What do a nerd bitten by a radioactive spider, a redheaded football player in a deathly small town, and a galumphing Great Dane all have in common?
Peter Parker (AKA Spider-Man), Riverdale’s Archie Andrews, and the chaotic canine Marmaduke all obtained their origin stories from comic books that have since been adapted into blockbuster movies or bingeworthy TV shows.
Comic books themselves may seem like a niche market nowadays, but their influence immerses us in ways we may not have previously considered. Countless pop culture items across the world—such as anime, graphic novels, and even Twitter—sample techniques of comics (to see the world’s largest collection of cartoons and comics, visit The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at The Ohio State University).
But where did comics come from?
Comics as we know them seem to have originated in 19th Century Europe, but their beginnings could be argued back all the way into ancient times. American cartoonist and comic theorist Scott McCloud gave a fascinating lecture at Harvard University, during which he discussed the various histories and discussions surrounding comics.
McCloud pointed to several early examples as ancient influences of comics. In cave paintings that predate 6,000 BCE, Egyptians described the world around them in drawings of donkeys and people. In addition, researchers have been fascinated by the Codex Borbonicus, a 500-year-old Mesoamerican document that used pictures to describe cycles of the Aztec calendar.
Although lacking the words of contemporary comics, these examples rely heavily on images to drive a narrative. This appreciation for visual storytelling has persisted all the way to present day, where TV and movies dominate mainstream entertainment, and even the text-driven narratives of popular books are often translated into screen adaptations. Throughout history, despite advancement in how we compose visual media, the fondness for it has remained the same.
Speaking on the linear, continuous narrative presented in these ancient comics, McCloud was fascinated by how “the story determined the shape.” Contrarily, for the characteristic squares neatly confining newspaper comics, McCloud argues that “technology [in the 1990s] was determining the shape.” He voiced excitement as to how comics would evolve with advancing technology.
Comic influences can now be seen on Twitter; some of the most viral Tweets capitalize on the affordance of combining images and texts (check out Katherine Everett’s post detailing how Twitter changed the way we write).
Some feature a caption in the text portion of the Tweet, followed by a series of images, like this one. Others feature screen grabs of movies or TV, with the captions included on the image. These Tweets mimic the structure of conventional newspaper comics, and some even appear to be straight out of a comic book, like the one on the right.
Perhaps comics did not evolve the way McCloud hoped, returning to squares of pictures and text instead of flowing, boxless stories. But maybe this is because we have movies and television to satisfy our desire for linear narratives, and thus we are content with keeping comics in the little boxes.