The history of comics (sequential drawings depicting narratives) is often traced to the first markings found on cave walls dating as far back as 32,000 years ago, at the Chauvet Cave in the Ardeche region of France. Were the creators of these cave paintings trying to communicate to future generations? Were they merely decorating their living environment with familiar scenes? Or did these paintings play a role in religious ceremonies? Although we may never know the exact nature of the cave paintings, it is not difficult to imagine their evolution into the pictographs of civilizations coming thousands of years later, including the cuneiform of the Sumerians, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Greco-Roman friezes, the illuminations of the Book of Kells and other similar manuscripts, Renaissance narrative paintings in large public and private spaces, and finally, with the advent of Gutenberg’s printing press in the late fifteenth century, the emergence of political and satirical illustrations and the pamphleteers that made them accessible. Dating back to the eighteenth century, William Hogarth is credited as the grandfather of modern sequential art. His series A Rake’s Progress comprises what began as eight paintings on canvas focusing on the debauched life of Tom Rakewell, the son of a London-based merchant. The series was later turned into prints published in a 1735 newspaper, providing the artist more popular appeal – an indispensable element of modern comics. William Hogarth, Plate 1 of A Rake’s Progress, “The Young Heir Takes Possession of the Miser’s Effects,” 1735 As experimentation with new ways of creating sequential art continued, elements of current iconography, such as speech bubbles, started entering the comics lexicon. With these innovations emerged the concept of the “comic strip” in the early part of the nineteenth century, especially because of the satirical nature of the majority of drawings. Important artists of the period who contributed enormously to the promotion and evolution of the medium include Rodolphe Topffer, George Cruikshank (illustrator of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist), and later Wilhelm Busch and Richard F. Outcault, who established the standards of the medium that are still followed today. Rodolphe Topffer, a professor of literature who also painted in his spare time, combined his two passions to advance the sequential art form even further into what we now call graphic novels, with the 1842 publication of The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck, a 30-page book with six plates of drawings on each page, and captions under the drawings. He wrote the first treatise on what he called “picture stories” in his 1845 “Essay on Physiognomics,” where he described the technique: “To construct a picture-story does not mean you must set yourself up as a master craftsman, to draw out every potential from your material – often down to the dregs! It does not mean you just devise caricatures with a pencil naturally frivolous. Nor is it simply to dramatize a proverb or illustrate a pun. You must actually invent some kind of play, where the parts are arranged by plan and form a satisfactory whole. You do not merely pen a joke or put a refrain in couplets. You make a book: good or bad, sober or silly, crazy or sound in sense.” Topffer, The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck, 1852 And yet the early nineteenth-century picture stories or cartoons were masterfully rendered in the mimetic realistic style of the era’s fine artists. Tracing the meaning of the word “cartoon” to its origins – i.e., a preparatory drawing for a painting or tapestry – one understands why fine art and the first cartoons, or comics, were so closely connected. Aesthetically they did not differ from other artworks – it was their satirical subject matter that set them apart. In fact, most of the cartoonists of that period were academically or professionally trained as fine artists, and their etchings were works of fine art in their own right. As mentioned above, Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress started as a series of paintings, now housed in the Soane Museum in London. As the boom in newspapers and magazines took hold, with a reading public that needed entertainment, the comic strip medium became more established, and its form more stylized. With Wilhelm Busch’s Max and Moritz, a comic book set to the author’s rhymes and published in 1865 in a German newspaper, the sketch style that became so popular with the newspaper “funnies” was launched. But it was with the 1895 publication of Richard F. Outcault’s The Yellow Kid in Joseph Pulitzer’s The New York World, and with the 1897 publication of The Katzenjammer Kids by Rudolph Dirks in a supplement of The New York Journal – a competing newspaper owned by media mogul William Randolph Hearst – that the newspaper comic strip, which combined speech bubbles with images and a caricature style, really took off, opening a new chapter in the history of