This 1921 Proto-Meme Is Eerily Relevant Today

A 1921 issue of Judge Magazine published what some people are calling "The First Meme."
April 16, 2018, 5:49pm

Can people change? While everything seems like a garbage fire right now, humanity has improved through the ages, right? An unearthed copy of the University of Iowa's satirical magazine The Judge from 1921 suggests that, at least when it comes to comedy, some things never change.

Behold what seems to be the first recorded use of the "What You Think You Look Like vs. What You Actually Look Like" meme. It also closely resembles the "Expectation vs Reality" meme that exploded after Marc Webb's 2009 film (500) Days of Summer used it to devastate Joseph Gordon-Levitt's misguided attempt to get back with his ex. The format has proliferated in the form of web comics, image macros, and YouTube videos and still sees healthy engagement on a dedicated subreddit.

It turns out the format is nearly 100 years old, with some sources dating it back to an edition of the Wisconsin Octopus—a college rag similar to The Judge—from either 1919 or 1920. The comic shows that the meme may have really started well before the web. Some are even speculating that the comic may constitute the first meme as we now define them.

The style of the illustration is so similar to some anime-inspired memes and the bad comic style introduced by artists like Robert Crumb in the 1960s that it almost feels like a hoax. However, a PDF of the original Judge issue digitized by Google suggests this proto-meme is legit. The comic is surrounded by poetry and jokes that are also eerily relevant to the problems of modern life. Women are besieged by pickup artists in most of the jokes, and one quip proves that flat earthers were already on their bullshit long before B.o.B adopted the cause and "Mad" Mike Hughes rocketed into the atmosphere.

This article has been updated to account for new information about the source of the comic.

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Bombard Beckett Mufson with vintage memes on Twitter.