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Thursday, December 2, 2021

Review Essay: Rebirth of the English Comic Strip: A Kaleidoscope, 1847-1870 by David Kunzle

David Kunzle. Rebirth of the English Comic Strip:  A Kaleidoscope, 1847-1870, Jackson:  University Press of Mississippi, 2021. Hardcover:  ISBN:  978-1-4968-3399-0, 472 pp., 309 b&w & 12 color illustrations. US $90.

 A Review Essay


Richard Scully

Reviewing another book for another journal, Michael Connerty (2021) observed that “This is a good time to be alive for anybody interested in the development of cartooning and comic strip art during the nineteenth century.” Among the reasons why, he mentioned the hugely-significant recent study of Marie Duval by Simon Grennan, Roger Sabin, and Julian Waite (2020), and my own Eminent Victorian Cartoonists (2018). To that list we should also add Ian Haywood’s The Rise of Victorian Caricature (2020), and Brian Maidment’s Robert Seymour and Nineteenth-Century Print Culture (2021), but of the original three works Connerty mentioned, the one that probably represents an epoch in the field is the latest--and possibly final--offering by the “foundational scholar” of early comics history:  David Kunzle.

With The Rebirth of the English Comic Strip, Kunzle returns to explore the British contexts first touched upon more than a generation ago in The Early Comic Strip (1973) and then in The History of the Comic Strip, Vol. II:  The Nineteenth Century (1990). At the time, it was the German and Francophone comic artists whose work was given pride of place in the grand narrative of c. 1450-1825 and beyond, to the 1890s. Only two of the chapters of The Nineteenth Century related to “England”--just 36-odd pages out of the total of 300--and in Rebirth, Kunzle expresses regret that “space restriction inhibited closer look at the English contribution,” especially given “the riches of Britain’s contribution to the comic strip” (x).

This richness is now given its due, with nearly all the main subjects first explored in 1990--and additional topics discovered in the intervening decades--examined with customary thoroughness and incisiveness; and all in the unmistakable prose style that has led so many of us to follow Kunzle into the serious study of comics. David Kunzle has always written inclusively. Second-person pronouns abound, as “we” are taken along for a remarkable peek into the archives. The story told in Rebirth is not merely his hobby horse, but “our exploration” (398). The language is not preserved in the amber-like fixity of the formal “academese” past tense--it is living and present. It is often funny. It is emotive. From the very beginning to the charming and beautiful postscript at the very end (437). Kunzle is also a master of dropping in and out of different modes, such as a divergence into Victorian theatricality in the Prologue (xv-xvi), the “Once upon a time” (xi), or the excurses that appear in several chapters (50-52; 97; 112-113; 200; 410-412). This is to say nothing of the way Kunzle--and the publishers--allows the comic art to speak for itself for page after page (a fortunate byproduct of intellectual property law, and the presence of such work in the public domain, rather than in corporate hands).

Divided into chapters focused on particular artists (e.g. Chapter 1 on George Cruikshank) or publications (e.g. Chapter 2 on The Man in the Moon, 1847-1849), the approach is chronological, and covers what W. L. Burn called The Age of Equipoise (1964). This was the period of relative calm that characterized “the Mid-Victorian generation” between the ending of the “hungry ‘40s” amidst the upheavals of Chartism and the Continent-wide revolutions of 1848, and the Gladstonian ascendancy, Beaconsfieldism, and the “New Imperialism” of the 1880s and 1890s. While Burn concentrated on 1852 to 1867, Kunzle’s span of time is a little longer:  between the “sudden erupt[ion] of “comic strip fireworks” in 1847 (ix), and the “bizarre new stylistic era” beginning around 1870. Context is king from the outset of the book, and the cultural status of the Victorian magazine (arbitrated by Carlyle and Dickens), and the “sociopolitical history” of a period not well-known for its comic strips, is presented in fine form. The contrast between Britain (or England, as Kunzle has it) and France; the working lives of comic artists; the sources for comic comment; and--in a deliberate glance back to 1990 and The Nineteenth Century--the crucial importance of a society shaped by the railways and by the theatre, all make for an ideal Prologue.

