The History of Comics, Including Women. The Era of Invention (part 1)

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The History of Comics, including Women, might sound like a pretty odd title; however, you’d be surprised how little female authors you can find in books that explain the History of Comics, especially when the medium was born. But, seriously? No names? Couldn’t you include even just one? Because finding no female names brings a terrible question into mind: weren’t any women working in comics before WWII? To the surprise of no one, there were lots of women in the medium, however, to find those names, one has to dig and find some small jewels that explain the “history of women in comics.” However, even if these books are thrilling and recover gorgeous names of revolutionary women that went out on demonstrations asking for the female right to vote while creating comics, I must admit that few people will end up knowing their names only because you cannot find them in, what I call, mainstream books. Granted, you get the big names of women in comics from the fifties onwards, but: what about the revolutionary badass women who were working in the medium and had incredible lives? What about their astonishing work that we can still enjoy today, and for the most part, we have no clue where it all comes from? Isn’t it better to just add some few pages to the History of Comics’ books and showcase them too? Why is that so hard?

So, fed up of never finding the take I’d like to find in a ‘History of Comics’ book, I decided to make things right. This series just wants to write a ‘History of Comics’ mingling men and women into it from the very best beginning. And this is how a history of something should be told: with the entire population that brought it into being, not just dissected parts of it, nor just including the new blood because you know, now we’re different and, modern, and we’re not sexist anymore. [Let me coff on that.]

Because I believe History on whatever is made by men and women, this post series aims to show a ‘History of Comics’ in a revolutionary light: including everyone! So, embrace yourself to read and enjoy a ‘History of Comics,’ the one I’d love to find printed on a mainstream book out there. Let’s begin!

Comic Book Pre-History.

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Before we start talking about how “comics” as a medium first appeared, we need to think about if there was any Pre-History about them, and what the hell are them. First, we all love to think about something to be old as hell, so old even dinosaurs had those things. The older the thing is, the more valuable it gets, especially when we talk about “historical” artifacts. [Reality: ancient people threw the thing away because it was a piece of junk, and now, centuries later we spend millions on the junk our ancestors rejected. Like, those cranky bones uncle Cave-Man threw away because he stole a new set from a dude in town. That, kind of thing.] So, when we think about a medium we love, we want it to be as old as the Big Bang! Sorry to say, comics weren’t around with the Big Bang, but they sort of were there in Egypt.

Comics can be defined as sequential art. Art comes in a sequence and explains something, and it might include writing as well. So, if we take a look at that definition, Egyptian walls have some good examples. Heck, even the Mayans do. However, even if we would love to say that our funky Egyptian ancestors already rocked sequential art, reality is that what we call comics as a medium today, even if it’s sequential art, is not exactly the same. Sorry, but, this is something quite new, really.

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According to the definition, then, perhaps the Bayeux Tapestry could be a comic? The Bayeux Tapestry is “an embroidered cloth nearly 70 metres (230 ft) long and 50 centimetres (20 in) tall, which depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England concerning William, Duke of Normandy, and Harold, Earl of Wessex, later King of England, and culminating in the Battle of Hastings.” This Tapestry has the honor to make scholars quarrel and fight each other because some consider it, let’s say, the pre-History of comics while others say that nay, no way. However, despite the appeal that it might have, the medium, the combination of sequential art that we define as comics today didn’t really see the light till the 19th century! [Sorry, Bayeux Tapestry fans! I know, it’s cute and appealing, but nope, it’s not a Comic!]

So, we don’t find the origins with the Egyptians, nor with the Mayans, and heck, not even with a medieval King of England! But, what if I told you that all of that just paved the path to the English pirates starting it all? Because, as it happens, one Englishman had an idea that might or might not have inspired a Swiss teacher to transform his doodles into comics, and then some English pirates translated his works and exported those to America. And then, BOUM! Suddenly we got the Yellow Kid, the Kewpies and… Superman! [See, at the end it’s all because of Pirates! I knew it!]

The Era of Invention

All History books love to put names on eras. For the sake of order, and for the sake of continuing this wonderful way of putting labels on everything, I decided to follow The Power of Comics : History, Form and Culture labelling of Eras. It’s smart, on point, and heck, it’s sexy. So, I stick with it.

So, who was the Englishman who was selling the grannies of comics? Because those weren’t exactly comics, but we can say that they were a funny good idea that entertained the high society. And, because it was so fun, his works got pirated so that everyone could have a good time. [Two cheers for the Pirates who made it happen!]

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William Hogarth (1697-1764) is the Western pioneer of sequential art. His work is considered the forerunner of the comic strip. He made seven sets of sequential narratives from 1731 to 1743 using paintings. However, it was his ‘Marriage à la Mode’ (1743) the one that resembled more a strip. His works were super popular among the upper class in London, and so, there’s no surprise pirates brought the fun to everyone making super cheap copies.

