The PRE-HISTORY of COMICS


Hey, Crashers! In this video, we’ll be
discussing what I call the prehistory of comics. Now, I’m not so sure as some other
historians that the art objects we’ll be talking about today are really comics–
check out Episode 1–but, the artists creating these works are grappling with
some of the same theoretical concerns and using similar formal techniques that
comic artists still use today. And many of these art forms influence the
creation of comics as a form. So they’re pretty important to our beloved medium’s
history. In short, this video focuses on early visual art that uses space to
represent and manipulate the passage of time in comicky ways.
So there’s actually an influential theory of art that says that visual arts shouldn’t do
this. It’s called the theory of the Sister Arts. This notion actually goes
back to classical philosophy, but finds its most famous iteration in Gotthold
Lessing’s 1767 book, LAOCOÖN: AN ESSAY ON THE LIMITS OF PAINTING AND POETRY. Now Lessing outlines a commonly held belief– you’ll still hear it sometimes today–
that literature (or poetry) is an art of time. It unfolds as we read it, in our minds,
requiring the passage of time. Painting, or sculpture, on the other hand, is an art
of space. Sure, we react in time, but visual arts’ primary meaning exists in
its material spacial, existence no matter how much time we take to encounter it.
For Lessing, the best examples of each type of art take advantage of their
inherent connections to time or space and only poorer examples of art try to
blur these boundaries. As you can probably tell I don’t buy into the
Sister Arts theory very much. The moment it’s written down, literature requires
space; and many writers actively manipulate the spatial dimensions of
words, phrases, pages, and books as part of their literary goal.
Likewise, visual art necessarily requires time to understand and interpret it. And
in comics, well, space IS time. Each panel is a unit of the narrative, and time
passes as we move within and between panels; as we move in space. We’ll discuss
panels another time–properly. This video is about the old stuff. And I mean the REALLY
old stuff. Because even if we narrow our scope to
visual art that shows the passage of time across space, we have to go back to
the very beginning; when humans picked up burnt sticks and started to scribble on
walls. And at some level it makes sense that we have to go back this far because
stories require change and change requires time passing. So these images in
the Chauvet caves are fascinating precisely because of what we don’t know
about them: whether there are multiple scenes, like some pieces we’ll see later,
or one big hunt. But the one thing we do see are these moments that try to
portray motion and movement before film, before animation tricks like zoetropes.
Our ancestors had to figure out how to show time changing with still images. And
what that often meant was presenting multiple scenes in a single space. So
check out these images…over 32,000 years old. Now, our ancestors didn’t think that
horses had five heads or bison had eight legs. We can see from other images in the
caves, for example, that they knew how to draw bison, lions, and horses and antelope.
So what’s going on? Well, some scientists theorize that in the flickering light of
an evening fire, these multiple headed or repeated figures, well, they created a
primitive kind of animation. That’s kind of beautiful to think about. But even if
that’s not true, those extra limbs imply motion and it’s a trick that artists
still use today, for example in this cover of THE FLASH. So if we jump ahead
an odd 20,000 years in ancient Egypt and Rome artists still tried to tell stories
across space using pictures. Take for example the tomb of Menna,
a royal official whose tomb in the Theban Necropolis dates from somewhere
around 1400 to 1350 BCE. I you were to stand in the center of the main chamber
and look around you, could follow the daily activities of Menna and his family,
as well as that of his workers. About 1,500 years later in ancient Rome,
the artisans chose to make you walk around their piece in a different way:
you had to walk up. Trajan’s column, which was built to commemorate a Roman victory
in the Dacian Wars is 98 feet high, it’s 12 feet in diameter, and if you
follow it from the bottom to the top you get to witness Trajan’s victory over the
course of six hundred and twenty feet of marble frieze. Well, you used to. They’ve
long since taken away the spiral staircase to preserve the sculpture. In
eastern Asia they did it a slightly different way. The practice of painting
Illustrated hand scrolls became popular around the 1st century AD. You would
unscroll about an arm’s length at a time, reading from right to left.
Sometimes these scrolls were only images, but often there was language involved,
