Prehistory of Comics Part 2: Mayan Pictographs

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The Splash Page

Mayan pictographs are just one blip on a long and still evolving timeline of human efforts to combine images and language. Chinese ideograms, Egyptian hieroglyphs, and Sumerian cuneiform all worked in different ways to translate and transform sound into images and images into sound.

The way we think about comics can be expanded, I think, by taking a closer look at the way these two elements fit and don’t fit together, the way they sometimes echo and sometimes withhold. Mayan pictographs are one good place to start that conversation.

Past the Page Turn

Mayan pictographs—or glyphs, which seem to be what the larger units are called—combine representational and referential elements in interesting ways. Looking at Chinese characters, the translation of man into the character for man or the translation of forest into the character for forest both seem straightforward. For Mayan glyphs, it’s maybe a little different.

We see that some of the images are representational in the footage of Dr. Mark van Stone drawing Mayan pictographs, but others stand in for sounds. That relationship between image and idea has been substituted in parts for the relationship between image and sound.

Like Chinese characters, the syllables and sounds here are organized into boxes—boxes which, we should add, look an awful lot like comic panels—but the combined elements seem fundamentally different in some way than Chinese and Japanese characters, although I might be hard pressed to say much on what that difference consists of. Both sets of pictures, characters, and radicals seem intricate and unique and detailed, each its own little cartoon, each glyph or character set expressively cataloging the artistic style and idiosyncracies of the calligrapher.

Finding Closure

These ideas push me to consider the ways that individual panels within a comic book can be seen in a weird way as a single word, or a single idea, or a single something. I imagine in particular panels from Will Eisner that swim back and forth across time and space to tell a story, or the psychedelic intensity of some single panels from Moebius.

It also reminds me of how complicated lettering can be, and how lettering—when it’s drawn by hand—contains some of the same style and magic as the rest of the artist’s work, and also how at times great lettering can actually enter into and make meaning in the story. The only examples I can think of are obvious ones—like “Krakatoom!” spread across a lighting-lit landscape in a Thor comic, or the word “God” spelled in stone on the opening pages of Infinity Gauntlet #1.

These are all pretty cool ideas, and they remind me of how tricky and complex even a simple-seeming comics panel is when you unpack it.

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