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Flame-like speech balloons in feline-shaped Maya characters

RESOURCE: Did the Maya invent comics?

Since only four Maya screenfold books (or codices) have survived, painted vessels - described by some as ‘ceramic codices’ - are by far the richest source for studying ‘sequential art’, in which linked images convey narratives, a technique that extends back throughout human history.
Some experts have pointed out the remarkable similarities between the visual story-telling techniques used by ancient Maya scribes and the equivalent in modern-day comics and cartoons. Soeren Wichmann, senior scientist at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Austria, and Jesper Nielsen, Associate Professor at the Institute for Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies, University of Copenhagen, have kindly given us permission to upload the following abridged and simplified adaptation of their chapter ‘Sequential Text-Image Pairing among the Classic Maya’ from The Visual Narrative, edited by Neil Cohn (Bloomsbury Academic, London, 2016). Our thanks to both...

Pic 1: (left) detail from polychrome Maya vase K4613; (right) generic ‘angry’ speech balloon
Pic 1: (left) detail from polychrome Maya vase K4613; (right) generic ‘angry’ speech balloon (Click on image to enlarge)

One of the four most common speech balloons in modern comics is the ‘scream’ balloon with sharp, jagged contours (pic 1, right): to us it needs no explanation - the speaker is angry. Compare this with the flame-like speech coming from the human-feline creatures shown in the main picture and in pic 1 (left). Whatever these figures are supposed to be - probably supernatural creatures or human impersonators - it’s very clear visually that they’re roaring in anger too. This is a rare example of a Maya scribe choosing or changing the shape of a speech balloon in order to indicate the character or emotion expressed by the voice - something very common in modern comics. And it isn’t just SOUND that Maya scribes represented pictorially...

Pic 2: (left) polychrome Maya vase K3924; (right) modern graphic depicting smelly feet
Pic 2: (left) polychrome Maya vase K3924; (right) modern graphic depicting smelly feet (Click on image to enlarge)

... SMELL too can be (see pic 2, right) - and was - depicted visually. Among several frightening creatures in a scene that seems to be set in the Maya Underworld, Xibalba, (pic 2, left), a partly skeletonized figure on the right emits large smoke-like scrolls from his belly to signal the gasses and foul smell of decay. Eeuuggghh!

Pic 3: Ballgame scene on a Maya vase K5435; (bottom right) speed depicted by Hergé in 1930 in the Quick & Flupke series - Acroabaties page 02
Pic 3: Ballgame scene on a Maya vase K5435; (bottom right) speed depicted by Hergé in 1930 in the Quick & Flupke series - Acroabaties page 02 (Click on image to enlarge)

Then there’s MOVEMENT. A device to illustrate motion within the same picture can be seen in a Maya vessel showing a ballgame in progress (pic 3). Whilst the wavy lines or ‘curlicues’ that float around the scene have been interpreted in the past as speech lines linking the figures to the captions in the rows and columns of glyphs, Wichmann and Nielsen point out that the scene contains 8 figures, 12 captions and 19 curlicues. An alternative function of the wavy lines would be one similar to the curlicues found in, for instance, Hergé’s Tintin, where they indicate speed or quick motion (see pic 3, bottom right, for an early example of this from Hergé).

Pic 4: The Maya drinking jug known as the ‘Blowgunner Vessel’ (K4151)
Pic 4: The Maya drinking jug known as the ‘Blowgunner Vessel’ (K4151) (Click on image to enlarge)

Movement can also be conjured up in the form of a narrative that unfolds physically as the viewer rotates a cylindrical vessel (pic 4), showing two successive hunting scenes involving the Hero Twins from the Popol Vuh. The first scene captures the moment when one Hero Twin has just issued a clay pellet from his blowgun. Notice that the pellet is still hanging in the air. The target, a heron-like water bird, unaware of the danger, is about to swallow a fish. Note the wings of the flying bird above the blowgun, as well as the bird below it. When the vessel is turned, the action moves forward in time about one second. As the clay bullet strikes the heron, its long neck is thrown back by the power of the shot, and it drops the fish, which is then immediately taken by the bird below the blowgun. By changing the position of the wings of the flying bird, the illusion of flapping wings is achieved. The scene, then, is presented in ultra-slow motion, so to speak.

