Mr. Oldbuck astride his horse. Artist: Rudolphe Töpffer.


Medium: Comic book
Published by: Several publishers in Europe and one in America
Creator: Rudolphe Töpffer
First appeared: 1837
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Popular legend credits Richard F. Outcault's feature, The Yellow Kid, as the precursor of all comics. Ally Sloper might have a …

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… thing or two to say about that. So might Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck, the star of what is currently believed to be the very first comic book printed in America.

The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck was written and drawn by Swiss cartoonist Rudolphe Töpffer (1799-1846), who, in his own language, named the character "M. Vieux Drink". It was first published in Europe, in several different languages, in 1837. (Töpffer, credited by many with the invention of the graphic novel, had started creating what he called "picture stories" ten years earlier.) On September 14, 1842, a New York paper, Brother Jonathan, ran an English-language version of Oldbuck (published in Britain a year earlier) as a supplement — which de-thrones The Yellow Kid from his supposed distinction as America's first newspaper comic, as well.

It may seem odd that a European story appeared in a paper named after Brother Jonathan, a character who predates Uncle Sam as the personification of America. John Neal, Brother Jonathan's publisher (and a very popular early 19th century novelist), was an ardent believer in the virtues and values Americans saw in themselves at the time (and to an extent, still see). But cartoons, as we know, are an international language.

Oldbuck may not have qualified as a comic book by every possible definition of the word. It used captions instead of word balloons (tho that, as seen in Prince Valiant and the early Flash Gordon, isn't an absolute barrier). It didn't have continuing characters — Mr. Oldbuck's only appearance was in this one 40-page story (tho not many people hold that as a necessary criterion). More important, the pictures carried relatively little of the narrative load — a bare bones version of the story can be understood from the short captions alone, tho the pictures did add a great deal to the humor.

But it did tell a story in picture format, even if the story was a little on the thin side (consisting mainly of one instance after another of Mr. Oldbuck trying to win the affection of a rather large woman identified only as his "ladye-love", then attempting suicide when she rejects him).

And it did scoop The Yellow Kid by more than half a century.


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Text ©2001-03 Donald D. Markstein. Art: This digitally restored image ©2001 Donald D. Markstein