sequential art: comics as popular or “lowbrow” art. Richard F. Outcault, The Yellow Kid, 1895 However, the fact that we are now seeing a re-emergence of sequential art and the appreciation of cartoonists as fine artists brings us full circle. Remember Hogarth? How have we gotten here from the Sunday funnies? Painter Lyonel Feininger, who was associated with the German Expressionists, was also an accomplished cartoonist for the Chicago Sunday Tribune and brought us The Kin-der-Kids and Wee Willie Winkie’s World, beautifully drawn stories of the adventures of young kids and their keen observations of the world. Art Spiegelman, author of Maus and the first modern cartoonist to create a graphic novel as we understand it today, considers Kin-der-Kids Feininger’s best work: “Feininger’s visually poetic formal concerns collided comically with the fish wrap disposability of news print [...] The cartoonist…became a celebrated second-generation cubist…but his handful of Sunday pages – testing the uncharted waters between the high and low arts, between European and American graphic traditions – remains his greatest aesthetic triumph.” (Spiegelman, In the Shadow of No Towers, 2004). Lyonel Feininger, The Kin-der-Kids, 1906 Maybe it is here that we see the path of cartoons bifurcating into that of lowbrow illustration and fine art. Beginning in the second decade of the twentieth century, the comics of superheroes and comical caricatures of events and people which appealed to the masses marked one direction for comics; the other included those that combined visual images with narrative to create literature, which appealed to a more select group. The latter was an artform that, at its core, kept alive the tradition of the hand’s role in the creation of the print, as master woodcut artists like Frans Masereel, Lynd Ward, and even Max Ernst created novels out of images and text. For a few decades, sustained by hig art’s extreme contempt for commercial and popular illustration, comics were associated with youth and the masses. But the 1960s saw fine art embrace mass culture – especially the iconography in popular comic books and kitschy illustrations – and thus eliminate the elitism of abstract expressionism, while collapsing the distinction between low and high art. The most obvious examples of artists who based their practices on incorporating lowbrow culture into their fine art are Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. They were probably the first artists to exhibit paintings featuring comics in galleries and museums, thus setting the stage for the convergence of these two types of previously opposed genres. Roy Lichtenstein, In the Car, 1963 With the visual power and popularity of the Pop Art movement, the art public became more accepting of the language of comics, and grew to understand the art of the cartoonist. In the 1970s the market for collecting comics boomed, and publishers encouraged this by printing in small editions to appeal to this new group of collectors. Carl Hammer, a Chicago gallerist who represents many cartoonists, attributes the enthusiasm of the collector base for this type of work to “the demographics of collecting, [which] have certainly changed over the years, both with the aging of the ‘boomer’ collecting base as well as the cultural diversity which it now represents.” Also in the 1970s, the term “graphic novel” was adopted by cartoonists and graphic artists who wanted to differentiate themselves from the mainstream illustrators who worked for newspapers and other popular publishing houses. This helped promote the idea of the “precious” in the medium, as well as re-establish this form of comics as fine art. It is no surprise, then, that most successful contemporary graphic artists are trained as fine artists, and have been embraced by the fine art community. Excellent examples of these types of artists from Chicago are not only to be found in the centerfold of this newspaper, featuring a remarkable collaborative work by Onsmith (Jeremy Smith) and John Hankiewicz; they also include the likes of Jeffrey Brown, Ivan Brunetti, Lilly Carre, Linda Barry, Dan Clowes, Paul Hornschemeier, and of course Chris Ware. Reflecting the sentiments of Topffer, made avant la lettre in the mid-nineteenth century, Carl Hammer describes the phenomenon of the graphic artist: “It is not enough just to produce a humorous tale or a soap opera drama of crime, cowboys, or super heroes. The artists who have achieved the status of being placed in, for example, exhibitions like Chris Ware’s inclusion into the 2002 Whitney Biennial, are doing far more than telling an entertaining tale. Like any other powerful piece of contemporary art, they are making statements about our humanity in a manner which disguises itself like a cartoon, but ends up effectively dissecting the very essence of who we are as individuals and as a people overall.” Chris Ware, “Building Stories – Day, Part 5” (original drawing), 2007. From the Acme Novelty Library series. Image courtesy of Carl Hammer Gallery.