Tuesday, September 15, 2009

First Comic Book in America

We have just acquired what is believed to be the first comic book printed in the United States: The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck (1842). Originally published in French in 1837 as Les Amours de M. Vieux Bois, this work is considered by historians to be the first graphic novel.

In its original form, Swiss illustrator and author Rudolph Töppfer depicted the fictional Monsieur Vieux Bois in pursuit of an elusive "ladye love" through a series of sequential drawings with accompanying captions. Over 40 pages and 188 etchings, the hero's amorous adventures take him across land and sea through one mishap after another. He fails even in several comic attempts at ending his own life.  But by story's end, the hero has vanquished his rivals and overcome all obstacles. He appears in the final frame at the church altar with his betrothed beside him, "a happy denouement." The captions pre-date the word-balloons used in later comic book format but it is the images that guide the reader through M. Vieux Bois's travails not the text.

The publication history of the text is less straightforward. Töppfer created and printed the story originally in 1827 for friends in a small press run. Later in the 1830s, a Parisian publisher Aubert printed at least two versions using two sets of engravings inspired by Töppfer's originals. In 1841, a British version -- with English language text -- appeared.  New engravings appear in this edition, and the American version -- the one that Dartmouth holds -- reproduces those British printing blocks. The Anglo-American edition credited the work to a pseudonymous Timothy Crayon, the "gypsographer," that is, the creator of the images using a specially prepared gysum paper.

Adventures marks Oldbuck's only appearance in print. Unlike most serial comics today, there were no sequels.  He does re-appear in other domains. In one instance, Union Army colonel and Civil War chronicler Thomas Wentworth Higginson invokes Oldbuck in his war diaries.

Dartmouth's holdings also include the first comic book written by an American. The Special Collections Library also holds a copy of The Fortunes of Ferdinand, the first graphical novel written in the United States.

For more on the print history of the book, see: www.bugpowder.com/andy/e.toepffer-pirate-obadiah.html

Posted by Jay Satterfield for Mark Melchior

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