From Hogan's Alley to Coconino County:
Four Narratives of the Early Comic Strip

by David Westbrook


The Business of the Strips

The Culture of the Marketplace in the Early Comic Strip

Spectatorship and Framing in the Early Comic Strip

A Strip of Strips: Browse by Cartoon



About This Essay

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Last Updated: July 1, 1999. See Version History for a complete list of revisions.

This essay concerns itself with the turn-of-the-century American newspaper comic strip. I say "essay" in the singular in spite of the fact that no single overarching thesis unifies the article's three sections. Each of these three sections, or "threads," approaches the subject matter from a different direction and defends a distinct analysis. But because none of the threads can stand alone I think of them as a bundle--as an essay in the singular. Each depends on concepts and observations built up in the other threads. I have chosen this tripartheid structure because it takes advantage of some of the exciting possibilities opened for writing by the new medium of hypertext, because it is appropriate to the methods of cultural studies, and because it mirrors the structure of the newspaper comics page with its parallel storylines.

Although a strict division of the conceptual domains of the three threads would be too schematic, on a general level they can be separated into treatments of the economic, cultural, and formal contexts that informed the development of the comic strip. "The Business of the Strips" discusses the material context of comics production, with the ultimate goal of showing that comic artists transformed their visions of comics creation as they confronted their role in an economy of reproduction. "The Culture of Business in the Strips" discusses the participation of the strips in a broader urban market culture and in, more specifically, the contradictions of marketplace "realism." "Spectatorship in the Comics" addresses one particular formal aspect of the comic strip: the use of the panel to manipulate perspective and the reader's eye. I argue that early comics drew their approach to perspective, framing, and picture space from notions of theatrical spectatorship associated with class. These classed spectator-constructions were ultimately tranformed but not destroyed as artists gravitated toward sequential panels.

To facilitate navigation between these three threads, a narrow table-of-contents frame will appear at the top of your browser window. The three threads mentioned above will appear as items respectively colored green, red, and blue in this table of contents. Clicking on any of these items will load the thread into the lower frame. On occasion you will also see links in the text of a thread. These links will take you to portions of another thread that will elaborate on the highlighted text. In order to avoid the confusion that may result from jumping back and forth between threads, I have color-coded each thread with a narrow strip of color to the left of the text. If you ever get lost, this strip will tell you which thread you are currently viewing. You can, as always, use your browser's "back" function to retrace your steps.

The cross-links between threads represent one advantage offered by the hypertextual medium over linear writing: they allow the representation of the mutually interdependent web of concepts at play in the comic strips. Perhaps more importantly, however, hypertext allows me to avoid subordinating complex primary materials to a single interpretation. The juxtaposition of these three analyses interpreting many of the same cartoons from different angles will, I hope, emphasize the depth and multi-faceted nature of those cartoons as objects of investigation.

As you read a thread you will notice thumbnail versions of the cartoons under discussion in the righthand margin of the text. Clicking on any of these thumbnails will open a window displaying a full-sized version of the cartoon. At the top of this illustration window you will see annotations that call attention to certain elements of the picture. These annotations contain a hyperlink that will take you back to the portion of the text of the essay that elaborates on the annotation. (Note that if you download a free version 4 or higher browser from either Netscape or Microsoft and switch to the full-featured version of this article, these annotations will be displayed graphically: you will see a rectangle or a line identifying a pictorial element, along with a block of text describing the significance of that element.)

From any given portion of text, then, you can follow links to a number of different images. But it is also true that from most images you can follow links to a number of different locations in the text. These linked image annotations also allow you to structure a reading of the essay entirely around cartoon-browsing. A fourth thread titled "A Strip of Strips" consists simply of all of the cartoons arranged chronologically. If you choose to read the essay by viewing the images in sequence, then the text will serve merely as a gloss on the images, accessed through the image annotations. The images themselves form the real story of this thread: they constitute a sort of "meta comic strip" that tells the history of the strips through a series of panels that are themselves comic strips.

If this fourth thread succeeds in creating the impression that the strips are speaking for themselves in their own language, then I hope it will have made a gesture toward the same sort of deflation of pretension that cartoon characters have been effecting for over a century. While the scholars talk, the comics thumb their collective nose and follow their own path.