The Origin Story of a Bazillion Dollar Industry

It was about 40,000 years ago when Ook-Ook (as he was known to his mates) first recorded a successful buffalo hunt with his buddies on the walls of his cave. I think it’s safe to say he didn’t realize that he would be at the forefront of one of the most popular and profitable art genres: the cartoon.

Technically speaking, a “cartoon” is a sketch an artist makes when composing a painting. When you string a series of these cartoons together in a sequential order and add a narrative, then you have a comic strip. Ancient Egyptians illustrated the tombs of pharaohs with them, the Greeks plastered them into friezes on their pantheons, Hindus carved them into their temple walls, and the Romans wove them into tapestries.

The major drawbacks for these forms of expression were their portability and distribution. Not everyone had access to these illustrated stories or could afford to have any in their possession. But in 1837, thanks to the creative teaching methods of a headmaster of a Swiss boarding school, a means and a method were found to correct these inherent problems.

The Birth of “Graphic Literature”

Rodolphe Töpffer, self-portrait (1840)

This was the phrase used by teacher and artist, Rodolphe Töpffer (b. January 31, 1799 — d. June 8, 1846) to describe his innovative creations. Educated in Paris, Töpffer would return in 1823 to his birthplace of Geneva, Switzerland, in order to found a school for boys. A writer and painter in his spare time, Headmaster Töpffer would often draw caricatures to accompany his humorous stories for the entertainment of his pupils.

Later, he would gather these drawings, composed of one to six panels with a humorous narration, into a book that he entitled “The Story of Mr. Wood Head”. However, it had never been his intention to publish this collection of what he called his “little follies”.

He would continue to author these comic books as a means to amuse his friends. One of his readers was the great Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, author of “Faust”. Considered by many to be Germany’s most brilliant piece of literature, the play is based on the legend of a dissatisfied and suicidal scholar who sells his soul to the devil.

Swayed by Goethe’s opinion, Töpffer would go on to write and publish eight volumes which would be subsequently printed in newspapers across all of Europe. The subject of the strips was the lampooning of contemporary 19th century society and they were quite favorably received. This would be the start of the comic book genre.

An example from “The History of Mr. Jabot”. A ‘Jabot’ is the ruffle on the front of a shirt. First published in 1833

Their popularity was such that a series of plagiarized copies would be generated throughout Europe, the United Kingdom, and America. Owing to a lack of international copyright at the time, there was nothing illegal about copying Töpffer’s creations and nothing to stop the thieves from selling these strips under their own names. Often, they would undercut the originals by charging thirty percent less for the inferior product, which would then result in higher sales volume.

Töpffer was outraged, not because he was losing revenue, but because the imitations were of such poor quality. He then began to sell his own comic books at the same low price as his unethical counterfeiters in order to compete with the fraudulent copies of his own funnies.

In the United States, Töpffer’s “The Story of Mr. Wood Head” would become “The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck” and was printed as a supplement for the New York city newspaper, “Brother Jonathon” in 1842. The pamphlet is considered to be the first American comic book.

A comparison of the American “Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck” and the original “Histoire de M. Vieux Bois”. (“The History of Mr. Old Wood”.)

It was from these rather humble beginnings that the American comic book industry arose. With 2015 revenues recorded at $579 million for print comics, (excluding digital publications, movies, and merchandising), I’d wager Mr. Ook-Ook and his descendants wished he could have copyrighted those walls.

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