The prehistory of the English comic strip is the focus for the Introduction, with Hogarth the logical starting point. Kunzle sees the narrative, though, as a disconnected one. From Hogarth to the “Great Age of Caricature” there is continuity, but huge changes in the “printing and publishing industries, cultural attitudes (such as the ‘Victorian’ rejection of Regency libertinism), and caricature itself” separated Kunzle’s period of Rebirth from what had gone before. This is actually rather an older way of viewing the periodization, and the evolution of British comic art; something challenged by Brian Maidment and others (including myself). But here is nonetheless an engaging narrative encompassing Rodolphe Töpffer--whose reputation Kunzle has done much to reinforce in two key volumes (2007a and 2007b)--and a potential, crucial transnational transfer from his Swiss homeland to England via John Ruskin and George Eliot (3-4). Rounding out the chapter is a somewhat disconnected study of Robert Seymour, who--Kunzle argues--“deserves to be remembered for more than his illustrations to Pickwick, his pre-Punch satirical Figaro in London (1831-1838), or his tragic suicide at the age of thirty-eight” (8). It’s a little surprising that Kunzle shows some ignorance of Brian Maidment’s (2013a) early work on Seymour, which went a long way towards remedying such a myopia, and has culminated with the first full-length study just this year (2021).

Where Kunzle is on firmer ground is in his shedding new light on the otherwise well-known and high-profile artists of the Victorian Age. In the first of the substantive chapters, Kunzle focuses on George Cruikshank (of the famous dynasty of caricaturists), and explores his work in the temperance and teetotal social movement in depth. Following Robert Patten’s immense, two-volume biography of Cruikshank (1992; 1996)--itself almost a conscious imitation of the classic Victorian form of the genre--it’s hard to imagine how anything new could be said about this Janus-faced figure. But Kunzle draws-in likely influences from Töpffer and re-interprets much of Cruikshank’s work; and The Toothache is dealt with in ways not hitherto appreciated as well.

Albert Smith’s brief, but significant, Man in the Moon (1847-1849) takes up Chapter 2, and Kunzle successfully rescues that publication from more than a century of condescension by Punch scholars. Since his departure from Punch, the judgement of his one-time peers, Douglas Jerrold and Mark Lemon, has been that Smith was “vulgar and bumptious” (43) and that his own paper was little more than a foil to the senior paper. Kunzle sees much more merit in its pages than the admittedly quite deliberate swipes at Punch. For starters, there was Cham’s (Amédée de Noé) contribution (45-47), and the work of Henry Hine and the character Mr. Crindle. Nevertheless, Man in the Moon did deflate (just as assuredly as did Smith’s own hot-air balloon in 1847), and Kunzle does a good job of accounting for that (as well as providing a nice summation of Europe’s revolutionary atmosphere around the time of its demise).

Beginning with Chapter 3, Kunzle embarks on a truly fascinating series of studies of Punch that truly breaks new ground. So, while the existing literature on Punch is vast (and is still growing), it is surprising that neither Richard D. Altick (1997), nor Frankie Morris (2005), Patrick Leary (2010) or Brian Maidment (2013b), have picked-up on this crucial role as not merely an inspiration for comic strip magazines, but also the very practice. This is the London Charivari as a comic, and its chief cartoonists--Richard Doyle, John Leech, John Tenniel, Charles Keene, and George Du Maurier--as comic strip artists.

Interspersed with the Punch exploration are additional chapters on the fascinating political Francophobia/cultural Francophilia of two short comics regarding King Louis Philippe; and on Thomas Onwhyn’s shilling booklet Mr. and Mrs. John Brown’s Visit to London to See the Grand Exposition (1851). The impression given is precisely what Kunzle intends for these middle chapters:  to restore the mid-Victorian period as one of the key historical phases of comic strip art, in which multiple, regular, comic publications appeared to cater for various tastes. The status of the comic strip was enhanced by its association with Punch, at the moment it became a fixture of the establishment. So too it was adapted for other periodicals, such as Town Talk (the subject of Chapter 12) and the Illustrated London News (Chapter 13), as well as other journals, before disappearing after 1870.

But before the Epilogue deals with the sudden fading of the Victorian comic strip (compromised by a new perception that it was “vulgar”), the final substantive chapter (14), picks up on themes that have been of particular interest to the most recent Victorian-age comics scholarship:  the hitherto-neglected career of Marie Duval at Judy, and perspectives from the sesquicentenary of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). For the former, the aforementioned work of Grennan, Sabin, and Waite may be of unsurpassed quality, but it was built on the foundation established by Kunzle himself, who basically discovered Duval back in the 1980s. For the latter, Kunzle was name-checked by a number of scholars attending the May 2021 conference Chroniquer la guerre La Guerre de 1870-1871 dans la presse européenne et atlantique (held online because of COVID, via the École Polytechnique, Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, and Musée de l’Armée). And like the rest of Rebirth, this chapter is not an exercise in resting on one’s laurels, but a further advancement in the interpretation of both comic touchstones. In part, this is due to the acid Kunzle wit:  Bismarck’s Ems telegram is likened to Trumpian “fake news” (403), and the link between the correspondents of 1870 with those in Baghdad or Kabul in more recent years. There does seem to be one slip-up (probably editorial, post-proofing) in misidentifying Judy’s “big cut” artist as William Brunton, not William Boucher (404); but that does not prevent Kunzle from joining a recent push to highlight Boucher’s remarkable body of work (Scully, 2013; Scully, 2018; Grennan, Sabin, and Waite, 2020; Gangnes, 2020).

