Part 1: Origins RT: Part 1

Research Task: The History of Comics

Research and look at the work of the following historical comic creators:

  • Charles M Schulz: ‘Peanuts’ newspaper comic strip (1950-2000)
  • Stan Lee & Jack Kirby: superhero comics ‘The Fantastic Four’ and ‘Thor’(1960s)
  • Hergé: ‘The Adventures of Tintin’ series of 22 books (1946-1976)
  • Marjane Satrapi: ‘Persepolis’ (2000) and ‘Embroideries’ (2008) graphic novels
  • Winsor McCay: ‘Little Nemo In Slumberland’ newspaper comic strip (1905-1926)

Make some notes in your learning log on each artist’s individual style and visual approach, considering questions like:

  • How do they differ in terms of drawing style, page layout and the content of the stories?
  • Are they drawn realistically, or more like children’s drawings or cartoons?
  • Do they use a lot of black spaces or shading, or are they drawn in clean lines?
  • What about the way they are written? Is the story told in dialogue, or in captions that describe the actions and motivations of the characters?
  • When are they set?
  • What are their stories about? Are they political, satirical, or fantastical?
  • What kind of world do they take place in? Is it our world, or an imaginary world, or something in-between?

Charles M. Schulz: ‘Peanuts’ newspaper comic strip (1950-2000)

The Peanuts cartoon strips are set in America during the 1950s/1960s and based on a group of children (adults exist, but do not appear), with adult characteristics and personalities, humorously and philosophically playing out scenarios mostly based on adult situations. The characters were not realistic in design, but are clearly recognisable as children. The cartoons appeared in newspapers (and still do) along with ‘Sunday Funnies’.

The loose, clean and energetic lines suggest movement – even the backgrounds do not appear static. The lines are not straight or uniform in thickness. There is an emphasis on a minimalistic use of lines – Schulz included ‘only what is necessary’, which was in strong contrast to the majority of cartoons available at that time. The facial details consist of dots, lines and squiggles. Many of the cartoons are without colour and black ink has been used for any blocks of fill, such as a pair of shorts. Any suggestion of shading have been added using line strokes. Where colour has been added to any of the strips, it is flat.

Schulz also preferred to draw the cartoons onto paper directly with ink, rather than using an initial pencil sketch for guidance. Additionally, Schulz carried out the entire process of development himself, i.e. he wrote, sketched, inked and lettered each strip independent of any team.

Schulz was keen for the focus to be on the drawings rather than the words for the stories. Some of the panels were solely illustration based, so the emphasis was definitely on portraying character emotions, expressions and body language. Schulz was one of the first cartoonists to use ‘speech bubbles’ for dialogue of characters. The use of dialogue in the strips adds to the story, rather than just describing what is taking place.

Stan Lee & Jack Kirby: superhero comics ‘The Fantastic Four’ and ‘Thor’(1960s)

In stark contrast to Peanuts, the style of the Marvel comics from the 1960 was detailed and realistic. The characters were muscular/athletic and drawn in an anatomically correct way, although often exaggerated.

The stories were presented in comic books and the layout of panels across the pages included various arrangements (e.g. in terms of size and number per page). At the time of Marvel’s creation, Stan Lee came up with the stories whilst Jack Kirby created the artwork. Many of the stories are based on mythology/legends, such as Thor, and were adapted by Lee to fit in with his vision of a band of superheroes and villains.

In direct contrast to rival DC Comics, Lee created depth for the characters, with relatable back stories and personalities (including the villains), which made the readers empathise and see themselves in the characters. Meanwhile, Kirby also went against the norm in terms of drawing style by using extreme close-ups and exaggerating action/movement – creating much more dynamic compositions than had previously been seen in the genre.

Captions were placed within the densely illustrated panels, describing the scene and action, sometimes along with speech bubbles. Both of these were word-intensive, which meant the reader had to spend time taking everything in. The words were often long and quite complex, which reinforced Marvel’s desire to appeal to a wider range of audience, i.e. older, in comparison to DC, which was mainly read by young children at the time. Emphasis was placed on particular words by emboldening and italicising the font. Additionally, the text is all in uppercase and a regular size.

There is a limited use of flat colour in the comics and shading consists of blocks of black ink or line strokes. The line thickness varies depending on what is being drawn.

The fantastical stories are set in both our world (America) and other, fictional worlds (e.g. Asgard).

Hergé: ‘The Adventures of Tintin’ series of 22 books (1946-1976)

The character of Tintin is an intrepid young reporter, whose investigations took him on adventures around the world (and beyond). It is believed that Hergé originally based the stories on his experiences in Boy Scouts and growing up in Belgium during the First World War. The earlier Tintin stories are considered quite controversial in the present day due to Hergé’s depiction of other cultures, but some suggest they should be placed in the context of the time of their creation.

