The first great comic book artist

Voluptuous women, muscle-bound men… Rubens was just ahead of his time.
The Triumph of Henry IV, c. 1630, Peter Paul Rubens, courtesy the Met

The first great comic book artist was the great Flemish baroque painter, Peter Paul Rubens. Long before The Glasgow Looking Glass printed the first modern comics, Rubens was shoving dynamic action stories into oil sketches.

Rubens was the most important artist of the Flemish Baroque. But it was in his oil sketches that he was able to kick over convention and go for complete, riotous action. Rubens made these sketches because he was first and foremost an “idea man.” His busy workshop designed decorative schemes, tapestries, and altarpieces while churning out portraits, landscapes and history paintings. Since much of the finish work was done by someone else, it’s in his oil sketches that we find the ‘true’ Rubens.
Mercury and a Sleeping Herdsman, 1625-28, Peter Paul Rubens, courtesy Dulwich Picture Gallery
These sketches were usually (but not always) in color. They were studies for works in oil or other media. “Nothing reveals more clearly the ways in which his muscular and agile mind worked than the study of his more intimately scaled drawings and oil sketches,” wrote Peter Sutton. “It is the work of art that comes closest to recording the moment of conception.”
The Virgin as the Woman of the Apocalypse, 1623-24, Peter Paul Rubens, courtesy of the Getty Museum
The Virgin as the Woman of the Apocalypse was a sketch for the main altarpiece at FreisingCathedral. It’s a riot of action. The Virgin Mary holds the Christ Child while trampling the serpent, who in turn curls around the moon at her feet. To the left the Archangel Michael and his supporting cast drive out Satan and other ghoulish demons. Above, God the Father instructs an angel to place a pair of wings on the Virgin’s shoulders. All of this is incredibly complex and would be tough to fit into a vast altarpiece. It approaches the impossible when you realize the sketch is only about 20 by 25 inches.
Head of a Negro, 1618-20, Peter Paul Rubens, courtesy the Hyde Collection. Rubens often painted stock heads that he could later insert into his vast history canvases.
Rubens was the son of a Calvinist attorney from Antwerp. Religious turmoil caused the family to flee Antwerp for Cologne. There, the elder Rubens met Anna of Saxony, wife of William of Orange, and was hired to reclaim her confiscated fortune from the Duke of Alba. If you think that sounds like the plot for a novel, it gets worse: Rubens, senior either had an affair with the princess or he was set up to take the fall. She was divorced, imprisoned, and died; he did a stretch in chokey himself.
Returned to Antwerp, the younger Rubens was educated as a gentleman, which served him in his role as diplomat and courtier. He apprenticed at age 14, and followed that with the requisite tour of Italy. TitianVeronese, Tintoretto, and that recent phenomenon, Caravaggio, all profoundly influenced his later style. 
The Defenders of the Eucharist from The Triumph of the Eucharist tapestry series, ca. 1628, Woven by Jan Raes, Jacob Fobert, and Hans Vervoert, after Peter Paul Rubens, wool and silk. Courtesy Convent of the Descalzas Reales, Madrid 
Tapestry cartoons provided a large part of his workshop’s business. Triumph of the Eucharist was ordered by Rubens’ friend, the Archduchess Isabella, for the Convent of the Descalzas Reales in Madrid. It included 16 tapestries that covered the walls of the Convent’s chapel on feast days.
Rubens wasn’t shy about his own talent. Angling for the job of designing the ceilings for Inigo Jones’ Banqueting House in Whitehall Palace, he wrote, “my talent is such that no undertaking, no matter how large in size, how varied in subject, has ever exceeded my confidence.”