I figured it would take up too much of William Hogarth’s profile to show you his full sequential work, but I then thought it would be a real shame not to share with you the great work of one of the first modern sequential storytellers (and really, one of the best – wait until you see how good Hogarth was at telling a story through sequential art in the mid-18th century!).
So here you go, historical precursors to today’s comic books: William Hogarth’s three most famous sequential stories – A Harlot’s Progress, A Rake’s Progress and (my favorite) Marriage A la Mode.
What’s most amazing about A Harlot’s Progress is that it was not originally intended AS a sequential story. Hogarth was painting what would turn out to be the third painting in the series, which was simply a painting of a prostitute when he thought it would be interesting to follow the story of this woman – how did she get here? What happened to her after this painting? So Hogarth began creating the story. He painted a six-part set and then proceeded to make engraved prints of the paintings and sold them directly to the public.
The initial print run of about 1,200 sets of the print sold for a Guinea per set. Soon, unauthorized copies of the set were being sold, leading to Hogarth requesting (and receiving) an Act of Parliament to ban the practice.
Okay, I’ll be showing the prints along with an explanation for each section. Do note that much like Alan Moore’s stories, Hogarth’s prints contain a LOT more information beyond the basic plot that I’m delivering to you – if you’re interested, you can examine each part very closely and see a lot of interesting information (for instance, the walls of Hogarth’s pieces are always filled with paintings and trinkets that directly relate to the story). I, however, am just going to be giving you the basic plot.
1731’s A Harlot’s Progress
We open with a young woman (Hogarth named her Moll Hackabout, after Moll Flanders and a famous prostitute, Kate Hackabout, who was arrested the previous year) coming into the city from the country. An old woman praises her beauty and suggests a way she could make some money – becoming a kept woman.
Now, we see Moll has become a kept woman, however, she is two-timing her rich patron with another man, who we see sneaking out of the room.
The whole “cheating on the guy supporting you” thing did not work out for Moll, and now she is just a common prostitute.
We next see her in prison, beating out the hemp for a hangman’s noose.
Next, Moll is dying of syphilis.
Finally, Moll is dead at the age of 23.
Admittedly, while Hogarth tells the story well, it’s a pretty simplistic little tale. He’d improve!
1735’s A Rake’s Progress
This is our introduction to Tom Rakewell, whose father has just died, making Tom quite wealthy. Here we see the servants are depressed while Tom is fitted for new clothes. One servant who is particularly upset is the maid, Sarah Young, who although she is pregnant with Tom’s child, now that he is rich, he is no longer going to marry her (note the ring in her hand).
Here, Tom is immersing himself in London society.
Now fully immersed in society, Tom is hanging out at a brothel getting wasted, while the hookers are stealing his watch.
In a rather sad little scene, Tom is about to be sent to debtor’s prison, but Sarah Young shows up to help him elude capture.
Tom repays Sarah by marrying a rich old hag to pay off his debts. Note Sarah looking despondent in the background with her child, while her mother has to be forcibly restrained from going after Tom. GREAT piece by Hogarth.
Tom is pleading with the Heavenly Father to help him, as he has gambled away his money once again.
Now, in debtor’s prison, Tom is slowly going insane.
Finally driven completely mad, Tom has ended up in the infamous Bethlehem Hospital for the insane (known as Bedlam), which is where he will end his life. Tragically (for her), Sarah Young is still there, willing to take care of him.
A stronger story, but the best is yet to come!
Up until now, Hogarth has settled for spotlighting the foolishness of the “regular” classes, but in this next series, he turns his eyes on the nobles, as well.
1743-1745’s Marriage A la mode
We see here the rather business-like arrangement between a bankrupt Earl and a rich merchant who wishes to marry his daughter (and thus, his family) into royalty. The Earl’s son seems like he could really care less, while the daughter of the merchant is so distraught that she needs to be consoled by the family lawyer.
In this second piece, we see the marriage is already in shambles as both the husband and the wife are exhausted from their separate partying ways – she is just back from a card party, he likely has just returned from a trip to the brothel. Their servant throws his arms up in disgust at them (where they can’t see him doing it, of course).
Here, the husband is visiting a doctor for help with the venereal disease he and his young mistress have contracted. The young girl is there with an old woman – could that seriously be her mom?
The Earl is now dead, making his son the new Earl and his wife a Countess. Here, she holds court while she flirts with the family lawyer, who invites her to a masquerade ball.
In a striking piece of sequential storytelling, Hogarth depicts the after-effects of a duel. The lawyer and the Countess have retired to the 1745 equivalent of a seedy motel room after the ball and the young Earl has discovered them, challenged him to a duel and has been fatally wounded by the lawyer, who is now escaping out the window as the Countess begs for forgiveness as her husband dies. Brilliantly done – all that information conveyed without showing any of it.
The final part is also brilliantly done, as Hogarth gets in SOOOO much information in one drawing. As seen by the newspaper, the lawyer has been put to death for the murder of the Earl, and the Countess has now killed herself with poison (the empty bottle lies on the floor). Her father attempts to take her ring off her finger before rigor mortis sets in, for any property worn by one who has killed his or herself was considered forfeit. The woman’s young child clings to her dead mother, and on the girl we see signs that she has inherited her father’s venereal disease. Meanwhile, and here’s the kicker – since both parents are dead and the only child is a girl, due to the law of male descent, the merchant’s family will not even inherit the title!
So the Earl and the merchant’s bargain ruined their children’s lives and in the end, they had nothing to show for it – the Earl’s family name is ruined and the merchant gained nothing except a diseased granddaughter.
What a brutal, yet brilliant, piece of work by Hogarth. In a shock to Hogarth, the public was not happy with this series, despite eating up his first two series. He did sketches for a sequel to this series titled “A Happy Marriage,” but never got around to actually finishing it, mostly because he felt the topic did not have much room for satire.
So there you go, one of the earliest sequential artists, William Hogarth.
I hope you enjoyed this foray into comic book history!
Images courtesy of this neat German site.