Continuing our series of American Civil War cartoons, we present — on the 150th anniversary of its first publication — The Flight of Abraham, by cartoonist John McLenan. Appearing on the rear outside page of the March 9th, 1861 issue of Harper’s Weekly, this cartoon parodies how President-Elect Abraham Lincoln (on February 21-23, 1861) snuck into Washington, D.C., evading plots to stop him from assuming the presidency. (For the true story/history behind this, listen to this February 17, 2011 broadcast of the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania local PBS radio show, Smart Talk. )
To open a larger version of the above comic strip, click on it.
Of additional interest to comic strip fans — and those engaged in the seemingly endless debate over whether the October 25th, 1896 episode of R.F. Outcault’s Yellow Kid was “the first comic strip” (I’m on the side that it absolutely was not) – the above four-panel comic strip meets the same definition used by the Yellow Kid’s proponents. That is, it must be a multi-panel cartoon story, each panel representing a part of a sequence in time, in which pictures combined with in-panel word balloons together tell a comprehensible story, which would be rendered incomprehensible if either the pictures and or the word word balloons were removed.
As to the text appearing beneath each panel, these can be removed/ignored, and the story still makes sense. If you think I am making an exception by proclaiming the text below panels to be irrelevant to the question of “comic strip-ness”, keep in mind that the October 25th, 1896 episode of Yellow Kid, also contains text beneath each panel, which YK’s proponents also ignore to meet their definition.
(There is one more element the YK proponents use — that the characters must be recurring — they must appear in more than one word balloon-driven sequential strip. What proponents don’t widely advertise — because of the ridicule it would bring — is that the October 25th, 1896 episode of Yellow Kid, is the only YK episode which actually meets the sequential word balloon comic strip definition! The second appearance of Yellow Kid inside a sequential word-balloon-driven comic strip, did not occur until his guest appearance inside a July 7th, 1907 Buster Brown comic strip — thus retroactively, a full decade later, making the October 25th, 1896 episode, and Yellow Kid, a “comic strip”!!?)
As ludicrous as that seems, I years ago questioned comics historian Bill Blackbeard (author of the definitive The Yellow Kid: A Centennial Celebration) as to whether the above “strip-by-retroactive-default” was true — and to my shock, he confirmed it! So, by the same (flawed) logic, if Yellow Kid can become a comic strip character retroactively, after a full decade, then why not this 1861 Abraham Lincoln retroactively, after any of his appearances in comic strips of the 20th century…??
Finally, before someone misinterprets my meaning, I by no means claim that the above Abraham Lincoln strip is the “first comic strip”. I state now that I am absolutely not saying that. There are a great many yet earlier strips also meeting the above definition. I do not believe that anyone should ever proclaim a “first comic strip” — beware such absolutist declarations — there are always more discoveries to be made. (And, P.S., I personally do not subscribe to any “comic strip” definition requiring the presence of word balloons — I simply enjoy finding pre-1896 examples such as the above Flight of Abraham strip, as a poke in the eye at those who insist comic strips weren’t invented until 1896… )