in Augsburg (fig. 4). The profession given at the bottom of the text is “Brieffmaler”, which literally would be someone who paints or draws letters to be mailed. But in fact, it designates a person who designed and colored official documents, heraldry, and written messages, but also small images or playing cards. In this depiction of the assassination, the narration moves from the actual murder at the left diagonally to the punishment at the bottom right. Then the narrative splits up, and Clément’s body is inspected on the top right while the king dies on the bottom left. The narrative is thus organized in the shape of an X, i.e. a chiasm. In this single-setting narrative, the room is only minimally divided into separate areas by a tapestry and the different segments of the floor. The image is accompanied by a lengthy account of the event, according to which Clément had a visionary dream in which an angel told him to kill the king. He asked one of his brethren for advice and received the answer that it is not permissible to murder anyone but did not accept this as he claimed that God himself had ordered the assassination. The deed is described in great detail, and again the reader is informed that Clément did not expect to die so ‘easily’. But then the aftermath differs from the other accounts as Käppeler in his verbal account claims that after the body was drawn and quartered the four parts were not burnt but exhibited on stakes. On the surface, the narrative is relatively neutral and detached, but it may be significant that the image shows Clément in cruciform at the moment of his death. Moreover, this is the only picture in which Clément is killed from the front, and so the wound he receives resembles Christ’s at the crucifixion. Finally, the dead body of Clément shows some similarity with the body of Christ in paintings. Within the predominantly protestant environment of 16th century Augsburg (Tschopp 60), the chiastic image and the iconography could thus indicate a subtle dissenting commentary.

Fig. 4. Bartholme Käppeler, Woodcut. Source: / Bibliothèque nationale de France.

In my last example, a broadsheet produced by Lucas Mayer in Nuremberg (fig. 5), there are two single-setting narratives; the internal frames are, however, fluid and unproblematically transgressed. The first single-setting narrative on the left side is once more subdivided by architectural elements; it consists of three moments of which the second, the defenestration, does not appear in any of the other graphic representations of the murder. This does not necessarily indicate that it is an invention as the detail can also be found in other accounts of the assassination, (e.g., Monod 33), and it could thus either indicate that Mayer was better informed than the other artists or that they considered this detail to be of less relevance. The direction of reading is roughly from left to right, but actually, it could also be seen as a kind of zigzag, moving from the left to the top in the middle, then down, right, and up again. The narrative seems to be less interested in the death of the king, but instead follows the movement of Clément’s body, in particular, the fall from the window. Bartual Moreno suggests that “the narrative strips from 1550 to 1700 were still far from the dynamic and dramatic representational mode we associate with comics today. … [I]nstead of breaking the action up into moments of less temporal duration, as comics do, they present actions and scenes in a static manner.” (38). On the basis of this print I would suggest that this was not always the case.

Fig. 5. Lucas Mayer, Woodcut. Source: Germanisches Nationalmuseum Nuremberg. Reprinted under CC BY-NC-ND.

Lucas Mayer’s broadsheet is the most openly propagandistic account of the murder. It tells that Clément received “praise and great pardon from the brethren of his convent, who always thirst after Christian blood and wish to subdue the truth” (“verheissung und grossen Perdon von seinen Convent Brüdern, die da stets durstig sind nach Christen Blut und die Warheit gern dämpffen wollen”, my translation). Thus, the fall is located at the center of the picture, and the final burning of the body may evoke associations of hellfire.

Both Käppeler’s and Lucas’ broadsheets are introduced with the words “Warhafftige Newe Zeitung” (true original news), indicating the factual information they transmit: “Zeitung came to mean ‘newspaper’ in the 18th century, but before that it meant ‘piece of news’ or ‘report’, Neue Zeitung (‘new tiding/report’) was the generic early modern term for ballad news-sheets.” (Cheesman 2, Fn)

Of course, information traveled far more slowly in early modern times, but these broadsheets were still the forerunners of the ‘latest news,’ and the hawkers who sold them in the streets were the predecessors of the newsboys who loudly announced the events described in their newspapers to attract a crowd and customers.

