The secret origin of the graphic novel!
It’s back, and bigger than ever! Yes, Comic Book History of Comics: Comics for All #1 tackles the origin of the graphic novel! Is it good?
You might think that graphic novels are a relatively recent innovation, but you’d be WRONG! Not only do they reach back to Will Eisner, but ALL THE WAY BACK to the very beginning of comics themselves. The birth of the graphic novel, and maybe even the comic strip itself, is sometimes credited to the Swiss-born Rodolphe Töpffer, who produced pages of sequential political satire panels in the 1830s.
Following that was something you definitely wouldn’t expect — collected pages of WOODCUTS. Flemish artist Frans Masereel even made a 167-woodcut novel about a man’s rebellion against society. Format fits the story, it would seem.
Perhaps more familiar to most comic fans is Classics Illustrated, adaptations of the great works of literature in pictorial form, which began in 1941. Too bad all those classics were really bawdy and couldn’t pass the Comics Code once that was instituted. Seriously. But it was actually Cliff’s Notes out-competing Classics that sealed the latter’s fate. Wait, Cliff’s Notes goes all the way back to 1958? Why did I not find out about it until college?
Comics legend Gil Kane, among others, tried out the graphic novel format, but the term never stuck until, yes, Will Eisner penned a deeply personal collection called A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories. Contract was the first to both use word balloons and be sold at bookstores, not on newsstands. Art Speigelman’s groundbreaking Maus came next, but he considered it only a graphic novel by default, as Speigelman didn’t see much of a resemblance to what Kane had done.
Comic Book History of Comics: Comics for All #1 also talks about how Nazi occupation in Europe actually led to more mature comics, and while they couldn’t get our superheroes for a while, we gladly took France’s Heavy Metal. It’s still in circulation here, even though the magazine that spawned it ended in 1987!
Writer Fred Van Lente and artist Ryan Dunlavey have proven they’re the only team that can tackle such a subject in comic form, but even they struggle to make this new installment captivating. Van Lente’s scholarship is always admirable, as he never fails to include the details and chase down the original provenance of any topic.
But from a pure enjoyment standpoint, even in this format, it can be tedious to read. It’s good information, and I personally never would have found out about Rodolphe Töpffer otherwise, but Comic Book History of Comics: Comics for All #1 feels more like homework than what we saw in the original series. We’re firmly in the modern era by issue’s end, though, so things are surely to pick up.
Dunlavey’s art doesn’t help broach the concepts as well as usual, but the inclusion of one page actually presented in Töpffer’s style is beneficial. Adam Guzowski’s colors bring continuity from Comic Book History of Comics Volume 1, and remain eye-catching without being the focus of the experience.
Comic Book History of Comics: Comics for All #1 is in a tough spot. It’s hard to do history non-chronologically, but you always want to begin a series with a bang. Woodcuts and political satire from 200 years ago make that difficult. But if you’re already predisposed to pick this issue up, it’s probably for a reason, and the format is still the best way to internalize what might otherwise be dry concepts, if that’s what you’re looking for.