Art review: Comic Invention | The Dead Teach The Living

As a visual medium, comics are ripe for display in a gallery, but while intriguing, this look at their history is also somewhat mystifying
Sha Nazir's Two Hipsters in the CarSha Nazir's Two Hipsters in the Car
Sha Nazir's Two Hipsters in the Car

What is a comic? After exploring a good many options, Comic Invention comes up with this: it is a pictorial narrative told in a sequence of pictures with words integrated with the images. As the exhibition also reveals, however, from earliest times this combination has had a great many different manifestations. There are examples here from an ancient Egyptian stele through medieval manuscripts down to the Renaissance and beyond.

Comic Invention | Rating: **** | The Hunterian, Glasgow

William Hunter to Damien Hirst: The Dead Teach the Living | Rating: *** | The Hunterian, Glasgow

William Hogarth's A Harlots Progress, Plate 2William Hogarth's A Harlots Progress, Plate 2
William Hogarth's A Harlots Progress, Plate 2
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At least one example, the vivid illuminations in a unique 15th-century manuscript, Les Cents Nouvelles, is also very close to the modern idea of the comic; the illuminations show the comedy of ordinary life. Travellers arrive at an inn, then, in a sequence suggesting adjacent rooms, they indulge in some lively, Chaucerian bed-hopping. In another sequence, a doctor administers an enema and its consequences are graphically displayed in the next picture.

An illuminated manuscript is a one-off, however, and one further distinctive feature of the comic which the exhibition identifies is that, as well as combining words and images, it should also enjoy mass circulation. It is this wider definition that allows the exhibition to reveal its scoop: the claim that the earliest known true comic was The Glasgow Looking Glass, published in Glasgow in 1825, and that it displaces a strip cartoon called M Jabot designed by Rodolphe Topfer in 1833 and published in 1835, the previous candidate for first comic. The Glasgow Looking Glass ran to 19 numbers and apparently enjoyed considerable success. As it circulated more widely, it changed its name to The Northern Looking Glass. It was sunk eventually, it seems, not by simple commercial failure, but by the debts and drinking habits of its principal inventor, William Heath, who was joined in his pioneering comic enterprise by John Watson and Thomas Hopkirk. A satirical cartoonist in London, Heath had left that city for Glasgow, no doubt for much the same reasons as he eventually left Glasgow.

The Glasgow Looking Glass is rather a splendid production. It appears to be printed lithographically, but also to be hand-coloured. The invention of lithography was the key to large volume illustrated printing, but hand-colouring is the opposite and it cannot have been the case that every copy was actually coloured in this way. Half the front page of issue number one is taken up with a prospectus. Entirely visual, it has the format of a Last Judgment, a vertical wall of tumbling figures, but also interspersed with vignettes of the modern world. The king, larger than the rest, and placed on the central axis, no doubt deliberately takes the usual place of Christ in the Last Judgment.

Judgment is implicit, therefore, and the satirical intention clear. It really will be a looking glass in which we can see ourselves in all our folly and pretension. On succeeding pages is a series of equally satirical comic cartoons. They do not, as far as I can see, compose a sequential narrative of words and pictures. There is no doubt this was a visual publication, but on this evidence at least it is more like Punch, first published in 1840, than a strip cartoon comic. Punch itself took inspiration not only from the Looking Glass, but also from another Glasgow publication, also called Punch. Punch became established and survived more than a century, but though comic in intention, it was never a comic.

William Hogarth's A Harlots Progress, Plate 2William Hogarth's A Harlots Progress, Plate 2
William Hogarth's A Harlots Progress, Plate 2

Low down in the Looking Glass’s splendid visual prospectus, a man pushes a wheelbarrow laden with newspaper titles “to be sold, cheap, cheap”. This pays direct tribute to Hogarth. In his print Masquerades and Operas, which satirised the state of the modern theatre, a man pushes a wheelbarrow laden with the works of Shakespeare and other great playwrights to be sold as waste paper. William Heath’s Looking Glass will displace the daily papers.

Hogarth is a massive presence wherever you look in the history of comics. His art was comic in the sense that it was funny, but also in the older sense of the word, it reflected the comedy or theatre of ordinary life. Appropriately, the first of his dramatic narrative series, A Harlot’s Progress, is displayed here. Not in this one, but in his later series, Hogarth combined words with the pictures and also created his prints for mass circulation; the paintings were merely a by-product of the engravings. Thus he deliberately bypassed the art market, the connoisseurs whom he heartily despised, to reach a wider public. And this he did. His influence was huge and not just on the fledgling modern comic. The great caricaturists like Rowlandson, richly displayed here, followed Hogarth directly, though he hated to be called a caricaturist himself. Artists as diverse as Goya and Wilkie were also inspired by him and he was a primary inspiration for Charles Dickens. Straddling art, literature and popular culture, he really is the father of the comic.

But the story of comics is also reflected in more modern art and so in a second part, the exhibition studies the feedback from comics into art through Pop Art. The pioneer here was Eduardo Paolozzi, who took inspiration from the comics he had collected as a boy for the key idea which drove Pop thereafter: all the images we make are meaningful. Setting fine art apart from the rest vastly diminishes our visual wealth. So here are Paolozzi, Warhol, Lichtenstein and other modern giants who recycled popular – and comic – imagery back into art, though Paolozzi himself might have been more aptly represented by his collages than by a bronze head, however good it is.

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One subtext of this show is that comics, or as some of the more ambitious are called rather earnestly, “graphic novels,” have become big, academic business. Called “bandes dessinées”, they have been that way in France for some time and have a much wider following there than they have ever had in the English-speaking world. You can easily imagine how their place in popular culture and their hybrid nature would be a juicy topic for French structuralist criticism.

There is a hint of that here. An exhibition of the work of Glasgow comic artist Frank Quitely – the pseudonym for Vincent Deighan – runs in parallel with the rest of the show, constantly proposing comparisons between his work and the historical examples.

I am not sure that he deserves this honour, but the earnest treatment he is given suggests the French approach is gaining currency here. You couldn’t really apply it to Oor Wullie, the Broons or Desperate Dan and so, sadly, they are absent from what is in consequence a slightly mystifying show.

Also at the Hunterian, in William Hunter to Damien Hirst: the Dead Teach the Living, Hirst is paired with the museum’s founder, the great surgeon, William Hunter. The proposed link appears to be a common interest in medicine. If that is so, whereas Hunter’s life-size, three-dimensional model of a gravid uterus may be gruesome, it is not the product of a macabre imagination, but a tool of scientific inquiry. Hirst’s interest in medicine, however, as it is seen in his Necromancer, for instance – a vitrine filled with obstetric instruments and other things – just demonstrates a macabre interest in such matters. It belongs in the realm of horror films, or rather, in light of the above, of horror comics.

• Comic Invention until 17 July; William Hunter to Damien Hirst until 5 March 2017

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