The four graphic accounts of the assassination I have selected—there are several others (some of them in the collection of that would also invite analysis—are very different, even if some of the details remain constant. The wound the king receives is invariably in the lower abdomen, and he always has a beard—in Hogenberg’s images a resemblance with the portrait the artist had etched in the same year is noticeable even if the size of the panels does not allow for a detailed representation (cf. http://digital…./titleinfo/3346812). Clément, on the other hand, looks quite different in the various accounts—sometimes slim, but in the anonymous print rather stout, and there he may fit the stereotype of the fat monk. In Lucas Mayer’s broadsheet, he seems to be smiling while he kills the king, stressing the hypocrisy and treachery involved in the deed.

In each of the narratives, the direction of reading is different; however, this does not indicate any uncertainty or lack of structural coherence. Instead, the formal arrangement adds to the artistic representation of the event and is thus an intrinsic element of the narration. Such broadsheets were obviously not created for an uneducated readership. They presuppose an audience with very high visual skills that is actually able to recognize and decode formal nuances and to read the accounts accordingly. The producers were craftsmen with a considerable repertoire of artistic techniques and narrative strategies at their disposal to not only factually convey the event, but also to infuse it with additional details that allow for close reading and interpretation. Such works distribute information and knowledge about current events together with some sensationalist elements and political/religious commentary, and in this, they serve the public interests and demands that are now covered by newspapers and journals. And while broadsheets are occasionally compared to tabloids and the yellow press, the examples discussed here show some similarity with ‘serious’ journalism.

Such works of considerable artistic merit were, of course, not quite the norm of mass-published products in early modern times, and while the sheer amount of specimen in Kunzle’s immense collection of ‘early comic strips’ indicates that this form of information ought not to be discarded as sub-literate ephemera of little interest and value, the bulk was not quite as elaborately and creatively produced as the previous examples. Quite a lot of these broadsheets dealt with sensationalist news, and one of the most important topics was, of course, crime (see Nina Mickwitz’ article in this issue).

“Most people get their knowledge of crime from different forms of media representations; and it has been thus for centuries. The print medium has had a long affair with crime, especially lurid, sensational, violent crime. From at least the seventeenth century, broadsides were printed and sold at public executions, detailing the crimes, and the last dying speeches, of offenders.” (Emsley xi)

Famously, the woodcuts of for the images of these broadsheets were frequently recycled, and Bridget Walsh writes:

“Given the speed and relatively low cost of production, broadside woodcuts tended to be somewhat repetitive, regularly reused for a whole variety of cases. Except in cases of particular notoriety these woodcuts could not be said to form an illustration of any particular murder, and they lacked sufficient detail to render them a replacement for the verbal depiction of the scene.” (Walsh 25)

Obviously, this did not diminish the success of such products, and thus we have to accept that they did fulfill the demands of their audiences and that these demands may have been quite different from those addressed by more realist images or the photos in sensationalist journalism. I want to suggest two aspects that should be taken into account: reader identification and text/image interaction.

For comics, Scott McCloud has argued that a certain level of abstraction aids reader involvement (42-43), and, of course, most protagonists are presented far more iconic than their adversaries or the background of the images—Charlie Brown is basically a smiley, Tintin’s face is completely bland, and in the case of many superheroes, e.g., Batman, the mask reduces the faces to iconic markers. There is no reason why this phenomenon should not have served the same cognitive function and supported viewer identification in earlier times, even if the producers of woodcuts were probably unaware of it. The event is de-individualized, and the broadsheets present more generalized accounts of crime and murder while the actors in the narratives become abstract figures, similar to the “Everyman” of the late medieval morality play. Of course, every reader of comics knows that repetition with minimal variation is not necessarily an impediment to success.