It is rather striking that the book can be so original despite relying almost entirely on published primary sources. The Punch archives held by the British Library were not consulted for the light they shed on matters such as income, editorial decision-making, and the like, meaning there is still work to be done in this area. Although the expenses of geography and time can account for this omission, the absence of the editors’ copy of Fun, held at the Huntington Library, close to Kunzle’s base of operations, is a little less forgivable. Still, one can really only quibble about the details, as they are not crucial to the overall argument. For instance, from the 1860s, major Punch artists were not paid “£10-20 per major drawing” (xiii), but rather received a salary--Tenniel’s was £853.5s per year in 1875 (Scully, 2018b: 147). True, at Fun, John Gordon Thomson was paid by the drawing, but this was only ever in the realm of £4-6 for a “large cut” cartoon in the 1870s and 1880s (Scully, 2018b: 146). One of Kunzle’s key case-studies--George Du Maurier--spent an inordinate amount of time worrying over the relative incomes of his senior colleagues as early as 1861:  John Leech reportedly earning £1000 a year, and Tenniel £500 (Scully, 2018a: 107).

There are also a few notable omissions from the secondary sources, too. I, for one, would have enjoyed seeing Kunzle weigh-in to the obvious debate with Belgian historian Thierry Smolderen on The Origins of Comics (2014; published in the same Mississippi series). Although complementary, their interpretations differ, but there seems to be very little historiographical engagement with this, more broadly. James Chapman’s complete history of British Comics (2011) also doesn’t merit a mention--but then, Chapman didn’t seem terribly aware of Kunzle’s volumes, either, and just one of his articles on Ally Sloper (261, n14). Indeed, the literature review does not seem itself to be a favored means of contextualizing much comics scholarship. Absent from Kunzle’s Bibliography are also works by Brian Maidment (see above) and Henry Miller (2009a & b), as well as Richard D. Altick’s 1997 study of the early Punch, and (it has to be said) some of my own recent stuff on cartoonists; all of which would provide important context, if not being of direct relevance to the comic strip itself. That the scholarly literature is still somewhat disjointed and disconnected is underscored by Kunzle’s own observation (444, n6) that his work on Marie Duval--amounting to three articles (1985; 1986a; 1986b) and copious references in The Nineteenth Century (1990)--was largely ignored by the late Denis Gifford in writing an entry on the “Ally Sloper group” for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004). This is something that Kunzle--perhaps in partnership with Grennan, Sabin, and Waite--should address.

One does also wonder why Kunzle did not revisit aspects of his earlier work that would have benefited from a second opinion, modified by the passage of time. Looking back to 1990, and The Nineteenth Century, one is struck by the absence in Rebirth of a chapter updating Kunzle’s work on James Sullivan, Fun, and “The British Working Man” (spanning pages 324-329 of the earlier volume). The Huntington Library copy of Fun would provide some very interesting new material for such a study; as would the only substantial work to have been based on that primary source:  E. S. Lauterbach’s doctoral thesis (completed at Urbana, Illinois in 1961). But, as Kunzle notes himself, one can only do so much, and there is not always much point in revisiting the past when trying to drive forward.

Speaking of the past, though; for someone like me, I’m most cheered by the fact that Kunzle has always--unashamedly--written history (as opposed to critique, commentary, or other, jargonistic or theory-heavy analytical forms from the literary or cultural studies world). Without the scholarly weight of his works to point to, I’d probably have been laughed-out of one too many seminars--and possibly a job--long ago. As an art historian, however, Kunzle is permitted to be more critical when it comes to the aesthetic merits of his subject-matter than the “straight” historian. And this is evident as he closes his volume with a riposte to the Punch tradition of comic art:


Punch’s reputation had declined [by the 1890s], having become tired and repetitive… [It] persisted through to the end of the century and beyond, in the endless, dreary perambulation of academically drawn illustrated jokes, with captions featuring the witty and the witless, the fatuous infelicity and the verbal faux pas [433].


