Know Thy History: The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck

A while ago, I did a Know Thy History where I said, “Ally Sloper is the first comic character! Robble robble robble!” It turns out that this may not be the case. While Ally may have claim to being the first comic-based merchandising phenomenon, he’s not the first comic character. A commenter piped up and mentioned Max and Moritz, German characters who have their origins in 1865.

Now to up the ante. I’m talking early 1800’s, son! Rudolphe Töpffer’s The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck (a.k.a. Histoire de M. Vieux Bois) is a Swiss publication which some consider to be the world’s first comic book. A full version can be browsed at the Dartmouth College Library site.

There are those who would even say it’s the first graphic novel. I wouldn’t go that far; I mean, it’s hard enough making the distinction between Oldbuck and, say, the decidedly non-comic Little Golden Books. However, comic historian Don Markstein argues, “… the pictures carried relatively little of the narrative load — a bare bones version of the story can be understood from the short captions alone, tho the pictures did add a great deal to the humor. But it did tell a story in picture format, even if the story was a little on the thin side….”

Töpffer was a Geneva-born caricaturist who recorded satirical views of 19th century society. He painted landscapes and wrote short stories. He started working on Oldbuck as early as 1827. He described his comic as being aimed for the children and lower classes … which means, after 174 years, comics are still being targeted toward the same two audiences! (I kid, I kid, you lovable lower class comic book readers you.) This didn’t go well with critics, by the way, who panned his caricatures as low brow entertainment. Oh, if only our forefathers had lived to see Jersey Shore.

Oldbuck was published as early as 1837 and became available in may European countries. The English version became available in 1841, and the comic appeared in a New York newspaper called Brother Johnathan a year later. (The newspaper, incidentally, was named after a popular pre-Uncle Sam national figure. Interesting that it would serialize a Swiss import by way of Great Britain.) If we consider Oldbuck to be the first comic book, then it would also be the first comic book published in the US as well. Take that, Action Comics #1!

So, who is Obadiah Oldbuck? He’s about a man trying to win the hand of his lady love, who is, shall we say politely, rather big boned. But that’s OK, ‘cuz Oldbuck likes ’em real thick and juicy. There’s even a plot where the lady love actually loses a lot of her weight. So Oldbuck takes a side job so he can fatten up his lady love (presumably putting her on a diet of red beans and rice). Needless to say, boy wants a piece of that bubble.

I have no idea, by the way, if this is the version of the fat joke in the 1830’s. The lady love isn’t drawn unattractively (in fact, she’s sorta shrewish in her thin form), and for all I know the Rubenesque woman was still the rage.

Anyway, things go wrong, Obadiah gets separated from his lady love. In despair, he attempts (and fails) to commit suicide. This happens five or six times in the comic, so I’m assuming this was comedy gold back in the Age of Enlightenment.

Commoner #1: Hey, brah, did you read Obadiah Oldbuck?
Commoner #2: Oh, hells yeah! Did you see that part where he tried to hang himself?
Commoner #1: FOR REAL!!! And how about the part where he screwed up death by drowning?
Commoner #2: Oh my God! So good! Ima pee in my pants just thinking about it! As is, I’ll pee on that wall over there, since public sewage won’t come to this town for another 70 years or so.

Anyway, it’s like the fates conspire to keep him away from his lady love. He gets dueled by a rival suitor, jumped by highwaymen, forced into a vow of celibacy by malicious monks, mistaken for dead, gets chased by the police, and sentenced to execution by burning. Soooo… it’s basically the plot of Friday After Next. Hold on… did I suggest that Eddie Griffin would be the perfect Obadiah Oldbuck in a modern day remake? I think I just did!

Anyway, Obadiah eventually overcomes all of his trials and tribulations. Eventually gets the girl at the end, hopefully to live happily ever after to raise well-adjusted, non-suicidal children.

