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William Hogarth's A Harlot's Progress: the beginnings of a purely pictographic sequential language

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There have been numerous attempts to draw attention to the role of William Hogarth in the history of sequential art. Scott McCloud has cited Hogarth as one of the precursors of pictographic narratives, and Robert Crumb acknowledged the influence that the English engraver and painter has had in his work. But in spite of constant homage, it still remains unclear in which ways the language of comics is indebted to the narrative techniques Hogarth applied in sequential groups of engravings such as A Harlot's Progress, The Rake's Progress, Marriage -la-Mode or Industry and Idleness.

Hogarth's scholars have thoroughly studied the aesthetic aspects of his work but generally dismissed its sequential devices, with the fortunate exception of David Kunzle, who placed Hogarth's sequential prints in the much wider context of the European broadsheet and the narrative strip. The purpose of this article is to analyse in a systematic manner Hogarth's sequential devices using his first long narration, A Harlot's Progress (1732), as a paradigm of his narrative style. It will use C. S. Peirce's terminology to distinguish between two types of pictographic signs: symbols, which are systematically inserted in the dramatic setting in order to give metaphoric clues to the personality and background of the characters; and indexes, which function in a metonymic manner as causal clues to the events not depicted in the image. This distinction will allow us to defend our central thesis in this article: these two types of visual signs, metaphoric and metonymic, which allowed Hogarth to evoke unrepresented events in the blank space between images, are the starting point of a purely pictographic sequential language that, after undergoing many transformations, eventually led to what we call comics today.

Keywords: A Harlot's Progress; William Hogarth; broadsheet; engraving; sequential art

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Universidad Autnoma de Madrid.

Publication date: April 1, 2010

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  • Studies in Comics aims to describe the nature of comics, to identify the medium as a distinct art form, and to address the medium's formal properties. The emerging field of comics studies is a model for interdisciplinary research and in this spirit this journal welcomes all approaches. This journal is international in scope and provides an inclusive space in which researchers from all backgrounds can present new thinking on comics to a global audience. The journal will promote the close analysis of the comics page/text using a variety of methodologies. Its specific goal, however, is to expand the relationship between comics and theory and to articulate a "theory of comics". The journal also includes reviews of new comics, criticism, and exhibitions, and a dedicated online space for cutting-edge and emergent creative work. 
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