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.