A Semi-Brief History of the Visual Narrative

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Humans are as diverse as they are the same, even in their opinion of such a statement. There are billions of people communicating countless ideas in a multitude of languages the world over, yet somehow common themes and ideas transect the pages of history, excluding none. Here in the digital age, the surrounding environment continues to become more and more visually-infested, nearly keeping pace with the rapid development of communications technology. "In such a world, the problem of how words and pictures connect is a vital one. And no artistic medium seems to me as properly suited to the working out of the connection as the visual narrative is. It is itself the meeting ground of words and pictures" (Dardess 222).

From the political cartoons that united the colonies and unseated tyrants to the birth of the superhero genre and the crushing blows censorship dealt during the 50s to the underground rebirth of the industry into the literary and artistic worlds, American culture simply would not have been the same without it. The visual narrative, under hundreds of misnomers, combines the power of written word with the added impact of image to create an entirely new aesthetic experience--that of literary art.

Since the beginning of human memory, there has been a tendency to communicate with images as often as, if not more than, words; lucky for us, "Images are an international language," according to Marjane Satrapi (Foroohar 58). The earliest evidence of this is found in prehistoric cave paintings and ancient pictorial and syllabic alphabets, among them ancient Egyptian and Chinese characters. Cartoons over the ages, with creators such as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, and many others, slowly evolved in Europe. On the other side of the world, Katsushika Hokusai coined the term manga, literally "whimsical pictures," in 1814 to describe his woodblock prints. With the end of Japanese isolationism in the 1850s, American and European comic artists began to heavily influence much of Japan's developing comic art culture. Though Japanese artists did not widely use the art form until after World War II, Japan would eventually grow to dominate the economic aspect of the industry. Humble beginnings in place, it turned out to be a long journey to the status of pop culture iconography and artistic and literary merit.

The comic strip and comic book came after Swiss artist Rodolphe Topffer's "picture novellas," which he began publishing in 1827. These told stories using consecutive images with captions, and were Europe's first inter-reliant fusions of words and images. The mid-1890s witnessed the arrival Richard F. Outcault's The Yellow Kid. There had been many previous examples of comic strips, but none was such a momentous success, and thus it is heralded as the first American comic strip. Newspaper comics such as this, via the Satrapi-named "international language" of images, were often used by immigrants to speed up the process of learning English and adjusting to life in early twentieth-century America. The reaches of the comic strip were far, but the narrative potential of comic art had yet to be realized.

As with many cultural phenomena, Americans commercialized the contemporary comic book, though it was conceived by Europeans. Charlie Gaines produced the first, titled Funnies on Parade, in 1933. It was published serially, setting the standard for following comic book creators, and was such a surprise success that it paved the way for the second of its kind: none other than Famous Funnies, Gaines' sequel. Later that decade, in 1937, Detective Comics, known today as DC Publishing, was formed. Though perhaps its original founders were unaware at the time, this event marked a huge step for the development of the visual narrative. DC instigated what became The Golden Age of Comics in the following year, with none other than Superman leading the way and Batman joining the craze in 1939.

The industry took off,...
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