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Comics: Just For Kids?

Updated on March 7, 2010

I believe the oldest comic starts with the words “I Ramses the Great did achieve a great victory ...” and was chiselled onto a temple wall in Luxor in Egypt abut 1274 BC.The Egyptians were big fans of comics (or if you prefer, sequential art) and covered their pyramids and temples and anything else with it. The Egyptian Book of the Dead is a classic comic showing the many stages that a Pharaoh had to go through to become a god.

Other examples of early comics are the classic Bayeux Tapestry of 1067 and mediaeval windows and wall placques of European churches. In fact, it is them we have to thank for the word and meaning of “cartoon” - which meant a preliminary drawing for a window with a black outline, presumably to show where the lead went. Also the earliest books were so illuminated that they were comic than book.

So how did it become restricted to kids?

When did grown ups first start to consider that having words and pictures together was wrong? When did it become accepted that you could have pictures inspired by words or words inspired by pictures, but never together? I personally think it came about with the Gutenberg Revolution and the snobbery of the reading class. The earliest books were like mass-produced illuminated books. Then they found they could go faster if the letters were separated into easily assembled blocks of print. However, this did mean that there was no time nor place for illuminations or any kind of decoration. As more and more people learned to read bare, naked text, I can see people believing that pictures were only necessary for the vulgar people who could not appreciate words. That children's learning books used pictures to help make the connection between the visual and the oral - the understanding of letters (“A is for apple, B is for … “) merely reinforced the ideas that adults did not need pictures. Yet at the same time, people said that a picture is worth a thousand words.

Now we have a generation – the Baby Boomers – who have grown up with comics and some claim comics have grown up with them. It is true that some works do deserve the title graphic novel rather than comic: Frank Miller's excellent “The Dark Knight Returns”, Alan Moore's superb “Marvelman/Miracleman”, Kevin O'Neil's “Marshall Law” and of course, the incredible “Maus” to name but a few.

Mostly, though it has been a utter failure of which Alan Moore's “Watchmen” is a classic. It replaces superficial, two-dimensional heroes with superficial, two-dimensional villains to produce something that is as equally false as the squeaky-clean image of Superman. I would admit that comics have grown up – but only as far as adolescence. Why this should be is beond me. It cannot be that the word balloons because Shakespeare is all talk. It cannot be the thought balloons because they are just glorified word balloons. But something is keeping comics from becoming adult. Maybe things will improve in the future.

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