Hergé was the sole creator of the Tintin stories (until its popularity meant he was forced to employ assistants). The layout of the comics was, as with Marvel, panel-based across many pages, with varying panel sizes and number per page. The choice of panel related to what was being depicted, e.g. a wide panel would be used to establish a new scene, similar to techniques used in film. Hergé took a great deal of care to have authenticity in his depiction of the different locations that Tintin travelled to, by carrying out in-depth research via books, travel and often communicating with locals, alongside his imagination.

The basis of the Tintin stories was good versus evil covering a wide range of scenarios, often relating to the political events of the time. Hergé included humour, action, adventure, friendships and espionage within the stories.

The artwork for Tintin consisted of clean lines of a constant thickness and flat colour. The latter was used in a subtle manner and colour schemes relate to the location/mood of the story. Hergé did not use shadows or highlights very often, but when the former was required he tended to use blocks of black to show extreme darkness. The style of drawing was realistic and detailed, but also very simplified, with the characters having dots and lines for facial features. It is evident the amount of care that Hergé took to ensure he had accurately depicted every item within the carefully balanced composition of the panels.

Captions were only really present to set the scene or time as required, but speech bubbles were present in most panels. Sometimes these were word-intensive (but easier to read than the Marvel examples), whilst others could be a solely punctuation, e.g. “?!”, to express the character’s reaction. Hergé also used lines to show action or movement.

Tintin (and the other characters) are seemingly ageless even though the stories move forward through different times in modern history.

Marjane Satrapi: ‘Persepolis’ (2000) and ‘Embroideries’ (2008) graphic novels

The graphic novels Persepolis and Embroideries are autobiographical in nature and based on Satrapi’s childhood in Iran during the 1980s and the women in her family, respectively. They provide factual, political and personal histories using a combination of both real and fantastical depictions (such as those of Satrapi’s childhood imagination). The style of both is very striking in their boldness and visual impact, which makes them stand out the compared to the other examples. The number of panels per page varies depending on the size and its content. Many of the drawings in Embroideries are not confined to visible panels at all.

The drawings are quite child-like and simple in style (and would not be out of place in children’s book illustrations), which strongly contrasts with the often serious and traumatic experiences being described. The drawings are flat and non-realistic perspectives are used. Created entirely in black and white, the style is relatable to linocut printing with thick, non-perfect outlines and large area of black ink. Satrapi also uses white to outline characters/objects in darkness or black clothing. Black and white are also used for shadows and highlights respectively.

Satrapi approaches the story of Persepolis with a sense of humour, which is an alternative way of depicting such a subject matter. Embroideries uses mainly dialogue as it is based on conversations. Both captions and dialogue used throughout Persepolis, the former is the author’s narration. The images enhance the text as they are so impactful and stark, some do not require (or have) any words for the reader to fully comprehend what is taking place.

Winsor McCay: ‘Little Nemo In Slumberland’ newspaper comic strip (1905-1926)

The Little Nemo In Slumberland comic strips were based on a small boy called Nemo who visits a fantastical world when he goes to sleep. The stories were set in the period that they were created. Many of the strips end with Nemo falling and calling for his mother, before waking up back in reality with one or both of his parents stating that he should not have eaten a certain food before bed.

The style and colouring of the drawings is similar to an art movement of the time, Art Nouveau and artists such as Alphonse Mucha and Aubrey Beardsley. The layout of the panels is quite regular, but McCay utilised different sizes when required, for example long, vertical panels to depict tall objects or Nemo falling from a height.

Although the stories mostly take place in a fantasy setting with a range of often very peculiar characters, the drawings are realistic in style.

The lines are clean and shading is in the form of black blocks of ink. The colour used is flat and quite dull, which is likely due to the printing quality of the time.

McCay used a combination of captions and dialogue in the comic strips. Each panel is numbered and a very wordy narration carries across them, resulting in some disjointed sentences describing what is taking place in the story. The dialogue is in the form of speech bubbles.

Final Thoughts

Although I was vaguely familiar with a couple of the artists listed in this task, I found it most valuable in expanding my knowledge. It challenged me to try to analyse the works in a visual and in-depth way, rather than just stating the obvious. I particularly enjoyed the works of Charles M. Schulz and Marjane Satrapi as I liked the simple, clean style and humour used in both examples. The use of black and white appealed to me as well. I was least keen on the Winsor McCay comic strip as, although I realise his work is over one hundred years old, I found it quite taxing to read and, frankly, when I was a child I think it would have scared me!


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