XOX is the pseudonym of a 19th-century U.S. illustrator and engraver (possibly Samuel F. Baker), who published one of the earliest picture stories (or "comic books") in the United States. 'Outline History of an Expedition to California: Containing the Fate of the Get All You Can Mining Association' (1849) is notable for its epic atmosphere. Various smaller stories are embedded into a larger, quite epic, moralistic narrative. XOX also constantly intercuts between different protagonists, another major innovation in U.S. comic history.

Historical context
In 1848-1849, gold was discovered in California, which motivated many to travel and settle there, hoping to find fortune themselves. Most were badly prepared to survive in such a harsh environment and/or lacked the proper tools. Even so, there was barely gold to be found in the region. Not enough to return home as a millionaire anyway. To outside observers, these naïve, gold-lusting men were a comical sight. Which explains why they inspired many humorous stories, including James A. and Donald F. Read's picture story about the fictional miner Jeremiah Saddlebags (Stringer & Townsend, 1849) and the anonymous 'The Adventures of Mr. Tom Plump' (Philip J. Cozans, 1850).

Outline History of an Expedition to California
In 1849 an anonymous artist credited as "XOX" drew 'Outline History of an Expedition to California', a landscape format book published by H. Long & Bro. in New York. The story follows three groups of people on three different travelling routes. One travels across the Great Plains, the other past Cape Horn and again others through Panama. During the voyages, the characters endure severe hardships, including encounters with pirates and Native Americans. Even those who make it to San Francisco fall victim to robbers and other agony. Readers may have seen it coming, because at the start of the story, the Devil and the Grim Reaper hide gold in California as "bait" to attract greedy people. In the final panel, the duo carries off thousands of fortune seekers to Hell. The final line is chilling: "The gold was made with the bones of those who perished in its pursuit." The only character to enjoy a happy end is one Jonathan Swapwell. He travels safely, finds gold and returns home to marry his sweetheart.

'Outline History' is reminiscent of epic picture stories about historical events, like the work of Frans HogenbergAntonio Tempesta, Francis Barlow, Otto van Veen, Jacques Callot and Romeyn de Hooghe. All action is told chronologically and uses the text comic format, with the narration written underneath the images. Yet XOX only uses an actual event - the Gold Rush - as a framing device to tell a fictional story. 'Outline History' is also far more complex and ambitious. Previous picture stories were straightforward narratives focusing on one, two or three single characters. Either real or fictional people. In William Hogarth's work, for instance, we follow the rise and fall of individuals, presented as a serious morality tale. In contrast, Rodolphe Töpffer's picture stories are humorous tales about a small amount of characters. The picture story which resembles XOX' 'Outline History' the most - James A. and Donald F. Read's 'Jeremiah Saddlebags' (1849) – is also a Töpfferesque farce. Much like XOX's tale, it also involves a gold miner travelling to California and encounters with Native Americans and pirates.

However, 'Outline History' focuses on several large groups of characters. Some are merely identified as the "Cape Horners", the "Panamians" and the "Overlanders". Others actually receive names: Pat, Deacon Twist, Mr. Twitts, Hans van Schnaype-zen-wanger the barber, Mr. Crapo, Don Josiah Skinem, Dr. Compound and Jack Sharp aka "Bogus Bill". Interesting enough, the vast majority never interacts with our "hero" Jonathan. The author frequently switches back and forth between each group on their individual route. That way the reader can see what they are experiencing at that same instant in time. This type of intercutting was still a rare phenomenon in picture stories. Rodolphe Töpffer wrote and drew a few tales where several main and side characters enjoy subplots, more specifically: 'Mr. Crépin' (1837), 'Mr. Vieuxbois' (1837), 'Mr. Pencil' (1840), 'Dr. Festus' (1845) and 'Mr. Cryptogame' (1845). And in Cham's 'Impressions de Voyage de Monsieur Boniface' (1844), we occasionally receive a view of what is happening outside Mr. Boniface's vehicle, though always from the viewpoint of one character. It's also almost certain that XOX probably never read most of these specific foreign picture stories, since only 'Mr. Vieuxbois' had been translated and released in the U.S.  Under the title 'Obadiah Oldbuck' it had been published in Brother Jonathan Extra volume 2 issue #9 (14 September 1842).

While it's possible that XOX was aware of Töpffer's work we have no hard proof. 'Outline History' has a different, more epic and serious feel to it. We see characters prepare their voyage at sea. In the harbor they say goodbye to their loved ones. On the ocean they feel sea and home sick. In California we see how different methods and machines are used to find treasure. Likewise, XOX takes his time to depict crowd scenes and imposing ships. His graphic style is simple, but he is quite skilfull in suggesting atmosphere. Sun rays, rain fall and a river/ocean stream are merely a bunch of stripes, but they are remarkably convincing. Compared with many picture stories from the same era 'Outline History' doesn't feel rushed or random either. XOX takes his time to build a well-structured, logical series of events.

Some scenes are played for laughs. In one scene a committee considers using an aerial machine, which has the shape of a fish. The narrator makes a few puns: "They off-fish-all-y report it a scaly aff-air". In a later scene, a Panamian pulls a goofy frightened face while trying to sleep in his hammock. When gold is discovered, people go completely wild in ecstasy. One man is hopping around on one leg, desperately trying to get his boot on. Others jump from the ship into the sea, swimming to the shore. When Mr. Twitts visits the Deacon he "sees a resemblance between the lump he lost and the one before him", but the deacon assures him that "the resemblance of one piece to another" is "a remarkable feature of the country".

Yet XOX never loses sight of his narrative goal. He wants to discourage readers from joining this mass hysterical hunt for gold. Overall the story is very serious and grim. Jonathan may return home rich and safe, but he is an exception. For the majority their American Dream turns out to be a nightmare. The Cape Horners hit an iceberg and are shipwrecked. The Panamians cross mountains, but some fall from the cliffs. Some imagery is quite gruesome. The Overland Party fights a group of Native Americans, leaving dead bodies scattered on the prairie. Vultures fly down to feast. However, the settlers discover there's no food or water. They have to roast a dog to survive. People die from fever and corpses are thrown into ditches. Even the few people who return home with some wealth, soon squander it and commit suicide in agony. As such, the real victors in 'Outline History' are the Devil and the Grim Reaper...

Some sources claim that XOX was a pen name of Samuel F. Baker (1823 - death date unknown), whose signature appears at the bottom of the cover illustration. Baker was a New York-based photographer, engraver and satirical cartoonist, who worked in northern California around 1857-1860. He owned photography galleries in Red Bluff and Shasta City. Whatever his identity, the author of 'Outline History' goes down in history as one of the first original comic artists in the USA. James A. & Donald F. Read's, 'Jeremiah Saddlebags', however came first: it was presumably first published in May 1849, while XOX' book seems to have appeared in print a month later. As far as the digital archives of Newspapers.com can retrace, the Buffalo Morning Express first mentioned the Read's 'Jeremiah Saddlebags' on Saturday 2 June 1849, and 'Outline History of an Expedition to California' on 30 June.

Read the entire story at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library

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