Dr. Syntax has a bad dream. Artist: Thomas Rowlandson.


Original Medium: Illustrated verse
Published by: Rudolph Ackermann
First Appeared: 1809
Creators: William Coombe (writer) and Thomas Rowlandson (artist)
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The point can't be over-emphasized, that comics did not begin with The Yellow Kid. From Trajan's Column, whose bas relief tells the story of Emperor Trajan's role in Rome's Dacian Wars, to paintings found on the walls of formerly-inhabited caves, surviving examples from antiquity abound. The Bayeux Tapestry (c. 12th century), a biography of William the Conqueror in what we would now call graphic novel form, seems almost modern by comparison. The vast and rich history of story-telling through the medium of cartoons includes at least a little …

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… by-way through a bit of pre-Victorian popular culture about the travels of a fussy old grammarian named Dr. Syntax.

Dr. Syntax was a rural schoolmaster and Church of England pastor, who took it into his head one day to make his fortune by traveling, then writing a book, illustrated by himself, about his travels to quaint and curious places. So he saddled up his old mare, Grizzle, and set off in search of picturesque things for his subject matter, in The Tour of Dr. Syntax in Search of the Picturesque.

The story was told in the form of verse, written by William Coombe. a popular writer of the time, whose works include The Dance of Death, which consists mostly of various characters seen at their moment of dying. The verses were copiously illustrated by frequent color plates, rendered by Thomas Rowlandson, a well-known caricaturist and political cartoonist of the time.

The story first appeared in serial form, as part of The Poetical Magazine, in 1809. It was published by Rudolph Ackermann, who published upscale renditions of the work of several contemporary artists. The work was first collected into book form "by popular demand" in 1812, and was reprinted numerous times over the next several decades. Printings for later generations reduced Rowlandson's color plates to black and white.

The doctor embarked on a second tour in 1819, in the pages of the same magazine. This appeared in book form in 1820, as The Second Tour of Dr. Syntax in Search of Consolation. The third book by Coombe and Rowlandson, The Third Tour of Dr. Syntax in Search of a Wife, was published in 1821. All enjoyed tremendous popularity. In addition, The History of Johnny Quae, Genius, also by Coombe and Rowlandson, followed the post-Syntax adventures of an incidental character.

At the time, it was a common custom for illustrations to be part of a published package, considered almost as important as the text itself. Rowlandson's work was even a bigger part of Dr. Syntax than that. In many cases, his work came before Coombe's. The verse itself would be written to fit the artwork. rather than the pictures made to fit the verse — Rowlandson would put Syntax in a funny situation, and Coombe would make the story fit what he had drawn. When modern comic books are done in a similar way, we call their production methods "Marvel-style".

Copyrights at the time weren't anything like they are today, so there were imitations and even outright piracy of the Dr. Syntax character. However, the original remained a good seller in Britain almost throughout the 19th century. By the time the 20th was a going concern, however, Syntax was just a memory.

In the 21st, he's scarcely even that.


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Text ©2009 Donald D. Markstein. Art: Dr. Syntax is in the public domain.