[Comics] as Reading – Chapter 3 – Discipline, Langue, and Play in the Discourse of [Comic] Studies pt. 2

PREVIOUS: Chapter 3 pt. 1

The substance of Smolderen’s justification for beginning with Hogarth lies in what he refers to as a polygraphic stance common to him and the comic illustrators of the 19th century.

There’s a deep stylistic continuity in the way Hogarth’s heir [sic] designed their decipherable images and their picture stories: both categories were rooted in the humorous polygraphic stance. [italics Smolderen’s]  To read a humoristic picture story or decipher a humoristic image, one had to navigate a “polygraphic space” where the artist ironically stylised and compounded different systems of representation. In the nineteenth century, visual humour was, above all, an exercise in semiotic flexibility for the modern visual polyglot. (“A Chapter on Methodology,” p. 19)

smolderen_originsIt is not at all lost on me how similar Smolderen’s “polygraphy,” so to speak, and my own argument concerning how visual forms “poach” on one another are.  Yet, there are important distinctions to be made.  First, Smolderen limits polygraphy, as a textual attitude or orientation, to satire/humor, whereas I regard poaching as much broader and as a creature of how periodicals are structured/interpreted rather than of a particular aesthetic.  Second, as an aesthetic, polygraphy is concerned far more with how artists regard what they produce than with how readers managed what is produced.  Third, Smolderen constructs how polygraphy is understood/used as a mode of reading in terms of later reception by other artists, whereas my “poaching” is a reflection with other contemporaneous visual forms amenable to any number of divergent interpretations.  Which leads me to the most important distinction between Smolderen’s theoretical construct and my own: Smolderen’s historiographic either/or above, between explaining the past in terms of the present and the present in terms of the past, is a false dichotomy.  There are other ways of addressing [comics] history.

What Smolderen oddly fails to allow for is the potential to think of the past in terms of the artifacts of that past and their messy, rather non-obvious relationship to each other.  I am hesitant to say simply “in terms of the past,” since the before now only ever survives artifactually, but what I mean to say is that historical thinking does not have to posit a trajectory, a vector, either from “then” to “now” or from “now” to “then.”  It is entirely possible to think the past in terms of an array of roughly contemporaneous things, rather than a tradition or line of causality, and perhaps, if anything like a readerly encounter with a text is to be hypothesized, this way of thinking has to at least be considered.  I also question whether the salient facts of such a traditio would even be meaningfully available to someone encountering Outcault’s [comic] in the September 20, 1896 edition of The World on the date of its publication.  This generalized experience of a hypothesized reader is likely unknowable, because readers rarely conform to expectations, but it remains worthwhile to bring to light those relevant “contemporaneous things” that indicate a radial reading of Outcault’s [comic] text, moving out to those things and back from them, rather than a vector whose historical trajectory seems overly pre-determined.

At first glance, Smolderen’s “grandes pages pleines d’incidents chaotiques et independents” (“large pages full of incidents chaotic and independent”) seems, to my mind, a far more apt description of McDougall’s [comic] on the first page of the weekly insert, “Some Wonders of the Past Summer,” a miscellany of [imaginary] curiosities: a thousand pound baby, a winged flying machine, a four legged chicken, etc.  Moreover, the immediate context of the weekly insert is surprisingly not replete with pages “teeming with characters” and contains more than a fair share of those where, perhaps much to Kunzle’s chagrin, we see a preponderance of word over image.  However, if what I argue in the previous chapter holds, that a print periodical (sing.) comprises a number of graphic objects with no necessary relationship to each other, then the notion that the first glance at a relatively untidy page, whose organizational logic, if there even is any, is not obvious, constitutes the prologue to any reading is not out of line.  Yet, despite this sense that interpretation-as-differentiation is involved in how a [comic] is as text in the first place, Smolderen’s contextualization of Outcault’s [comic] within a particular historical trajectory all but overlooks the proximal context of the particular periodical in which it appears.  Even when Smolderen addresses in greater detail the relationship between comics and the heterogeneous texts outputted by the periodical press, he typically does so in the rather generic terms.

In the nineteenth century illustrated press, the traditional ephemera of the old almanacs were replaced with a careful monitoring of theatrical seasons, annual horse races, feminine fashion, international expositions, weekends in the country or by the sea, and so on.  Picture stories played a complimentary role by documenting the same generic activities visually, with minimal variations and incidental anecdotes. (The Origins of Comics, p.80)

The implication seems to be that picture stories in the Illustrated London News, Graphic, and other illustrated print periodicals not strictly considered humorous are another mode for content, “the perfect vehicle for synchronizing the rhythms of the press and the habits of its readers.” (ibid.)  The task is to see the vehicle, and in that respect, Smolderen’s argument convinces.

