Obadiah Oldbuck, The Picaresque, and Harley Quinn

In recent years, The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck has overtaken The Yellow Kid as the first American comic book. It was originally published in Switzerland in the 1820s by Rodolphe Topffer and translated into English and published in the United States in 1842. Some might even consider it a “graphic novel” as it contains a sequential story about the misadventures of the titular protagonist and his attempts to woo, keep, and eventually marry his “ladie love” while coming into conflict with rivals and enemies along the way. I think that Obadiah Oldbuck is an early example of “mash-up” culture as it brings together the one panel editorial cartoons that were popular at the time (E.g. William Hogarth, Harper’s Weekly) and the picaresque novel, of which Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote is an example. Melding genres has been a big part of comics for years as writer/editor Mark Waid (Kingdom Come) pointed out a panel at the 2014 Baltimore Comic Con that the superhero comic was born from the daily comic strips and the pulps. I also think that the legacy of Obadiah Oldbuck lives on in the current Harley Quinn comic book from DC Comics, which is written by Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner and drawn by Chad Hardin.

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The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck has many tropes and narrative devices that will be found in later comics. For example, its characters subsist on a kind of “cartoon logic” where they can shrink and grow in size at a moment’s notice, and where a horse can explode if it eats too much. There are also technical elements, like speed lines when Obadiah, his dog, and horse are running away from his pursuers and recurring gags, that have become a part of the storytelling of later comics ranging from Krazy Kat to The Flash. But what makes Obadiah Oldbuck really innovative as a comic other than its dark sense of humor and un-heroic protagonist is that it combines the editorial comic and picaresque novel to create a new thing: the comic book. Even though Obadiah Oldbuck doesn’t have the political satire of a William Hogarth drawing, it is done in the same style with its characters having exaggerated proportions and the comic being done in an etching style. There are also captions below the art that explain or poke fun at the panel above it. However, Obadiah Oldbuck transcends the one-off nature of this cartoons and tells a longer narrative involved a self-assured, buffoonish hero, who goes on a series of lengthy adventures with a single goal. This could describe Don Quixote, who truly believes he is a knight like in the romances he devours, and attempts to win the love of Dulcinea del Tobosa, who is actually a country girl named Aldonza. Both Obadiah and Don Quixote have a hapless, occasionally gaunt horse as well. Obadiah Oldbuck shares some of the elements of novels, like Don Quixote and Tom Jones, but because it is not a novel, it lacks some of the nuance and subplots of these books. This isn’t a knock on the comics medium, but later comics would be better written and drawn than Obadiah Oldbuck and therefore have more nuance and depth. It is important as a precursor to later comics of the Platinum Age (late 1800s-1938) and makes a brave attempt at mashing up the picaresque and editorial cartoon even if it lacks the  satirical bite of the latter.

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I think that the legacy of Obadiah Oldbuck endures not just in the funny animal comics of the early 1900s and beyond, but in the current DC Comics book Harley QuinnHarley Quinn follows the story of Harley Quinn as she has left her abusive lover the Joker behind her to start a new life in Coney Island where one of her old patients had left her an apartment complete with a wax museum and freak show. She goes on a series of loosely connected adventures, including rescuing puppies (killing their cruel owners along the way), joining an underground roller derby club, teaming up with her old friend Poison Ivy, and helping a retired spy with cybernetic enhancements (who speaks a lot of Yiddish) take out some of his old Soviet enemies in their respective nursing homes. The book has a lot of slapstick and darker humor, like Obadiah Oldbuck, and has been compared to a Looney Tunes cartoon for adults. Like Obadiah, Harley isn’t a hero and kills a lot of people (mostly bad guys) and occasionally makes things hard for her friends, like not paying the rent on time or ruining one of her tenants’ burlesque shows. The first issue was even going to have a suicide joke, which is a running gag throughout Obadiah OldbuckThe popularity of the Harley Quinn comic (10th highest selling comic in July 2014) shows that dark, slapstick humor as well as cartoonish characters and plot-light adventure stories don’t have an expiration date and can be created and recreated in different eras depending on its audience’s and creators’ sensibilities

 

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