It should be noted that Obadiah Oldbuck was a pioneer in ass jokes. Whether it be drinking some nasty ass milk…

… or, you know, just dragging his ass. I’m aware that “ass” here refers to the donkey, but c’mon… this is a comic that finds humor in failed suicides and outsmarting a bunch of murderous, celibacy-happy monks. You get your jollies wherever you can find ’em. I mean, I’m sure that was hilarious way back when Catholic liberals and Ultramontanists of the Sonderbond were fighting over the establishment of a Swiss Archbishopric, but it’s sorta weaksauce now.


About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

Posted on March 22, 2011, in comics, Know Thy History, The Webcomic Overlook. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Trying to figure out the “first comic book” is always a tricky exercise, because as you go back in history you get more and more things that are sort of like modern comics and sort of not. And most people nowadays follow Scott McCloud’s lead on defining comics as pretty much any kind of sequential art, so you start to define the Bayeux Tapestry as an early comic strip.

    That said, if we want to identify the earliest comic strip published in America, I can beat this Töpffer fellow by more then a thousand years.

    Behold! This Mayan vase, identified by the Kerr Number 1398 and popularly known as the Regal Rabbit Vase, or the Rabbit pot, was dedicated to K’ahk’ Tiliw Chan Chaahk, a ruler of Naranja who lived from 693CE to 728CE. It is one of the earliest comic strips I am aware of, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen it addressed by comics historians.

    This is kind of unfortunate, because unlike the Bayeux Tapestry, this vase contains all of the elements we associate with modern comics: It has two panels, divided by borders, the transition between the panels involves time elapsing and the characters moving to new points in space, and there are even speech balloons!

    See those whispy strands coming out of the mouths of the various figures? Those are connected to first person speech. So, in the panel on the right, the strand connected to the guy kneeling on the ground goes up to Mayan writing which translates to something like, “That rabbit has stolen my clothes and my emblems!”

    I don’t really know what the story is here, but the rightmost panel is apparently the first one. Somehow this wacky rabbit has stolen all of this poor fellow’s things, including the clothes off his back. According to recent research, when he asks for his stuff back, the rabbit says something like, “Bend over and smell your own ass, you cock!”

    At this point, in panel two, the man (Actually a merchant god whose name has been lost to the mists of time, so Mayanists call him “God L”) decides to take things to a higher authority, so he goes to the sun god and says something like “That rabbit has taken my clothes and my emblems”. The fact that the rabbit is hiding behind the sun god suggests that the sun god isn’t going to be very helpful!

    Like I say, this vase fascinates me, because unlike, say, Töpffer’s book, this does in fact have every single one of the ingredients of a modern comic strip. I mean, you could quibble and say that the panel borders aren’t quite right because they’re made of words, and the speech bubbles are missing the bubble part, but basically this is a two panel comic strip in the way we moderns think of it. And like I say, it’s much closer to the modern form then much later European work.

    And nobody knows about it! I’ve never met another comics person who has heard of it (In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud has an example of mesoamerican comics, but it’s from the much less modern Codex Nutall), and there’s almost no popular level literature about it from the Mayanist side of things. It’s all advanced papers about what the writing here can teach us about the classic mayan use of antipassives. I’ve yet to find a paper that has an actual, readable by the layman translation of the whole text. I suspect the people decoding this vase don’t know or care about the history of comics.

    Anyway, sorry to type so much, but I’ve got to spread the word.

    PS, I hope I didn’t fuck up the anchor tags.

    • Thanks! I don’t know if I’l ever cover vase artwork in this series (it seems too much of a departure from what I’m trying to cover), but it is interesting! I especially like the art, which really does look like something you’d find in a funny-animal comic these days.

  2. Wow… just read through that whole book. I think this is brilliant. Really funny stuff, even over 150 years later.

  3. This is fascinating stuff! Love your “Know Thy History”!

  4. I am now not certain where you’re getting your info, however good topic.
    I needs to spend a while learning much more or working out more.
    Thanks for magnificent information I was in search of this information for my mission.

  1. Pingback: 10 Oldest Pieces of Art of Their Kind – Buzzle

  2. Pingback: 10 Oldest Pieces of Art of Their Kind | Buzzle

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