Reputations are difficult things to track, historically. And Kunzle doesn’t offer any evidence for this perceived decline, which is important, given this was a time when the circulation figures were exceeding 80-90,000 per week (Scully, 2018, I: 18), and its status had been cemented by The History of “Punch” (1895) from M. H. Spielmann (a great arbiter of taste). Certainly, its fin de siècle content is unattractive to the radical sensibility, and Kunzle joins Sir David Low in criticizing it for staidness (Scully, 2018, I: 15). But Punch was hugely popular in its time and of its class; and any diminution of its quality is a subjective, anachronistic one, from the perspective of the 21st Century and the focus on the comic strip.

But Kunzle’s opinion of Punch in part a lament, rather than outright criticism, for in eschewing the comic strip, the London Charivari left that medium to its lower-class rivals--although Kunzle dismisses the notion of any true rivalry (434). Between 1870 and the Edwardian period, Will o’ the Wisp, Judy, Fun, Pick-Me-Up, Funny Folks, Scraps, Illustrated Bits, and Comic Cuts witnessed the “vulgarization” of the comic periodical, and in cheapening the fare to be had by British readers, “it would take generations before the comic strip and comic books could rise from the reputational miasma of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century” (435). A harsh assessment indeed, especially given Judy probably entered a definite, post-Sloperian “Golden Age” in the 1890s (Scully, 2018, II: 83-84). Fun did decline in the later 1890s, and expired in 1901; Funny Folks folded in 1894. But Pick-Me-Up was a glossy and glorious product of the “Naughty Nineties,” despite its obvious piracy from Continental counterparts; hardly of a kind with the cheap-and-nasty Scraps, Illustrated Bits, and Comic Cuts (something evident from their very names). If one steps-back and applies a less aesthetic set of judgments, then what Kunzle identifies here is precisely what he spotted occurring in the 1830s (1983):  the material change of medium that accompanies a seismic shift in the history of the cartoon and comic. The “graphic bric-a-brac”--in his own, memorable phrasing (Kunzle, 1990: 20)--of the late Regency/early Victorian period finds its counterpart in these comics, which were experimental publishing forms, deserving of less judgmental assessment, and appreciation for what they were, not the later standards they failed to attain.

There is thus an opportunity here to challenge Kunzle’s assessment of the late-Victorian/Edwardian comic paper, just as Brian Maidment (2018: 54) and others have done for his assessment of the beginning of that period. Aspiring scholars should probably get their skates on, though. As Kunzle points out, the very cheapness of the Harmsworth/Northcliffe Comic Cuts presents a major problem for the historian of a century later:


in consulting Comic Cuts of this period… I found the danger not so much the bleeding through of the ink onto the reverse side (as shown on p. 369), not so much the occasional indecipherability, but the acidic disintegration of whole pages, as I turned them into a shower of confetti (435).


A timely reminder in our digital age of the need to preserve the archive, but also to consult the material culture, not merely its facsimile.

In an earlier age, in 1973 and 1990, comics studies was of fringe interest; edgy; even subversive. And Kunzle’s radical credentials were reinforced by his choice of subject-matter. For years we have been weaning ourselves off the need to bemoan the “neglectedness” of our field, because today, it is no longer the poor cousin in the Literature and Media/Cultural Studies departments, nor even a minor area of study. It is probably the fastest-growing field in the Humanities, if not quite yet a nascent discipline of its own.1 Rebirth is not a standalone curiosity, but a handsomely-produced, well-edited, contribution to Mississippi’s Comics Studies series--some 162 volumes to date--which is itself just one of a number of series devoted to the field (including those of Palgrave, Routledge, Bloomsbury, Ohio State, Nebraska, and more). Kunzle’s work across six decades is one of the key reasons for the all-conquering strength of the field and, appropriately, Rebirth brings us not only full circle, but opens up new vistas for the future.






Altick, Richard D. 1997. Punch:  the Lively Youth of a British Institution, 1841-1851. Columbus:  Ohio State University Press.

Burn, W. L. 1964. The Age of Equipoise:  A Study of the Mid-Victorian Generation. London:  George Allen & Unwin.

Chapman, James. 2011. British Comics:  A Cultural History. London:  Reaktion.

Connerty, Michael. 2021. “Book Review:  Marie Duval:  Maverick Victorian Cartoonist, by Simon Grennan, Roger Sabin, and Julian Waite, Manchester University Press, 2020, 272 pp.” Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics. Published online May 11, 2021.

Connerty, Michael. 2021. The Comic Strip Art of Jack B. Yeats. Cham (Switzerland):  Palgrave.

Gangnes, Madeline B. 2020. “Material Romance:  Kidnapped In and Out of Young Folks Paper.” Victorian Periodicals Review 53 (2): 183-213.

Gifford, Denis. 2004. “Ally Sloper Group (act. 1867-1923).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press.>. Accessed Nov. 15, 2021.

Grennan, Simon, Roger Sabin, and Julian Waite. 2020. Marie Duval:  Maverick Victorian Cartoonist. Manchester:  Manchester University Press.

Haywood, Ian. 2020. The Rise of Victorian Caricature. Cham:  Palgrave Macmillan.

Kunzle, David. 1973. The Early Comic Strip:  Narrative Strips and Picture Stories in the European Broadsheet from c. 1450 to 1825. Berkeley and London:  University of California Press.

Kunzle, David. 1983. “Between Broadsheet Caricature and Punch:  Cheap Newspaper Cuts for the Lower Classes in the 1830s.” Art Journal 4 (43): 339-346.

Kunzle, David. 1985. “The First Ally Sloper:  The Earliest Popular Cartoon Character as a Satire on the Victorian Work Ethic.” Oxford Art Journal 8 (1): 40–48.

Kunzle, David. 1986a. “Marie Duval and Ally Sloper.” History Workshop Journal 21 (1): 133-140.

Kunzle, David. 1986b. “Marie Duval--Caricaturist Rediscovered.” Woman’s Art Journal 7 (1): 26-31.

Kunzle, David. 1990. The History of the Comic Strip, Vol. II:  The Nineteenth Century. Berkeley and Los Angeles:  University of California Press.

Kunzle, David. 2007a. ed. Rodolphe Töpffer:  The Complete Comic Strips. Jackson:  University Press of Mississippi.

Kunzle, David. 2007b. Father of the Comic Strip:  Rodolphe Töpffer. Jackson:  University Press of Mississippi.

Leary, Patrick, The Punch Brotherhood:  Table Talk and Print Culture in Mid-Victorian London. London:  The British Library.

Maidment, Brian. 2013a. “The Presence of Punch in the Nineteenth Century.” In Asian Punches:  A Transcultural Affair, edited by Hans Harder and Barbara Mittler, pp.15-44. New York & Heidelberg.

Maidment, Brian. 2013b. Comedy, Caricature and the Social Order, 1820-50. Manchester:  Manchester University Press.

Maidment, Brian. 2018. “Caricature and the Comic Image in the 1830s.” The Yearbook of English Studies 48:  Writing in the Age of William IV, pp. 54-81.

Maidment, Brian. 2021. Robert Seymour and Nineteenth-Century Print Culture--Sketches by Seymour and Comic Illustration. London: Routledge.

Miller, Henry J. 2009a. “John Leech and the Shaping of the Victorian Cartoon:  The Context of Respectability.” Victorian Periodicals Review 42 (3): 267-291.

Miller, Henry. 2009b. “The Problem with Punch.” Historical Research 82 (216): 285-302.

Morris, Frankie. 2005. Artist of Wonderland:  The Life, Political Cartoons, and Illustrations of Tenniel. Charlottesville:  University of Virginia Press.

Patten, Robert L. 1992. George Cruikshank's Life, Times, and Art--Volume 1:  1792-1835. Cambridge:  Lutterworth.

Patten, Robert L. 1996. George Cruikshank's Life, Times, and Art--Volume 2:  1835-1878.  Cambridge:  Lutterworth.

Scully, Richard. 2013. “William Henry Boucher (1837-1906):  Illustrator and Judy Cartoonist.” Victorian Periodicals Review 46 (4): 441-474.

Scully, Richard. 2018. Eminent Victorian Cartoonists. 3 volumes. London:  The Political Cartoon Society.

Smolderen, Thierry. 2014. The Origins of Comics:  From William Hogarth to Winsor McCay. Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen (trans.). Jackson:  University Press of Mississippi.

Spielmann, M. H. 1895. The History of “Punch.” London:  Cassell & Co.





1 My appraisal of the evolution of the field is paraphrased (if not plagiarised, unashamedly!) from Roger Sabin’s joyful editors’ preface to Palgrave’s “Studies in Comics and Graphic Novels” series.

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