Quarterbin Follies #39: Love Lorned and Old Wood, The Very First Comic BookFebruary 1, 2021
Depending on your definition, comics have existed for centuries, but the comic book as we know it didn’t exists before the 1930’s nwith reprints of newspaper strip. But were these really the first? No, no they were not.
The honor for the first comicbook goes to a Swiss fellow who never intended to be published at all!
Back in 1827,School teacher and caricaturist Rodolphe Töpffer decided to
bribe incentivize some of his students with a book of cartoons. ‘Don’t be a pain and get your work done, and I’ll draw a page’ This lead not only to the invention of the strip–sequential cartoons put together—but he created a single-long form graphic narrative the book was originally published in 1827 in French as Histoire de Mr. Vieux Bois(Mr Old Wood). The story was later unofficially translated and published in England, and later brought to America and re-published as The Adventures of Mr. Obediah Oldbuck.
The story fleshes out like this: Olbuck is a bachelor of some means and he spies a woman who captivates him–his lady-love (‘Lovely’ was unnamed and little more than a cipher, which is somewhat regrettable, but remember that the whole piece was written to be a lark rather than a serious story). He tries to woo her through song and learning to no avail, for she wants a man of action!
Broken, pathetic Oldbuck tries to kill himself, but fails at even that; and he is rescued by some monks. Tiring of the ascetic life, Oldbuck sneaks away to reunite with his lady-love. Their elopement is interrupted by the monks, who take them both hostage. They are able to escape, but fate, her parents, the monks’s return, and even ‘Lovely’s spurned former suitor conspire to keep the lovers apart. After many adventures, Oldbuck rescues them both through his strength, tenacity, luck and wit.
I really liked Obediah Oldbuck! He was pathetic at the beginning, and I think that is part of the point. His lady-love wasn’t interested until Oldbuck really made something of himself, and not in a way to just impress her, either. Then, after Oldbuck wins the girl’s heart, he still must try (and fails) to impress her parents!
The whole nature of their relationship is certainly rooted in the times, but many of those themes were echoed in novels and comics even 100+ years later! I couldn’t help but spot parallels in Popeye and Olive Oyl’s romance in Thimble Theater, or that between Dagwood and Blondie in Blondie the Flapper. I just recently picked up Blondie: A Bumstead Family History, and that is in some ways an inverse tale to Oldbuck, as Dagwood is the one defying his parents out of his love for the poorer Blondie.
I do think it was odd how much of a joke was made of Oldbuck’s melodrama and failed suicide attempts, but it is interesting in light of modern trends. Over all, it serves to exaggerate his intrinsic weakness, a trait he grows out of throughout the story. It is very intriguing that the more Oldbuck rises to the suitor’s challenge, and the more he cares for his lady-love (not merely the possession of her) the more super-human feats he is able to perform. I also really liked how Oldbuck developed not only in physical strength, but in whit; and in the end was able to best his adversaries with both.
I think that personal development is the core of the story. Of course it is silly, but Oldbuck comes a long way in the series as a whole. While lady-love wants nothing to do with Oldbuck at the beginning, by the middle she is running away from her parents to be with him, despite the fact that they are being chased by strangely militant monks. The pair find themselves in more than a few pickles and trials, and at the end Oldbuck, the once loser, gets the better of them all. It is quite a trip, and one I enjoyed thoroughly!