In the modern world, there’s a certain snobbery around telling comic strips. Even when we do try to give them a certain credibility, it can sometimes feel like we are damning them with faint praise, as fantasy author Neil Gaiman remembered when a pompous fan told him his Sandman series should be considered “graphic novels” rather than mere “comic books”. “I felt like someone who had been informed that she wasn’t actually a hooker, that in fact she was a lady of the evening.”
If Gaiman had been a Mayan artist living between 600 and 900 AD, his experience may have been very different; their drinking vessels were painted with pictures and text that told a story as you turned the cup. Far from being throwaway escapism, they were considered prized objects and often exchanged to ease political negotiations and to build alliances between states. “It was the highest quality art you could have,” says Soeren Wichmann at Leiden University in the Netherlands. “It was highly valued, whereas in modern societies comics are frowned upon.”
Wichmann first wrote about those sequences in a paper called America’s First Comics, which he has now updated for a chapter in a new book called The Visual Narrative Reader. He points out that unlike modern graphic novels, they mainly depicted just a few scenes from well-known stories – the idea being that its viewers already knew the main sequence.
Of course, visual storytelling of some kind can be seen in the oldest cave paintings, but he thinks it is particularly striking how similar these Mayan scenes are to the comics we enjoy today – including the way they represent speech, motion, bad smells, funny animals and naughty jokes. “You have all these mechanisms come together – it’s getting close to something that is very similar to comics.”
View the gallery below to see some examples, including a cheeky rabbit that could be considered the “Mayan Bugs Bunny” as he tells an old man to “smell your sweat, wizard penis”.
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