Article first published 15th March 2016
Here’s a good pub quiz question: what was the world’s first comic?
If you’ve no idea, don’t feel too foolish. It wasn’t even recognised by experts until a few years ago and is still debatable today. But long before Viz, The Beano, Eagle and even Punch, I can answer with reasonable confidence that the accolade goes to the Glasgow Looking Glass of 1825.
The comic was the brainchild of the English satirical cartoonist William Heath, who had reached Glasgow after fleeing from London to escape debts. Often published under the nom de plume Paul Pry, Heath teamed up with lithographic printer Thomas Hopkirk and his print manager John Watson to produce the publication after meeting Hopkirk in one of the city’s drinking dens.
The Looking Glass contained the world’s first comic strip, namely the “History of a Coat”, whose adventures from owner to owner ran over three episodes. There were many examples of speech bubbles, such as a heated one between “Billy the Bully and Ranting Dan”.
Well before the environmental movement as we know it was a cartoon entitled: “The Consumption of Smoke”, which gives a futuristic before-and-after imagining of city life without factory smoke. Also eye-catching is the hard-hitting cartoon in the lead image that accompanied an essay on the problem of grave robbing; and the one below that depicts English banks crumbling around a fat John Bull next to thrifty Scotsmen – ironic after the banking crisis in our era.
The Looking Glass was a soaring success, sharply increasing the number of outlets in the first few issues both across the Scottish central belt as well as to Liverpool and London. Its undoing seems to have been its celebrity, with its biting satire making enemies for Heath, who fled back to London at the height of its popularity. He was said to have run up drinking debts. He started a London version of the title but it folded after a few months.
Despite being a trailblazer, the Looking Glass’s claim to be the world’s first comic was overlooked by virtually all historians of the graphic novel until the end of the 20th century.
The main previous contender was the Histoire de M. Jabot, which was launched in 1835* by Geneva schoolmaster Rodolphe Töpffer. Jabot tells the story of its central character’s search for love.
The tone is burlesque and caricatural, with humour often provoked by the discordance between the pseudo-lofty tone of the text and the slapstick nature of the accompanying images.
Although only intended for Töpffer’s pupils and close friends, the cartoons were popular enough to engender numerous pirate versions and spin-offs. This included North America’s first comic, The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck of 1842 – a year after Punch arrived in the UK.
When I said at the beginning that the Looking Glass’s status as the first comic was debatable, it means ignoring previous examples of narrative heroes like Rowlandson or Hogarth; the speech bubbles used by Isaac Cruikshank and Biblia pauparum; and before-and-afters like the manuscript of Petrarch’s Visions. Depending on how you define “comic”, any of these might be able to stake a claim.
But judging from our 21st-century viewpoint, where we see a comic as something to fold up and take home – something featuring picture stories and available to a mass market – it is hard to argue against the Looking Glass. Jabot is perhaps the world’s first modern graphic novel, though it was not available to the masses of course.
Whatever your point of view, we’re running a four-month exhibition in Glasgow that contains examples of everything I have mentioned – as well as the first copy of Punch and various other artefacts dating as far back as Ancient Egypt.
Thanks to a loan from the Kunzle Collection of Los Angeles, we’ll also be able to show the first editions of Oldbuck and Jabot and the original Jabot manuscript side by side for the first time ever.
Töpffer felt that his comics were not worthy of serious attention, let alone academic analysis or gallery displays. This was the way that most people viewed comics until the end of the 20th century. Thankfully, the world has now seen the light. Publications like these give us a unique view of society in the early 19th century, and are invaluable in helping us understand how the modern comic came about. Long after the laughing has stopped, they continue to be incredibly important.
* The date cited by Professor Grove of the first publication of Rodolphe Töpffer’s work has been contested since this article was first published. Robert Beerbohm has noted his first comic strip book print run was in 1828, printed via stone lithography
• Copies of a modern republication of Rodolphe Töpffer’s work, published as How to Create Graphic Novels, edited by John McShane and produced by the Lakes International Comic Art Festival are still available from Page 45 here
THE WORLD’S OLDEST COMIC – THE DEBATE CONTINUES
Update, 15th April 2019
In 2019, discussion about the first true comic re-ignited on the Comic Book Historians Facebook Group. after Robert Beerbohm reasserted his belief that The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck published by Tilt & Bogue should be considered the first modern “comic”. Read the discussion here (membership may be required).
In the discussion, Robert Beerbohm also points to “God’s Revenge For Murder” written by John Reynolds, artist unknown, published in 1656, as the earliest known English language comic strip. “Printed as a broad sheet on one piece of large paper, there is no known earlier comic strip ever printed in English,” he notes. “There are earlier non-English printed comic strips but none known in English.”
Comics archivist Philip Ruston notes Victor E. Neuburg may have been the first person to identify “God’s Revenge For Murder” as the earliest English comic strip, in a 1953 article titled he wrote for the British periodical John O’London’s Weekly. (In the article he actually says “so far as I am aware nobody else has mentioned it”).
“A True Narrative of the Horrid Hellish Popish-Plot… The First Part”, published as a
line engraving and letterpress in 1682, has also been posted as an early English language comic strip example. A copy is held by the British National Portrait Gallery
Such discussions will no doubt continue – it’s a debate that has been raging for a while now. Over on his own blog Nothing But A Fan for example, downthetubes contributor Colin Noble has published a letter from the Glasgow Herald, published in 1923, asserting The Looking Glass Comic as the world’s oldest comic.