Sequential narratives in the age of panoramas

Surely, one of the most encompassing perspectives on nineteenth-century culture has been Walter Benjamin’s reading of the 1800s as the age of panoramas. Studies of manners, photographic surveys, universal exhibitions, the periodic table of elements, to name but a few, characterize an entire facet of modernity as approaching knowledge through cross-section slices of the world.

Nadar. Journal pour rire, 1850.

Nadar. Journal pour rire, 1850.

In the publishing industry of the 1830s-1850s period, this panoramic outlook fostered the blossoming of the magazine and informed the proliferation of the printed image. Pictorial satire thrived in thematic galleries of prints, surveys in vignettes, and kaleidoscopic sets of individual cartoons. Such non-narrative ensembles, sometimes in multiple-page spreads featuring up to a hundred captioned images, were the most common form of cartooning in France. Simultaneously, the comic strip emerged from an opposite perspective, barely registering on the cultural radar as a narrative form on its own right. Ironically enough, some of its pioneers quietly achieved a goal that many a new illustrated magazine of the era pledged to concretize in its initial program, without any real breakthrough: to invent new rhetorical forms blending words and images.

This is where Ferdinand de Saussure meets Benjamin. From a linguistics perspective, a panorama is a paradigm, an overview of possibilities within a given environment without regard to chronological order. Any form of storytelling, on the other hand, involves a syntagm, the articulation in time of a selection among possible elements (subject/character + verb/action + object, etc.) that forms an utterance, i.e. a sequence. From a semiotics point of view, then, the sequential art form that is the comic strip, in league with the serial novel, the theory of evolution, and the motion picture, occupies a perpendicular axis to the panorama.

Comics studies, perhaps because of the growing pains they experienced finding a consensual definition for their object of study in the 20th century, have often needed to construct it in isolation from its panoramic original environment, at the risk of missing a larger picture. However, as David Kunzle’s research amply documents and the title of Thierry Smolderen’s history Naissances de la bande dessinée (births of the comic strip, 2009) makes plain, the roots of the comic strip are more complex than a simple lineage from one pictorial form to another. These are some of the notions that frame my current research perspective.

Use and / or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Philippe Willems with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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