In addition, the images are accompanied by more detailed descriptions of the crime and punishment. Text and image support each other and facilitate memory. Frequently, the text is rhymed and may even fit familiar tunes—Francis Barlow’s famous satirical broadsheet “A True Narrative of the Horrid Hellish Popish Plot” (ca. 1682) carries the sub-heading “To the Tune of “PACKINGTON’S POUND,” a well-known broadsheet ballad. As Shepard describes it, the sale of the broadsheets was then a form of popular entertainment:

“Ballad-sellers roamed through the city streets, calling the titles of their latest items until they could get together a crowd of trades-people, apprentices, porters and housewives. ‘Ballads! My masters, ballads! Will ye ha’ any ballads o’ the newest and truest matter in London? …’ Once a crowd had formed, the ballad singer would sing his ballads lustily, to teach the tune to the purchaser of the halfpenny or penny sheets.” (81)

The music and poetical features like rhyme or rhythm, but also the images serve as aide-mémoires and thus support the transmission of the respective information, be it factual about recent events or fictional as many of the murder ballads were. The impact of such public events as a popular medium should not be underestimated.

“The performance of the ‘news singers’, ‘bench singers’ (‘cantabancs’) and ‘picture singers’, as they were variously known, constituted the most accessible, mobile and all-round popular form of public multi-media spectacle through the period of the early growth of the culture industry: between the first emergence of a market in vernacular print publications, and the development of the electrical technologies of mass communication – colour magazines, cinema, radio, gramophones – which finally made picture-balladeers redundant.” (Cheesman 2)

Of course, these broadsheets do not quite adhere to the journalistic ethics and standards of modern publications, but then those standards are certainly not unanimously followed today. Propaganda frequently trumps accuracy, biased information distorts the validity of the news, and many newspapers, journals, and especially tabloids have come under attack for a lack of professional ethics. So the difference is gradual rather than categorical, and the very term ‘news singer’ indicates a transmission of information commonly associated with journalism: “It is obviously a forerunner of the tabloid press, of the commercial cinema, indeed of the ‘actuality’ shows and ‘true crime’ and ‘disaster and rescue’ series currently popular on television and their equivalents in magazines and books.” (Cheesman 8)

My last example is a broadsheet, printed by Johann Schubert in Neisse (now Nysa) in 1653 and also included in Cheesman’s book (xviii); that offers a very precise and detailed account of a recent gruesome murder (fig. 6), it is certainly not one of the instances in which the woodblocks for the images could be recycled. The crime was committed by the musician (organ grinder) Georg Stange (or Srange), born in Moravia, who came to Junckferndorff (possibly Kobylá nad Vidnavkou) where he killed his pregnant wife and his son on Maundy Thursday, 1652. He first severely injured his wife, and when the three-year-old boy begged him to spare his mother, he struck him and threw him into a pond where he drowned. While he was dealing with the boy, the wife tried to escape and hid behind a bush, but she was found and hacked to pieces. The man then went to Seitendorff (probably Zatonie) where he bought a house and intended to take another wife. He was arrested while thatching the roof of his new house, brought to trial and tortured. He confessed that this was the third wife he had murdered and that he had also killed a student to rob him, but only found six pennies on the corpse. He was finally executed; his arms and legs were cut off, and he was bound on a wheel. According to some spectators, it took him four days to die. At the time of his death, he was 30 years old.

The text is partly rhymed and seems to be set to an unspecified tune (“in einem Gesang verfasset”). The images show all the important stages of the deed and the punishment. The organization of the panels, however, is unusual: the crime and arrest are shown from left to right in the lower tier of panels, the later trial and execution above. Still, the logical order of the event is recognizable even for a viewer who is unable to read the text. Presumably, however, the text and images interact, and the reading moves from one to the other and back—and this may well be facilitated by placing the ghastly, and more exciting, elements closer to the text.