Pic 5: An elderly Maya teacher with god-like attributes corrects his pupils (K1196)
Pic 5: An elderly Maya teacher with god-like attributes corrects his pupils (K1196) (Click on image to enlarge)

Whilst the ancient Maya didn’t use speech balloons as we know them, they certainly employed SPEECH-LINES, a functional equivalent of the ‘tail’ of the modern speech balloon. The technique, placing text in front of the characters and joining them often with speech-lines, serves to tell and show the story by combining text and image. In picture 5, an old Maya teacher instructs two young men in the arts of writing and mathematics. A fine line from the old man’s mouth leads to glyphs in front of him, saying something like ‘the line is [too] thick’ - apparently the old master is ticking off his young student for his lack of calligraphic (fine writing) skills.

Pic 6: By combining text and image the famous Maya ‘Regal Bunny Pot’ (K1398) narrates two sequences from a popular Maya myth
Pic 6: By combining text and image the famous Maya ‘Regal Bunny Pot’ (K1398) narrates two sequences from a popular Maya myth (Click on image to enlarge)

To Maya artists, the combination of text and image was the most expressive and hence preferred kind of visual communication. In our next example (pic 6), an extra element - so central to the whole basis of our comics today - is introduced: (naughty) HUMOUR. A cheeky rabbit (seen in the right-hand half of picture 6) has nicked the clothes from the naked old man on the far right (now identified as God L, one of the most important gods of the Maya underworld). Adding insult to injury, the rabbit says to the god ‘Smell your sweat, Wizard-willy’. Then (the story reads from right to left in the picture) the rabbit hides under the left arm of the Sun God, who pretends to God L that the rabbit is nowhere to be seen. Ironically, the rabbit, scholars think, then tricks the Sun God as well, by handing over the outfit of God L to the Moon Goddess. Note how Maya scribes exaggerated the size of animal characters for comic effect.

Pic 7: Gourd-rattle players lead a (9-piece) Maya band - detail from the Bonampak murals, Room 1 (painting by Antonio Tejeda)
Pic 7: Gourd-rattle players lead a (9-piece) Maya band - detail from the Bonampak murals, Room 1 (painting by Antonio Tejeda) (Click on image to enlarge)

Our final example, returning to the illustration of movement, comes from outside the medium of ceramics. On the magnificent wall paintings of Structure 1 at Bonampak (Room 1), five gourd-rattle players are shown (pic 7), leading the band - standard practice for Maya musicians - in procession. In what she calls ‘the finest pictorial record of Pre-Columbian music’, the players, to quote Professor Mary Miller (‘The Boys in the Bonampak Band’, in Maya Iconography, eds. E.P. Benson and G.G. Griffin, 1988), ‘make different movements, almost making a frame-by-frame cinematic record of how such rattles are shaken’. And in an extra flourish of music-in-motion, note how ‘the headdress of the last rattle-player links around the drummer’s’, as if to pull the stationary pax (vertical drum) player along...

Pic 8: Polychrome Maya vase showing a ruler speaking to a kneeling attendant (not seen); visible is a three-legged bowl holding corn tamales, and probably a jug of cacao. K6418
Pic 8: Polychrome Maya vase showing a ruler speaking to a kneeling attendant (not seen); visible is a three-legged bowl holding corn tamales, and probably a jug of cacao. K6418 (Click on image to enlarge)

What we haven’t mentioned so far, of course, is what the purpose of these ceramic vessels was for the ancient Maya. Many were used as practical drinking vessels (for chocolate or maize gruel), but they also served as ‘social currency’ - as gifts and/or in important political negotiations and in rituals. From the point of view of story-telling, clearly available (surface) space for a sequence of linked images was severely limited. But this points up a key difference between ‘ceramic codices’ and modern comics: Maya artists needed only to help the viewer to recall well known myths and stories (that were passed on and down orally and from memory), NOT to create entire narratives - something we expect our modern-day comics to do...

Picture sources:-
• All Maya ceramic vase images reproduced with the kind permission of Justin Kerr, from www.mayavase.com - all images © copyright Justin Kerr
• Pic 1 right: graphic by Valerio Capello (ElfQrin) (from Wikipedia ‘Speech balloon’)
• Pic 2 right: graphic downloaded from www.clipart-library.com
• Pic 3 bottom right: 1930 illustration downloaded from http://en.tintin.com/personnages/show/id/13/page/0/0/the-thomsons
• Pic 7: image scanned from Ancient Maya Paintings of Bonampak, Mexico, Supplementary Publication no. 46, Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1955.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Nov 26th 2017

BBC feature: ‘Did the Maya create the first “comics”?’
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