The Paris Review

A Graphic Novel before the Term Existed

Pretend for a moment that there was a genetic testing kit for the modern graphic novel. The ancestry report would begin with the form’s most distant ancestors: prehistoric cave drawings, Sumerian pictograms, Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Bayeux Tapestry, Japanese Buddhist picture scrolls, and Chinese hand scrolls. After that, closer relatives would be listed, like the work of the Swiss artist Rodolphe Töpffer (1799–1846), who is credited as the creator of the first European comics, and the pioneering woodcut novels of the Belgian graphic artist Fran Masereel (1889–1972) and the American Lynd Ward (1905–1995).

Though the maternal line of the graphic novel has yet to be adequately documented, I’d imagine several books by the eminent children’s book artists Virginia Lee Burton (1909–1968) and Marie Hall Ets (1895–1984) would be noted. Burton’s Calico the Wonder Horse (1942) and Ets’s Oley the Sea Monster (1947) acknowledged and built upon the vocabulary of the comic books of their day but with greater sensitivity and subtlety of writing and design.

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