The Early Comic Strip Archive: Part One

I’ve been trying to come up with a project that would be well-suited to Omeka. I want to learn to use it, want to give myself practice with it, play with the insides, see what I can do with it. I think I’ve come up with a decent idea.

I’m thinking about creating a digital archive of early newspaper comic strips.

Why Comic Strips?

A personal anecdote, before you dismiss the concept as purely self-indulgent: comics were what made me interested in history in the first place. I was a very visual kid. I loved drawing. And my hometown library had a decent collection of comics. But not too many of my favorites. After reading all the Garfield and Peanuts books in their collection, I started branching out. The library had a lot of “The year’s best editorial cartoons” collections. I started picking them up for the art. I kept reading them for the history. It was a unique window into times and topics I didn’t know too much about. The editorial cartoons led me to Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury and Walt Kelly’s Pogo. To this day, my view of the political history of the twentieth century is shaped, in part, by political cartoons.

Comics are a fascinating cultural artifact. They can give a lot of insight into a time. And they’re a good inroad into history for students who may otherwise be resistant. They add a visual element, humor, and a window into how ideas and events were being received within popular culture. They don’t give a single view– reading a comics page from, say, 1911 can give you a great insight into the debates of the time.

Because of my lifelong interest in comics, I decided to do a seminar paper a few years back on the ethnic and racial images in early Hearst newspapers’ comics pages. I found a surprising heterogeneity of topics, portrayals, and ideas. In the years leading into the US’s involvement in WWI, I found that while Hearst demanded his editors toe a party line of German sympathy and non-intervention, the comics page of the New York Journal was actually the site of a rather lively debate. Some strips came down firmly for intervention, and mocked neutrality. Others were firmly opposed to American involvement in a European war, strongly advocating isolationism. While Hearst is famous for supporting his cartoonists, he apparently also felt they were unimportant enough to be allowed a greater degree of freedom than many of his prose journalists.

Whether you trace ethnic images, political debates, class sympathies– the early comics page was one of the most multivocal sites in the newspaper business. And they drew readers. People sometimes picked their newspaper based on the inclusion of their favorite comic, just as others might choose to read a paper because it sympathized with their political beliefs.

And best of all, these early strips, from 1895-1932, are in the public domain.

Part Two: Why a Database?

4 replies on “The Early Comic Strip Archive: Part One”

Long-time lurker checking in. I think this is a pretty great idea for an Omeka project. I’ve been looking forward to seeing how individuals (as opposed to institutions) will use Omeka. The main problem I foresee is that Omeka favors a lot of visual media and many individuals don’t have enough non-textual material to make an interesting project. I think you’re on to something here, though. John Dower’s _War With Mercy_ really opened my eyes to the usefulness of comic strips as historical documents and I’m looking forward to learning more about earlier papers and their strips.

It occurs to me now that Dower actually used editorial cartoons which are slightly different than actual comic strips, but nevertheless your project sounds interesting.

I’m surprised and elated to even have lurkers!

I haven’t encountered Dower’s book, but I’ll definitely check it out. Editorial cartoons have really gotten a lot more scholarly attention than comic strips– yet another reason why I think getting a project like this under way could be a good idea.

Interestingly, when I was doing my Hearst research, I discovered that, before the comics in that paper had their own dedicated page, they were actually spread out over three pages– the Sports Page, the Womens’ Page, and the penultimate page of the paper, which they shared with editorials.

So historically speaking, the line in the sand between the two may be a bit more illusory than one might expect.

Omeka doesn’t have to be exclusively (or even primarily) visual, although it is a danger, depending on who’s using it. Keep an eye out for our (CHNM’s) Bracero Archive project, due to launch one of these days (don’t have the calendar in front of me…) When everything’s up, it will contain documents (both facsimile and transcribed), photographs, and sound files of oral histories, which will also be both transcribed and translated into English.

It’s an ambitious project that seems to be coming along nicely. The oral histories are very powerful– even to someone like me, with relatively weak Spanish skills. Just the ability to hear the voices of these people, see their pictures, look through their paperwork…

I think it will show how well sound files can be incorporated into an Omeka site. I don’t think we have any video, though… But Omeka should be able to handle it if it did– we have a couple dozen videos up on the Mozilla Digital Memory Bank, which wasn’t made with Omeka, but with something that might be described as Omeka’s older cousin.

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