To put it into perspective, he painted stuff like this:

william hogarth, comics, history of comics, depepi, depepi.com
And this is… soooo naughty!

And then, comes this super cool teacher who spent a lot of time creating doodles.

rodolfe toepffer, comics, history of comics, depepi, depepi.com

Rodolphe Töpffer (1799-1846) was the Swiss teacher who loved to doodle. He used his doodles for entertainment, in fact, he used sequential art to tell his stories. He made cartoons and combined his doodles along with writing. Hence, he fathered comics.

One of his works, ‘Les Amours de Monsieur Vieux-Bois’ (created on 1827, printed on 1837) was so famous that it got an English translation (probably a pirate copy!). It was translated as ‘The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck’ (1842), and this is what arrived at the United Stated. The American edition was 8 1/2 x 11 inches and had 40 pages that were printed on both sides. Each page would contain between 6 to 12 panels, and it did look a lot like a modern comic.

Something like this:

rodolfe toepffer, comics, history of comics, depepi, depepi.com

[Can we just cheer the Pirates who made this happen again?]

So, what happened next? Politics!

Thomas Nast, comics, history of comics, depepi, depepi.com

Thomas Nast (1840-1902) a German-born American caricaturist and editorial cartoonist considered to be the “Father of the American Cartoon” made a donkey and an elephant. Picture in your head the Democratic Donkey and the Republican Elephant. Those are Nast’s creations! But, did he do anything else? Well, he created lasting cultural icons that we would enjoy and think were there forever: Uncle Sam and Santa Claus.

So, while Nast was all about political cartooning, the US comic book started to grow from two distinct roots: newspaper comic strips and pulp magazines. Newspapers then, like today, include a strip. However, comic books back then weren’t like the ones we enjoy today: they were reprinted collections of popular comic strips.

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The first collection was the Yellow Kid (1897), a strip that began as a single-panel cartoon by Richard Felton Outcault (1863-1928). Outcault began by drawing ‘Hogan’s Alley,’ a cartoon that had no title until May 5, 1895, and that was published in the ‘Sunday World’ newspaper. The main character, a kid dressed in a yellow nightshirt, was so easy to spot and easy to remember. Readers would start calling the strip ‘the Yellow Kid’ due to the character’s clothing.

Rose O'Neill, kewpies, comics, history of comics, depepi, depepi.com

By the time ‘the Yellow Kid’ was already six years old, comic strips drawn by women had been appearing on the Sunday pages of newspapers all over the US. However, it’s possible that the first cartoon published by a woman was a one single panel cartoon by Rose O’Neil (1874-1944) back in 1896!!

In 1908, O’Neill invented the Kewpies, and at the beginning of 1909, they appeared in the ‘Ladies Home Journal,’ ‘Woman’s Home Companion’ & ‘Good Housekeeping.’ The strip had between 1 to 3 pages with stories that had verse, a form that very early strips used. The Kewpies were so famous that there are still Kewpie fans today doing “Kewpiestas.”

When I first went to Japan, I was shocked to find a Kewpie Mayonnaise and infinite types of merchandise on Kewpies. I had no idea about their origins, but when I discovered that Kewpies were revolutionary, I got hooked. Not only O’Neill was revolutionary, her Kewpies too!

Rose O'Neill, kewpies, comics, history of comics, depepi, depepi.com

Kewpies are small cute cherub-like creatures; that helped their creator ask for the vote for women. At that time, women weren’t suppose to divorce, not to vote. O’Neill was a twice divorced woman who rallied for the vote of women along with her sister. And she did it in a time that all these actions were seen as pure evil! So famous she was that she even inspired the song “Rose of Washington Square!”



Kewpies got so popular that copies started to appear all over. Grace Drayton (1877-1936) (aka Grace Gebbie, Grace Weiderseim) drew many sweet kids as well. In 1905, along with her sister, they released ‘the Adventures of Dolly Drake and Bobby Blake in Storyland’ and many other stories. However, it was in 1909 that she hit the pot with ‘Campbell Kids’ for Campbell Soup Co.

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Again, these cartoons got so famous, that copies appeared all over! A New York-based publishing company called Cupples & Leon produced a series called ‘Kiddyland.’ In these series, you could find titles like ‘Puss in Boots.’ Cupples & Leon introduced black and white reprint books in 1919. These reprint books were 9 1/2 inches square with a flexible cardboard cover! These reprints were sold on newsstands and passenger trains for 25 cents and 75 cents the big book editions.

Cupples & Leon reprint formats were the dominant reprints back in the day till the publishing company decided to abandon comics back in 1934 to concentrate on publishing books for children.


Next: rebels in comics! More badass women that created cute strips and more titles that you might have forgotten.

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About pepi

A Geek Girl interested in Geek Anthropology, comic books, books, Superheroes and discovering all about pop culture.

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