How comic timing was a gift from Glasgow

GLASGOW: home of the River Clyde, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and… the comic book. The origins of the billion-dollar comic book industry have been traced back to a Glasgow publication from the early 19th century.

• William Heath's cartoon from 1826 entitled My House In Town gives a humorous cross-section of society

The Glasgow Looking Glass, first published in 1825, helped to spawn everything from Our Wullie's bucket to Batman's cape and cowl, according to a new documentary, Scotland's Amazing Comic Book Heroes, to be broadcast later this year.

Not only did the The Looking Glass, founded by John Watson, pioneer the use of "To Be Continued" - the sign of a comic strip according to experts - it also introduced "word balloons" to the literary canon.

The documentary, which examines how so many contemporary Scottish cartoonists, such as Mark Millar, Grant Morrison and the artist Frank Quitely, became some of the biggest names in American comics, says the genesis of one of the world's most popular art forms is hidden in files in the city's Mitchell Library.

John MacLaverty, producer and director of the programme, said: "I think Glasgow's role in the invention of the comic book should be much better known. There should be a tourist industry around it. Glasgow has a long history of literary innovation and this is one of the earliest cases."

In the documentary, John McShane, who founded AKA Books & Comics in Glasgow, one of the cradles of Scotland's comic boom and once a popular haunt of Millar and Morrison, said: "John Watson was the originator of what is the first regular comic magazine in the world. It's time for a plaque to one of Glasgow's greatest sons."

The idea that The Glasgow Looking Glass has a case to be regarded as the world's first comic had the support of the late Denis Gifford, an esteemed historian of comic books.

The first issue, which was fortnightly, was produced on 11 June 1825, 16 years before another contender for the title 'father' of comic books, Punch, was published in London. While America may have given the superhero to the world, the country's earliest cartoon publication was The Monthly Sheet of Caricatures in 1830. Watson was employed at the time by Thomas Hopkirk, a Justice of the Peace from Dalbeath who owned a lithographic press and ran a printing business in Glasgow.

The words "to be continued" first appeared in issue number two, published on 25 June, 1825. The first artist to use these words and link them into a comic strip was William Heath, whose story Life Of A Soldier appeared in issue number ten. He was born in London in 1785, but, heavily in debt, fled to Glasgow where he frequented a drinking establishment called The Cheap and Nasty Club. There, he met Hopkirk, and suggested they work together. By issue 13 The Looking Glass, now renamed The Northern Looking Glass and extending its circulation to Edinburgh, had introduced word balloons. In issue 20, the comic strip My House In Town had 20 panels and resembled The Broons or Our Wullie.

The Looking Glass eventually folded in June, 1826. According to a letter in the Mitchell Library, Heath left Glasgow two years later. The letter said Heath had found "little encouragement in Glasgow" and "left that city and removed to London in 1828, where he is now the most popular caricaturist of the present day".

A second letter by Dawson Turner, an art collector at the time said of Heath: "He is a person of extraordinary talents; but, unfortunately, talents especially of that kind and 'prudent, cautious self-control' do not always go together: Hence, poor Heath has continually been in difficulties. It was on account of debt that he was obliged to quit Glasgow."

In London, Heath re-launched the publication, declaring on the debut issue, published on 1 January, "Drawn and Etched by William Heath - Author of The Northern Looking Glass - Paul Prys Caricatures - and various humorous works." The new version lasted just six months. Heath died in 1840, aged 55.

Millar, who Time magazine named global comic book writer of the decade and who created the comic book on which the hit film Kick-Ass was based, said he was delighted that Glasgow was so influential in the creation of the art form.

He said: "I have to point out that I'm a proud Coatbridge guy and not actually a Glaswegian. But Glasgow is my adopted home and if the comic book really did start here it pleases me no end. It's something I can lord over all the American writers and artists I work with, along with the phone, the television, penicillin and Tarmac. It also explains why there's such a disproportionate number of comic book creators from Scotland with Glaswegians producing all the biggest books for Marvel and DC in New York. I guess it's in our blood."