The broadsheet is a piece of early sensationalist journalism that does not differ radically from later accounts of violent crime in tabloids and the yellow press. It offers factual information, but also revels in the shocking details—and in contrast to later newspaper articles which rely on photos, the deed itself can be shown in all its gory horror. In addition to the journalistic content, the broadsheet also offers a ‘pleasant song’ (“Dabey ein schön Lied”) in homiletic style, warning of a sinful life and praising Jesus who was sent into this world to redeem our souls. The tale of a terrible crime and the subsequent secular punishment is thus accompanied by a reminder of divine judgment and the horrors of hellfire, but also of the possibility of salvation should we follow the path of our savior.

Fig. 6. “Musician kills pregnant wife and child.” Broadside with woodcut. Neisse, Johann Schubert, 1653. Staatsbibliothek Bamberg, VI G 111. Reprinted under CC-BY-SA 4.0.

As pointed out above, broadsheets and visual narratives remain an important source of information throughout early modern time and even into the early 19th century. In the late 18th century, however, a shift becomes more and more prominent, and Kunzle diagnoses

“the maturation of another style, one antithetical to all that is neo-classical, sentimental, or academic. It opposed brevity and lightness to the prevailing ponderousness, it cultivated the witty and comic over the serious. The style is that of caricature, which proved itself the ideal medium for the development of the picture story and for graphic satire in general.” (“History” 357)

Caricatures had already existed in earlier woodcuts and etchings as part of the political and religious propaganda—famously Eduard Shoen depicted Martin Luther as the devil’s bagpipe. Now, with the rise in literacy and the subsequent dominance of the written word, they gain in importance in newspapers and journals. In addition, new formats and ways of distribution come into play: “Shops specializing in caricature sprang up, whereas before the broadsheets had been sold from general book- and print-dealers” (Kunzle, “History” 359). This can be seen as an important caesura, as caricatures rather comment on than transmit information, and as Kunzle suggests, humor becomes an important ingredient and replaces the serious content. Of course, political and social satire are in themselves a serious business (see Dieter Declercq’s paper in this issue). Moreover, the artistic developments were considerable and certainly surpassed the aesthetic merits of most broadsheets and broadside ballads. But the function of graphic narratives changes, and entertainment, including highly sophisticated entertainment, now becomes a dominant feature. This is the time that precedes the birth of comics in most histories of the medium, and at the beginning of the 19th century Rodolphe Töpffer sets out on a new venture with his charming and delightful graphic fiction. Wilhelm Bush then introduced some of the perennial topics of comic strips, slapstick, and mischief, and at the end of the century the comic—as we know it—is born on the pages of the Sunday Supplements. In many ways, this marked an achievement, but it can also be seen as a decline, as the graphic narratives are now divorced from the informative and journalistic content and relegated to the funnies pages.

For the following fifty years, comics did not transmit any serious information for adults—this is the gap in Duncan, Taylor and Stoddard’s historical survey (see above). Manuals occasionally made use of sequential images, and there were, of course, also factual comics for children and adolescents, e.g., the products of Maxwell Gaines’ Educational Comics, but the medium no longer addressed mature audiences, even if many readers of the funnies and early comic books were, of course, adults. When Harold Gray, author of Little Orphan Annie and a rather radical conservative, inserted his political views into the comic strip, he was accused of violating the “sacred reader trust” (“Veiled Vindictive Annie”, Time, 9 September 1935, quoted in Santod, 30). The low point of the development was reached in 1954 when the Comics Code Authority was established and ruled that anything not suitable for children was to be banned from comics. By definition, comics had become a juvenile medium.

In the 1966 film adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the idea that comics might be used to transmit factual information and journalistic content became part of the dystopian nightmare in which books are banned. The absurdity of this world without Culture is captured in the image of the fireman Montag reading a wordless comic instead of the daily newspaper.

Fig. 7. From: Fahrenheit 451, dir. Francois Truffaut (1966). Re-produced under fair use.

