Tricks, pranks and mischief: the birth of comic strips

Today is Wilhelm Busch’s 178th birthday. One of the most important precursors of comic strips, for forty years this multi-talented artist, painter, poet, and writer combined caricature and rhymed narration in stories. His popularity in his native Germany is such that quotations from his writings are now everyday sayings.

Caricatures were already common in the 1800s, but Busch’s genius lay in using them to tell stories, some totaling hundreds of drawings. Without a doubt, his best known work worldwide is Max und Moritz (aka Max and Maurice), the story of two rascals and the pranks they play on fellow villagers. But he wrote and illustrated a lot more.

Everyday life, kid’s pranks, animal fables, and more, these are the subjects that Busch tackled with a wit as sharp as his sense of observation. Busch’s drawings are so expressive that in many cases, you don’t need to read German to follow the stories. But having the narration is always nice and luckily, his works are available in English.

Busch influenced generations of cartoonists and animators. Go read “Der Virtuos” (“The Virtuoso”) and see how much ahead of his time he was. Look at those eyes popping out! Tex Avery would master that kind of exaggeration 80 years later, but it wasn’t invented by him. Like many modern day cartoonist, Busch subjected his characters to every form of painful and embarrassing experience you can think of: they’ve been thrown in the air, squashed flat, had things explode in their faces, and been covered in flour, coal, mud, dough and more. If it happened to your favourite cartoon character, it probably happened to a Busch character years before.

A keen sense of observation, a sharp wit and the talent to combine them to create unique works, Busch used it all and paved the way for Saturday morning cartoons and Sunday comic strips. For those who want to enjoy some more of his works, you can visit the Wilhelm Busch Museum in Hanover, Germany or simply read him online.

René Walling is a fan of SF, animation and comics, this has led him to co-chair Anticipation, the 2009 Worldcon, be involved with fps magazine for more than a decade, and start Nanopress, a Canadian small press. He looks forward to living on Mars, where he would benefit from having more than 24 hours in a day.


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