Is this 17th century collection of German criminology woodcuts one of the world’s first comic books?

Written by: Andrew Lundeen

Primary Source: The Special Collections Provenance Project at MSU

tumblr_nprhet0W6A1tq80c5o4_r1_400   tumblr_nprhet0W6A1tq80c5o8_r3_400tumblr_nprhet0W6A1tq80c5o7_r3_540 tumblr_nprhet0W6A1tq80c5o6_r3_500  tumblr_nprhet0W6A1tq80c5o5_r1_400tumblr_nprhet0W6A1tq80c5o2_r3_400tumblr_nprhet0W6A1tq80c5o9_r3_540 tumblr_nprhet0W6A1tq80c5o3_r1_540Is this 17th century collection of German criminology woodcuts one of the world’s first comic books?

The book, dated 1686, is made up of 20 or so woodcut illustrations showing the administration of criminal justice, including images of defendants before judges and scenes of punishment and torture.  All of the illustrations have been cut from roughly contemporary works on German criminology and loosely pasted on the otherwise blank leaves of this scrapbook.

Many of the scenes feature banners of text representing speech, just as word balloons are used in modern comics.  The use of banderoles like these to show the speech of illustrated characters was not uncommon in European art at the time, but this is the first example we’ve seen of a book composed entirely of illustrations and speech scrolls, without accompanying text.

The way the volume is put together is also quite interesting.  The cut-out scenes are only loosely attached to the pages, presumably to save on paste. A quick look at the book’s covers also shows a desire to be frugal: to strengthen the vellum covers, several sheets of thick paper were layered underneath.  And failing glue in one corner of the pastedown endpaper reveals another illustration hidden beneath the page.

While the work lacks the narrative structure of most comic books and graphic novels, the images are unified by a common theme, and the scrapbook does have a story to tell.  So while it may not be a true comic book in the modern sense, it is nonetheless a fascinating piece of book history and in the history of European criminology.

Speaking of comics, did you know that MSU Special Collections is home to the world’s largest collection of comic books and comic art, with over a quarter of a million volumes?


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Andrew Lundeen
Andrew Lundeen, a Special Collections Librarian at MSU, is a recent master’s graduate in Library and Information Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (‘14). Since September 2013, Andrew has spearheaded the MSU Provenance Project, an effort to document marks of ownership and marks of use in rare books at MSU.
Andrew Lundeen

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