However, while the film was shot and released to enormous success and critical acclaim, the first stirrings of the counter-movement could already be felt, and in 1964, Richard Kyle wrote in an article on “The Future of the Comics”, in which he also introduced the term graphic novel: “Today, there are signs that the “comic book” is, finally and permanently, about to burst out of its lonely isolation as a trivial form of sub-literature for retarded children like ourselves and take its place in the literary spectrum, between the extremes of the wholly symbolic and the wholly real.” (4)

With the establishment of Underground Comix in the course of the 1960s, adult content and a political and social agenda once more entered the graphic narratives, albeit in a highly imaginative and frequently distorted way. This started the trajectory that ultimately led to life writing in comics and to comics journalism. In 1973, David Kunzle suggested: “The contemporary American strip has, in a sense, reverted to source; being only partially comic, its appeal has widened, and in ideological content it has resumed somewhat its original role of providing people with moral and political propaganda.” (“History” 1)

But comics history ought to acknowledge that this is a return, taking up the threads that had been cut more than a hundred years ago. In the Western world, literacy is no longer an issue of broad significance, but then our culture has become increasingly visual again, and so graphic narratives may once more take an active part in political, social, and historical discourse with their specific aesthetics and strategies of representation.

Works Cited

Adams Parker, Margaret. “Printing the Story: The Bible in Etchings, Engravings and Woodcuts.” Scrolls of Love. Ruth and the Song of Songs, edited by Peter S. Hawkins and Lesleigh Cushing Stahlberg. Fordham UP, 2006, pp. 122-50.

Altick, Richard D. The English Common Reader. Columbus, OH, 1998 [1957].

Bartual Moreno, Roberto. “The Origins of Graphic Narrative in Popular Culture.” On the Edge of the Panel: Essays on Comics Criticism, edited by Esther Claudio and Julio Cañero, Cambridge Scholars, 2015, pp. 22-40.

Cheesman, Tom. The Shocking Ballad Picture Show: German Popular Literature and Cultural History. Berg, 1994.

Emsley, Clive. “Introduction.” The Newgate Calendar. Wordsworth Classics, 1997, pp. xi-xvi.

Inge, Thomas M. “Origins of Early Comics and Protocomics.” The Routledge Companion to Comics, edited by Frank Bramlett, Roy Cook and Aaron Meskin, Routledge, 2017, pp. 9-15.

Kunzle, David. History of the Comic Strip, vol 1, The Early Comic Strip. Narrative Strips and Picture Stories in the European Broadsheet from c. 1450–1825. U of California P, 1973.

—. Father of the Comic Strip. Rodolphe Töpffer. UP of Mississippi, 2007.

Kyle, Richard. “The Future of ‘Comics’.” Richard Kyle’s Wonderworld. CAPA-alpha (Κ-α) #2, November 1964, pp. 3-4.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. HarperPerennial, 1994.

McKinney, Mark. “French and Belgian Comics.” The Routledge Companion to Comics. Frank Bramlett, edited by Roy Cook and Aaron Meskin, Routledge, 2017, pp. 53-61.

Monod, Paul Kléber. The Power of Kings: Monarchy and Religion in Europe, 1589-1715. Yale UP, 1999.

Petev, Todor T. “Spiritual Structures in the Netherlandish Blockbook Canticum Canticorum, ca 1465.” Liternet,

Reay, Barry. Popular Cultures in England 1550-1750. Routledge, 2017 [1998].

Santod, Avi. Selling the Silver Bullet: The Lone Ranger and Transmedia Brand Licensing. U of Texas P, 2015.

Scribner, R.W. “The Reformation in Germany.” The New Cambridge Modern History, vol. II, The Reformation 1520-1559, second edition by G.R. Elton, Cambridge UP, 2004.

Shepard, Leslie. The History of Street Literature. David and Charles, 1973.

Tschopp, Sylvia Serena. “Wie aus Nachrichten Geschichte wird.” Consuming News: Newspapers and Print Culture in Early Modern Europe (1500-1800). (Daphnis 37: 1-2), edited by Gerhild Scholz Williams and William Layher, Brill, 2008, pp. 33-78.

Walsh, Bridget. Domestic Murder in Nineteenth-Century England: Literary and Cultural Representations. Routledge, 2016.

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