World’s first comic book from Glasgow in spotlight

FIRST published in 1825, it helped spawn everything from Our Wullie’s bucket to Batman’s cape and cowl.

An illustration from the Glasgow Looking Glass which poked fun at the fashions and politics of the early 19th century. The publication is seen as the worlds first comic book. Picture: University of Glasgow/PA

Now, the origins and impact of the world’s first comic book – which was written in and inspired by Glasgow – will come under the spotlight at a major literary conference.

Leading academics are meeting in Scotland this week where they will be urged to give the Glasgow Looking Glass the international recognition it deserves.

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Event organiser Dr Laurence Grove, director of the Stirling Maxwell Centre at Glasgow University, said that while illustrations have been used for centuries to tell stories, the Glasgow Looking Glass was the first to be mass produced.

Tens of thousands of copies, up to 100,000, were distributed to the drinking houses and other properties around Glasgow and then beyond, explained Dr Grove.

Conceived and illustrated by draughtsman William Heath, the fortnightly publication changed its name to the Northern Looking Glass after five issues, to reflect a more national character.

The broadsheet was lavishly illustrated with Heath depicting and commenting on current news at home and abroad.

His illustrations provided snapshots of the appearance of the city as well as the prevailing affectations, fashions, politics and eccentricities at all levels of Glasgow society. The comic also pioneered the use of “To Be 
Continued” – the sign of a bona fide comic strip according to 
experts – and it introduced “word balloons” to the literary canon.

Heath’s irreverent view of Glasgow and its people perhaps did not endear him to the city and he left for London in 1826 – just months after the comic first launched.

The first page of the first edition include a mixture of pictures – everything from the legs and posterior of George IV to an Irish peasant, a Scot in Highland dress and a cat escaping from a bag.

It also showed the latest fashions from June 1825 – most exaggerated with frills, bows and hats – as well as an image of an Egyptian sarcophagus from the city’s Hunterian Museum.

Dr Grove said: “It comes out of Glasgow as a fun place, then as now – it’s accessible and affordable and the creative base is here.

“It’s the same as why Glasgow keeps producing Turner Prize winners. Glasgow does it really well. Glasgow tells stories – it’s one big storybook.”

The comic will take centre stage at the International Graphic Novel and International Bande Dessinee Society joint conference 2013 at Glasgow University, which starts today.

Experts believe the Glasgow Looking Glass predates all other known modern comics.

Many say it led the way in the creation of modern day comics which use humour and satire. But they say the publication has yet to be given the credit it deserves.

The comic was published by John Watson, one of Glasgow’s early lithographic printers. The final copy appeared on 3 April, 1826.

The copies held in Glasgow University Library’s Special Collections are understood to have been hand-coloured.