The question remains, however, whether “Töpffer’s pictorial language,” to which Smolderen returns throughout that fifth chapter, would be meaningfully present for the vast preponderance of readers of the illustrated print periodicals of the latter half of the 19th century.  Moreover, Smolderen’s larger argument about a historical trajectory, despite copious reference to a number of examples of histoires en estampes in print periodicals throughout Europe in the 19th century, is profoundly dependent on bookthink.  I would be the very first to admit that Smolderen’s extremely thorough and my own rather slipshod argument concerning the nature of 19th century print culture closely resemble each other in the particulars, but, as I note in the previous chapter, simple resemblance can be incredibly deceiving.  For it is in the underlying logic where we differ, and, because of this, come to radically different conclusions about “what we’re looking at” and how to regard it both historically and conceptually.

When I say “bookthink,” I should be clear that what is meant is one of two perfectly salient ways of using the word “book” in this context.  A book could be regarded as a kind of material object that, in its most common contemporary iteration, could be described as a stack of leaves bound along one edge of a text block so as to form a hinge, which would include as much a particular volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica as a fashion magazine like Vogue—in fact a working mock-up of a magazine is often referred to as “book.”  The book in bookthink, however, refers to the concept of a more or less unitary if not uniform text, just as I refer to what you read here as “this book,” even though, as I write it, it is little more than a hodgepodge of digital files and may very well have become something else by the time you read it.

The [comic] texts Smolderen uses in an evidentiary fashion can be appropriately re-contextualized, because they have already been conceptualized, before ever having been reproduced, as sufficiently discrete, sufficiently unitary.  In fact, the kind of argument Smolderen is making demands this kind of regard, to remove his several examples from the varied print periodicals in which they appear, where, one presumes, they were organized along with other graphics according to some, even if imperfect, logic, to another assemblage of graphic objects, his own book, where the logic of their relationship is quite different and, one could argue, more perfect.  As Paul Ricoeur understood all too well, the fundamental problem of hermeneutics (as big i Interpretation) is that of polysemy and the force of context to limit the range of possible understandings of a text: one cannot identify a text without its con-text.  Of course, Smolderen’s book and the narrative trajectory it presents is rife with con-text, but what needs to be addressed is how this with-text is not merely there but is a creature of his own contrivance.

Louis Dalrymple,

Louis Dalrymple, “History Repeats Itself,” Puck 28 October 1896, from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection

Let us reconsider that Hogan’s Alley [comic] from September 20, 1896 (“Comic Weekly” insert p. 8) and see if we might discover how another kind of sausage is made.  The children of the alley take their revenge on the dog catchers who have come there, it is strongly implied, to acquire the raw materials for what the Yellow Kid (on his shirt) calls “Hogan’s Alley sausage.”  It is on the basis of this imagery that Smolderen makes his connection with Hogarth’s carnivalesque print images.  The verbal elements, in particular those that are diagetically integrated within the image, point to a different system of inter-relations.  September 20th was just two weeks before the presidential election of 1896, and several of the articles in that Sunday’s issue of The World make explicit reference to it.  One of the major issues of the campaign was whether to move to gold as a standard for backing the currency, and McKinley’s challenger, William J. Bryan, won the Demoncratic party nomination largely on the back of his “cross of gold” speech opposing the use of the metal as a currency standard.

Along the left side of the doorway in which an old woman and two children are standing is posted a bill proclaiming “McSWAT’S NEW GOLD CURE — EVERYTHING FROM THE BLUES TO THE BORROWING HABIT CAN BE CURED BY ENOUGH GOLD — EXCEPT POPULISM.”  It is tempting to see this image-as-bill in light of a larger socio-political and historical context, but I would prefer to look at it instead in terms of how it is reflected in the rest of the newspaper in which it appears and how it and those reflections function as a discursive unit of which the [comic] is one component.

NEXT: Chapter 3 pt. 3


  1. […] Earlier, with regard to Smolderen’s reading of a Hogan’s Alley [comic] in line with a “carniva… I noted how one might trace an alternative complex of signification from a simple posted bill on one of the exterior building walls playing background to the ruckus in the foreground.  So too might we glean an alternative understanding of the ontological (read: textual) condition of Old Doc’s “final day” on Saturday, February 10, 1917, from a sign hanging on the wall—in this case only apparently a sign but in reality [sic] Doc’s license plate bearing that number well known to regular readers, 348.  I say “in reality” not as a reflexive use of a well-worn idiom, but because in 1916 the “fictional” character—who, it must be noted, at the time was often identified with Sidney Smith himself—received 348 as his own license plate number. […]

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