Before Comics: We’ve Been Telling Stories with Pictures for a Long Time

In terms of human culture, comics as an art form is relatively new. “The Yellow Kid” started in 1895 and Rodolphe Töpffer first published his work in 1833. So, about 200 years. Yet if we broaden our scope and use the term sequential art, then the time frame opens up dramatically. We leave print behind and start to look at sculpture, weaving, and painting.

And this is what I want to do with Before Comics.

I have long been interested in the types of works that fall outside the common discussions about comics. And that interest has lead me into looking at work that predates comics but that still uses images in sequence to tell a story or convey an idea.

If we go back to Paleolithic times, we may not have art that is necessarily sequential, but we can see artists trying to make the nonvisual visual.

I previously mentioned the roaring lion in the Chauvet Cave that is over 36,000 years old. Do the dots represent sound? Is this a visual onomatopoeia? There is also some debate over whether or not the multiple heads represent a pride or the movements of one animal. So a proto-animation.

This idea that Paleolithic artists may have been experimenting with animation is also given evidence by work in the Lascaux Cave. The animal depictions in this cave are over 20,000 years old and some look as if the same animal were drawn multiple times. Was this an artist reworking the same subject to get it right, using the cave wall as an early sketchbook? Or was there another intention? Some claim that the multiple legs on several of the animals are meant to represent movement. On this page you can see some animations made from these cave paintings. Others have also called attention to the fact that the people in those caves would have been viewing everything by flamelight, which flickers. Some of the animals are drawn onto rocks which project out. This seemed odd until the researchers got rid of the modern lights and lit some fires. The flickering of the flames made these animals look as if they were moving. Is this just a coincidence, or was this an intentional design choice by the artists?

And some of the art appears to be narrative. The Grand Panneau de Lions in Chauvet looks as if it depicts a hunt.

Even more amazing, a 44,000 year-old hunting scene has been discovered in Indonesia. So far, this is the earliest example of storytelling in pictures.

In Turkey in 2021, locals discovered the earliest example of Near East narrative wall art. The reliefs are 11,000 years old and both depict human figures surrounded by animals. The one that everyone seems to mention contains a bass relief of a man facing the viewer and holding his penis.

What the narrative actually is remains unclear. Yet researchers believe that the location with these reliefs was a place used for storytelling (read more here).

Yet, we still don’t have sequence. While there are two panels, they do not obviously connect. One is the man above, flanked by leopards. The other has a man facing a bull. The two men are depicted differently and so probably do not represent the same character. However, both panels do have humans dealing with wild animals and so there is a connected theme.

So to get sequence, we’ll have to move closer in time. Still, the urge to convey our experience in images is some of the earliest evidence we have of human culture. This is something deep within us and something that seems to be tied inextricably to what it means to be human.

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