All Roads Lead to the Present

A few years ago I wrote a doomed but sort of fun column over at The Oxford American called “Panel Busting.” One installment looked at a few nineteenth-century cartoons and their relationship to the development of early cinema and since then I’ve been picking up copies when I come across them of such illustrations/cartoons/comics. The one below is from a July 1870 copy Every Saturday, a short-lived periodical. I’ve scanned the full page (14” x 10.5″) as well as higher-resolution segment.



Depicting the time leading up to and the time immediately after Fourth of July antics what’s interesting is the non-linear portrayal of these frozen moments.  The highlight of the evening is centered on the page, surrounded by moments from the day beginning with “The Day Begins” (upper left panel) and ending with “Played Out” (lower center panel). But the moments in between seem undirected–the reader doesn’t seem to be visually directed to look at/read the panels in any particular order. Reading from clockwise from upper left doesn’t make any sense, and neither does reading (as we would today in “comic strips”) sequentially from left to right starting at the top left panel and ending at the bottom right panel, as if reading prose.

What is the relationship between cartoons and early cinema during this era? In what ways did cartoons become increasingly sequential as a result of the inescapable linearity of cinema? For no matter how “out of sequence” a film’s depiction of narrative is–whether through flashbacks or parallel editing or dream sequences–it still unfolds on the screen and is perceived by the viewer as a sequence. Until the advent of home viewing technologies it really wasn’t possible for an audience to experience a film except as a sequence of images whose duration was the length of the film. This is radically different, say, than experience the Fourth of July illustration, which a viewer could choose to read in any sequence she wanted, and which could last for seconds, minutes, or hours, or as long as wanted it to last.

Will Eisner touches on this a little bit in his great book Comics and Sequential Art, and there’s a good discussion of the relationship between simultaneity and early film editing, such as parallel editing or cross-cutting, in Stephen Kern’s book The Culture of Time and Space: 1880-1918, as well as in Charles Musser’s The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907, where he writes about those years before the emergence of parallel editing: “One of pre-1907 cinema’s most distinctive features was its nonlinear temporality in the arrangement of scenes.” (And behind all this lies Deleuze, laughing.) I don’t think there’s a grand unifying theory here, but rather a vast and untapped collection of moments in time, lost illustrations/cartoons/comics that speak in cryptic ways about our efforts to forget, as Chris Ware says, that “all roads lead to the present.”

ware1Above, from Chris Ware, The ACME Novelty Library, Number 20. Drawn & Quarterly Publications, 2010


About Nicholas

Writer. Professor.
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