Funnily, akin to its etymological roots from the word ‘comic’ (meaning humorous), scholarly attempts at digging the history of the comics ‘form’ can be visualized as a cat tangled in a skein. Largely because there has always been a lack of scholarly agreement as to what defines the comics ‘form’. Whereas, when it comes to the origins of the comics ‘form’, the disagreement suddenly metamorphoses to consonance in tracing it from ‘iconic’ representations in cave paintings and later in Egyptian Hieroglyphics and Bayeux Tapestry.
To put it more cogently, the tendency to make sense of ‘reality’ through ‘iconic’ representations of the world around ‘us’ has been around for much longer than the first written script. What historians and comic-book scholars mean by an ‘iconic’ representation here, is simply the ‘act’ of using pictorial or figurative images which resemble world ‘objects’, ‘animals’, ‘actions’ and sometimes ‘concepts’. Cave paintings are rife with such examples— stick-like human and animal figures in Bhimbetka, Madhya Pradesh, India and Magura, Bulgaria; panels depicting horses, rhinoceros, and lions in the Chauvet Cave, France; stick-based depiction of rituals and hunting at the Serra da Capivara caves, at the Serra da Capivara national park, Brazil.
However, this tendency to represent a ‘simplified’ form of reality went through an evolution of thousands of years to become the what we know as the ‘comics’ form. And in a more ‘modern’ sense, the first instance of representing a story through a sequence of ‘pictures’ can be traced back to William Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress (179091). Although the work was meant to be consumed in a ‘sequence’, it was published in the form of six plates, far from the ‘modern’ comics ‘form’ of inculcating panels on the same page. Comparatively, in a truer sense, the pioneer of the ‘modern’ comics form was the Swiss painter and caricaturist- Rudolphe Töpffer.
Töpffer not only employed the technique of using panels and panel-borders, he was also the first to use a combination of text and pictures to tell a story through a comic strip in 1827. More importantly, Töpffer also authored The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck (1837)- the earliest known precursor to the ‘modern’ comic book. Forty-pages long, and published in an 8.5’’X 11’’ format, The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck, is sometimes also referred as the first comic book by many historians. After Töpffer, the evolution of the modern comics ‘form’ took around almost a century, before culminating in the first ‘modern’ comic book in 1933- Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Comics.
Within nearly three years of the publication of the first ‘modern’ comic book, The Phantom (1936), marked the birth of the first superhero comic-book which changed the medium of comic books forever. So much that, comic-books came to be closely associated with superheroes, and most of the comic books even today, are in-fact about superheroes. Although distant from their overtly humorous and often slapstick past, superhero comic books still consisted of what was far from ‘art’ or ‘literature’. And this majorly affected ‘seriousness’ of the medium, with many considering comic books to be suitable only for children and teenagers.
Nevertheless, superheroes skyrocketed the popularity of comic books, giving birth to the ‘popular culture’. In the decades that followed, many serious writers and illustrators like Will Eisner and Art Spiegelman, who grew up reading comic books, used the comics ‘form’ to tell serious stories, in a book-length incarnation of the comic-book- The Graphic Novel, starting with Eisner’s A Contract With God (1978). In A Contract With God, Eisner broached the issue of ethnic identities by focusing on poor Jewish people living in a tenement in New York through a set of short-stories represented through simple ‘iconic’ representation-a common feature of the ‘comics’ form- and sufficient use of text. Likewise, the critical and commercial success of Spiegelman’s Maus (published in two parts in 1986 and 1991), got the comics ‘form’ its first ‘academic’ inclusion as a serious form of literature. Since then, graphic novels have evolved as a serious medium, often exploring serious social issues using the comics ‘form’.