I think, I hope, we’ve moved beyond the question as to whether or not comics and graphic novels are legitimate reading for kids and teens. But just in case another case needs to be made, or should you find yourself needing just one more piece of evidence to get the last word, I’m throwing this idea out there:
Comics existed before most people even owned books.
So the word itself, cartoon, comes from the Italian cartone which was the stiff paperboard Renaissance artists used to sketch out their paintings. Da Vinci’s notebooks are full of cartoons. All those frescos in the churches, they began as cartoons drawn on the walls. Historically, the cartoon was a representative drawing done in preparation of a finished work. These cartoons were illustration, plain and simple, and they came from a long line of visual representation starting with those cave paintings in the south of France.
You see, man’s earliest attempts to communicate story came in pictographs. The pictures, spread across cave walls, told a sequential narrative about The Great Hunt or The Battle for Berries or Hunter Tripping on Rocks. These forerunners of the cartoon predate cuneiform and hieroglyphs and other forms of symbolic language. The pictures told the story in much the same way that a wordless picture book or graphic novel does today. Depending on the sophistication of their brains, it would be curious to take a modern wordless picture book back to cave-dwelling man and see if they understood it.
Though it can be a bit of a stretch to call the cave paintings and fresco sketches cartoons they are nonetheless historical artifacts that show that there was a way to “read” before there were words. Up until the Renaissance these cartoons were historical in nature (the Greeks and Romans would illustrate battles from Mythology, they believed them to be historical at some level), but I recently came across what might truly be the genesis of the graphic novel in The Bayeux Tapestry.
Art history majors (and anyplace where the arts are still considered important and taught) know The Bayeux Tapestry to be an illustrated telling of the Norman Conquest and The Battle of Hastings which took place in 1066. The Tapestry itself dates to the 1400s which easily predates the Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus by Art Spigelman and the groundbreaking work by the father of the American graphic novel, Will Eisner, by a good 500 years. Cartoons and the sequential narrative are not new.
Last week I was reminded of this when the website Open Culture featured an animated version of The Bayeux Tapestry. I don’t often post media within the blog, but this is worth the diversion.
The tapestry itself is a collection of narrative strips – or panels, to use a modern comic term – that read from left to right and top to bottom, just as if you were reading a book. Because you are, you’re reading a graphic novel from 1476, and the best part about it, it’s non-fiction! It’s not only a cartoon, it’s historical!
I hope this puts a cork in the comics-aren’t-reading argument so we can move on to more important discussions. Like what makes a good comic or graphic novel – and why are there so many mediocre ones out there for kids these day?