It is widely assumed that the American comic strip “begins” in the 1890s with the multipanel sequences appearing in Sunday newspapers. This essay challenges this periodization by looking to an archive of humor magazines from the 1850s and 60s. As early as 1852, artists including Frank Bellew, John McLenan, and Augustus Hoppin experimented with the multipanel sequences they encountered in the Francophone “picture story.” However, rather than replicating the Francophone genre, these artists sought to adapt it in ways that conveyed the rhythms and cadences of everyday American life. What emerges from this study is a newly coherent picture of recurring forms, conventions, and themes that constitute a distinctively American style of comic strip. From one perspective, this is a record of visual conventions that would dominate twentieth- and twenty-first-century comics. But it is also a history of visual languages that failed to take hold—lost literacies and potential trajectories in American comics.

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