like in this early Chinese example ADMONITIONS FOR THE COURT INSTRUCTRESS by Gu Kaizhi. Each section is an illustration accompanied with a short section of text. In Japan this picture book format would evolve into the emakimono, a long
scroll that combined a section of text with a section of illustration. Perhaps the
most famous of these is the GENJI MONOGATARI EMAKI, created somewhere
between 1120 and 1140 CE and based on one of the world’s first novels THE
TALE OF GENJI, which by the way happened to be written by a woman: Murasaki Shikibu. challenging the GENJI EMAKI for the most
famous Japanese picture scroll is the CHOUJUU JINBUSTU GIGA, or THE FROLICKING ANIMAL SCROLLS. Unlike the previous two examples, this is entirely pictorial. But
due in part to its insanely charming cast of anthropomorphic animals,
historians have argued this scroll might be the first manga. Other scholars and
historians connect it to the sort of “kawaii aesthetic,” the super cute look
that continues in popular brands like Sanrio today. Across the Pacific in
Central America, Mesoamerican cultures were creating their own proto-comic type art
well before the Spanish invasion. We found evidence on wall paintings like
the ancient Egyptians, and in their versions of books called codices. In this
section of the Mayan TROANO CODEX, the smaller figures you see with thick
outlines might look like pictures, but they’re actually hieroglyphic language.
It’s the bigger images in the center that are illustrations. Here’s another
example from the Mixtec codex AÑUTE. Like the previous codex, it
mixes text captions with illustrations. Back across the Atlantic again, we return
to an example from Episode 1: the Bayeux Tapestry.
Created in 1080 CE to commemorate the Battle of Hastings, the 230 foot long
tapestry is in some ways very similar to Trajan’s column. Just, well, it’s just a
little easier to fit in your house… or castle. The tapestry also includes
captions above each scene. What I find really interesting about the last few
examples is that it shows us all around the world, in at least Asia, Africa, the
Americas, and Europe, different cultures were coming to similar conclusions about
how to show the passage of time using space: by presenting multiple scenes in
one image across large or long spaces. However this form seemed to fall out of
favor, especially in Europe, and even eventually in Asia, when visual arts seem
to be dominated by single scenes represented on single panels boards or
canvases. Which brings me to my final category an exception to that rule:
paintings called composite paintings or continuous
narratives. They seemed to have some short-lived popularity in the European
Renaissance. Now these paintings are different than say a Bruegel or a
Hieronymus Bosch, whose busy images featured lots of characters and tons of
detail, but we’re meant to understand that everything was happening at the
same time. In these composite paintings, artists chose to show multiple scenes
from one story on the same canvas. So for example, in this piece from Cuccio’s
MAESTRO PRADELLA panels, Jesus heals the man, and then the man turns away. We’re
not supposed to think that there are two blind men who have been healed, or are
being healed, but to understand that these are two separate moments of the
same story. Here’s another example from Masaccio, which tells a story from the
Gospel of St. Matthew in which Peter finds the money to pay a temple tax in
the mouth of the fish. Three scenes, one painting. Tt’s around this time that we
begin to overlap with what’s called “print culture,”where comics are really
born. So I’m mostly going to stop for today. You might notice that I’ve skipped over
the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages, in part because they address a
whole different set of issues: the relationship between word and image. So
we’re stopping here for now, but really we’re just getting started.
See you next time.

Comments 2

  • Degrade first the arts if you'd mankind degrade,
    Hire idiots to paint with cold light and hot shade.
    -William Blake

    [artistic categories], many of them, have an intrinsic value,
    a profound interest on their own account,
    which makes them worthy of study,
    quite apart from any possibility of linking them together
    by means of causal laws.
    -Russell

    Comics (strip, books or panels) are by definition "comical"
    and none of these examples are "comic".

    You could call them early examples of sequential art
    but none of these are mass produced.
    Some of the doodles & wisecracks in illuminated manuscripts
    are STILL quite comical
    but weren't created for mass consumption.
    It was "secret" art… like Tijuana bibles.

    A stand-up comic could find examples of his art
    in classical lit
    but that would be laughable.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *