Words and Pictures

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   January 9, 2020

I may be the only kid on my block who can recite from memory the first words of the very first “Prince Valiant” comic. Actually, the term “comic” is totally inappropriate here, because “Prince Valiant” was very different from all the other features of that genre. For one thing, there were no balloons coming out of characters’ mouths. The story was told as a narrative, with captions at the bottom of each panel. It was set in a vaguely pre-Medieval time period, identified as “The Days of King Arthur,” and the very careful artwork gave a sense of historical authenticity. This epic was created by Hal Foster, who actually drew it from 1937 to 1971.

In my Washington D.C. childhood, I was a great reader and accumulator of comic books, about 30 of which I somehow still have. One of them is the first published collection of “Prince Valiant.” But I myself can’t even read it, or any of the others, now, because they were sealed in plastic bags as delicate rarities by a dealer to whom I once took them for appraisal. Actually, the value of the “Prince Valiant” turned out to be less than I expected, because it had apparently been part of a large printing, and many other copies have survived.

But comic books and strips, and the big Sunday pages (which was where “Prince Valiant” was to be found), affected my life in various ways. In one regard, they could be educational, e.g. as a source of new words. One word I learned was “rendezvous” – but, since I never heard it spoken, and didn’t know, until years later, that it was not English but French, I always pronounced it to myself phonetically. Another word was “mandate.” I came across it in a “Mutt & Jeff” strip which punningly confused it with the idea of a girl having a “man-date.” Again, it took years before I got straightened out about this.

There were, however, some comic books which took this educational idea more seriously. One was one called “True Comics” (which sounds like an oxymoron) and was based on actual current and historical events. (Since this was wartime, many of the stories concerned our fighting men. The issue I saved had on its cover a portrayal of General Douglas MacArthur.) Another of these “educational” publications was “Classic Comics,” where I first encountered Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities.

It has been a long journey for humankind from the days of cave painting to those of the modern “graphic novel.” But stories have no doubt been told with pictures many millennia before there were written words to accompany them. The pictures themselves sometimes evolved into a kind of writing, such as the Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Pictorial material has of course played a major part in the development of various religions, whose followers were often illiterate, but could understand pictures. That was one of the functions, in Christian churches, of many stained-glass windows, which often depicted scenes from the Bible. But an outstanding exception to this trend has been Islam, whose banning of depictions of Mohammed has, over time, been extended to generally forbidding all images of people, or even of animals – which is why Moslem art tends to feature highly elaborate decorative designs.

But the true marriage of pictures with words had to wait until a substantial portion of the people were literate. Even as recently as the era of silent movies, the captions did not appear on the screen at the same time as the action (as we are now accustomed to seeing as “sub-titles” with foreign films) but were shown separately. This (as could often be heard in many theaters) gave a chance, to those who could read, to say the words aloud for the benefit of those who couldn’t.

In the world of print – beginning in the nineteenth century, in such publications as the English “Punch” magazine – there came the development of single-panel, usually humorous, “cartoons.” In these, there used to be much emphasis on the quality of the art – but today, where they survive at all – as in the New Yorkermagazine, cartoons seem to have degenerated to roughly sketched “ideas.”

To round off this discussion of words and pictures, since I never told you those vivid opening words of “Prince Valiant” which have stayed with me all these years, here they are:

Down to the coast, riding hard,

comes the King of Thule, hotly pursued by his merciless enemies.”


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