This one-page cartoon from Gasoline Alley, by Frank O. King, is an early masterwork of comic art that demonstrates what a multi-paneled sequence is all about—building a symbolic house for multifarious identities.
We should acknowledge that there is something like ‘comic art’, while also acknowledging that this has not always been the case, but it seems very difficult to know exactly when and why it was born. It is even unclear whether it was really born at all. Unlike photography or film, its first historical appearance was not directly related to some technical invention, even if the introduction of new methods of typesetting and printing, such as the rotary press, do explain the proliferation of comic strips reproduced in American, European, and Japanese newspapers at the end of the nineteenth century. Because we are used to recognizing as true revolutions in the history of representations only those propelled by the conception of new technical objects, it is much easier to tell the story (or the myth) of the birth of photography, begining with Niepce, Daguerre, and Nadar, or of the birth of cinema, beginning with Lumière, Edison, Friese-Greene, Anschütz, or Skladanowsky. If the comic was ever something like a new art, it was one not born of a technology—unlike cinema or photography. To date its birth by identifying some specific cut in the history of science and technology is a difficult—if not impossible—task, because comic art is distinguishable by its concept, not by its medium.
Looking at this beautiful comic from 1934, the very concept of comic art seems to come into focus. It is made entirely of panels, of various small drawings containing varying shapes—let’s call each of them a ‘piece’ 1Editors note: In the original French version of this text, the author uses the term “découpe” to describe the consecutive drawings composing the panel. In French, this word refers to the act of cutting something, but also to the way an image, a silhouette, or an object distinguishes itself against a broader background. We have chosen to translate it as “pieces,” a term that encompasses both the fragmentary aspect of the image and its narrative continuity.: A piece that is not made to stand by itself, but to propel the eye of the reader out of one and into another. That being said, no picture piece outshines another: no image is ‘extinguishing’ its predecessor, as motion pictures do on the screen. These pieces both coexist and cede to one another.
Let’s summarize it as follows: Comic art is a form of representation of the world through various images or pieces that are both chained (as opposed to painted pictures) and coexistent (as opposed to motion pictures).
Obviously, what we see in this sample of Gasoline Alley is a joyful play with the piece as a basic principle of comic art. Pieces simultaneously relate to their place both within a narrative time sequence and in an instantaneous spatial picture. Here we must learn to read and see, to see and read. Faced with a comic strip such as this, neither seeing the world (seeing the whole of the building site) nor reading it (reading the story of young Skeezix and his friend Trixie in the building site) is enough. Both are necessary, even if they do remain exclusive.
While looking at this comic strip, I do not understand both children as existing twelve times. If it was simply one big image, the children should appear only once, at some specific location on the building site. But, at the same time, while reading the story from one image to the next, I cannot comprehend anymore that the frame, the carpentry of the house, exists only once. If it were so, the movements of the characters would have to become illogical. Therefore, the sequence of the pieces and the simultaneity of the whole are irreconcilable: by considering the whole thing in one way, I am no longer able to consider it the other way. We should clarify here that such a perceptive dilemma is not a figure similar to that of the well-known ‘duck/rabbit’ illusion, an ambiguous image in response to which the brain should flip between perceiving it as an image of a rabbit or a duck. In the ‘panel-page’, or ‘time sequence-spatial parts’ dilemma, my perception is always missing something: it never settles enough to be complete. If it captures a piece as a momentum of time, it does not conceive of it as a part of the whole spatial configuration of the building site anymore; if it captures the piece as a fragment of space, it does not conceive of it as being a part of a narrative sequence. I cannot perceive both at the same time—but I have to, if I want to read comics.
This could describe a perceptual position toward comic art: to double-see everything.
Still, it is not enough.
A very formal concept of comic art can only about space and time, fragment and sequence, piece and page. These are old ideas. There should something else—a sort of ‘modern-era determining factor’. How else could we understand that comic art as we know it appeared only at the end of the nineteenth century? Panels were not inconceivable before the 1890s, but Gasoline Alley, created in 1918, was one of the first decisive instances of a brand new art form. How can we explain such a late emergence for comic art, as well as its rapid and staggering development?
We are not reading or seeing Frank O. King’s images close enough, or carefully enough. We are not caring about who they are. And they are all about children. They’re playing. Comic art was born as a play for and with modern childhood.
Comic art is not only a way of cutting the world into small boxes and bigger images; it is a way of fragmenting human life into generations. And, for this reason, its historicity is linked to the modern reconception of the human life span. The reason why comic art developed at the points it did was the emergence of a new shaping of life, a new way of figuring out what a child was, when childhood began and when it ended.
When the ideal of a desired and cherished childhood spread through the Western middle classes, parents began to want to give their child a room of their own. In this room there was a bed, a toy box, a desk, maybe books; it was also a symbolically autonomous space, where the child could imagine, dream, and fantasize the world before entering it. This symbolic room became an image: the panel of a comic. It is no coincidence that Little Nemo’s mother never appears within the image. Her phylactery is bringing her word and authority from the outside. The room belongs to the child only—as does the piece to a comic strip.
If the piece is like a small room for a child’s imagination, what about the strip or the whole page? Well, this should be the house of childhood. And this is what this excerpt from Gasoline Alley is literally showing us.
The house is still under construction. In earlier Gasoline Alley episodes, there is a big hole right in the middle of the page, where the building site was being established. The frame of the house now stands in place of the hole. Horizontal and vertical lines frame a concrete foundation and are intersected by beams being erected by carpenters. The house under construction seems to merge with the architecture of the panels. Young Skeezix and Trixie are jumping on a beam. They keep on walking in the upper strip, all along the wooden beam leading to a dead end: “Don’t walk off the end.” Now, it is time to go down to the next level, moving on to strip number two. How? “Look Trixie! This is one way to come down” says Skeezix, speaking here also to the reader—indicating how we should continue reading. This smart kid is already offering commentary on the very art form in which he was born. Then, wedging themselves between two vertical beams, Skeezix challenges his friend to fall asleep in that position. Trixie answers that she would rather wait for the room to be built. It is quite moving in the context of the whole series as the two kids will get married one day and live together for years. Most significantly though, it helps to confuse the exploration of the page and of the home. The building of the house is the building of a story, the recollection of different versions of each character; it is shaping a life.
Here comes the carpenter, returning to the building site. He is a grown-up. “It looks as if the house is still here.” “Yes, sir,” the child replies, “now don’t you go an’ spoil it for us.” In other words: Please, don’t bury the memory of the house-to-be-built in the house once it is built. Don’t erase childhood with adulthood.
At a microscopic level, comic art is constantly asking the question of the identity of any object or subject from piece to piece, from moment to moment. But at a macroscopic level, it is an expression of the life transition from childhood to adolescence, and from adolescence to adulthood.
Comic art collects and recollects all the earlier versions of ourselves. We started reading comics as children; each time we re-read them (and they are made to be re-read more than to be read), comics promise to become again what we once were. They are indeed building a paper house where all the periods of one’s life could stay together—like successive images are adhering together on a single sheet of paper.
Comic art is nothing without this modern conception of age: childhood is both something that should be left behind, and something that should be retained intact. Comic art is teaching us how to be propelled out of childhood and adolescence, reading our own lives as endless in-and-out experiences, from one shape (or ‘piece’) to the next. But it is also keeping all the versions of one’s life as images coexisting in an eternal place, some kind of forever playground—a small Gasoline Alley of our own.
That’s what comics are all about: building a timeless paper house for each and every occurrence of oneself, while learning how to become one and to read oneself as a continuous story, as a life.
See these kids playing on the building site of life, from panel to panel: comics are nothing but an art of images and ages of life.