01 September 2014

Classic Comics: Thoughts from 1997

Most people think they know what comics are: “crude, poorly drawn, semiliterate, cheap, disposable kiddie fare” in the words of Scott McCloud in his groundbreaking 1993 work Understanding Comics. Recognising this to be a ridiculously narrow, not to mention subjective, definition, McCloud set out to discredit it. Starting from Will Eisner’s description of comics as “sequential art”, McCloud eventually reached a far more precise and comprehensive definition of comics as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.”

Having seen McCloud demonstrate how things as diverse as the Bayeux Tapestry and the Stations of the Cross can thus be regarded as comics, I began to consider whether or not the classical world might have contributed to the artform. When I was fortunate enough to meet McCloud in 1994, he persuaded me that there were probably plenty of examples of comics in classical art and a course in Roman relief sculpture later that year convinced me of this. 

In this article I shall not attempt a comprehensive survey of such examples, as, space restrictions aside, I am hardly qualified to do so. Instead, I shall focus on a very small number of art works that clearly illustrate that the principles of comics were quite evident in Greek art.

Narrative was a vital element in ancient art and by the middle of the seventh century BC Attic vase painters were painting pictures that often continued around vases, separated by bands of decoration. Having an oblong shape, the pictures lent themselves to subjects such as processions, races, and hunts, as, being essentially narrow friezes, they required many figures to fill them. Though these friezes did not always have a chronological element they certainly sometimes did, an excellent example of this being found on the Francois vase, painted by Kleitias around 570BC.

Along with more conventional subjects such as the procession of guests at the wedding of Peleus and Thetis and the funeral games of Patroklos, the vase also illustrates the story of the pursuit of Troilos. The frieze extends halfway around the vase and shows a number of distinct scenes, clearly separate from each other in both time and place, on a continuous background. At the far left is a fountain house where a girl stands waiting for her hydra to fill. Next are the figures of Hermes, Thetis, and Troilos. After is Priam receiving the bad news in sorrow, and finally two of Troilos’ brothers can be seen setting out from the city gates to avenge his death. Assuming that the frieze is “read” in this way, its sequential nature is clear.

Greek art was clearly not “photographic” in nature, in that it was not taken for granted that a single image should represent a single moment. A good example of this is evident on the neck of a mid-seventh-century Attic amphora found in Eleusis. It features an illustration of Odysseus and his men blinding the Cyclops Polyphemos. In the Odyssey the story is clearly related: Odysseus plied Polyphemos with alcohol, the Cyclops then fell asleep, and Odysseus blinded him. Here, however, the Cyclops is depicted sitting up, with one hand trying to push away the heated stake wielded by Odysseus, while clutching his wine cup with the other. Clearly the wine cup, which really belongs to an earlier part of the story, is depicted in order to hint that the Cyclops is drunk rather than still drinking.

Perhaps the most well-known “non-photographic” image in Greek art is a scene showing Achilles and Ajax playing some form of board game on an Attic black-figure amphora made and painted by Exekias between 540 and 530 BC. 

This vase features “speech balloons”, perhaps the most distinctive element of modern comics, a device which through attempting to represent sound in a scene also introduces the concept of time. 

Extracts from Understanding Comics, explaining how in comics speech bubbles can subvert otherwise 'photographic' images.

Achilles says “four” and Ajax responds “three”, possibly referring to dice scores. It is not clear whether Ajax is responding to Achilles, Achilles is responding to Ajax, or both men are speaking at once; what is certain is that this image does not represent a single moment, but rather the length of time it takes the two men to speak.

The two heroes are labelled above their heads: Achilles is on the left, with Ajax on the right.

One black-figure vase, Boston 08.292, is a perfect example of Greek comics. This vase features what McCloud calls an “action to action” transition, probably the most common type of “panel to panel” progression in comics. One side of the vase shows a man in a vineyard courting a young boy. When the vase is turned around, however, the young boy is jumping to embrace the man. Though the background remains continuous, the pictures are clearly intended to represent the same couple, with one scene obviously following the other.

Greek vase painting, therefore, clearly provides examples of what would now be termed comics, but there are also examples to be found in architectural sculpture.

The low-relief metopes on temples offered an obvious opportunity to tell a story in pictures, but it is difficult to tell how often this opportunity was taken. The Parthenon metopes, for instance, seem to have been put in place in such a way that sequence was largely irrelevant, whereas the metopes on the temple of Zeus at Olympia, dating from the second quarter of the fifth century BC, may have been intended to tell a story.

The twelve metopes there represent the twelve labours of Herakles, and are ordered in such a way that Herakles is evidently older in the twelfth metope than the first. The final metope depicts the cleansing of the Augean stables, two places later than conventionally related, with the acquisition of the apples of the Hesperides and the capturing of Cerberus being brought forward to the tenth and eleventh places. This might suggest that the metopes are merely showing scenes for Herakles’ life in no particular order, but as the traditional order postdates the building of the temple at Olympia this seems an unsafe conclusion; it seems more likely that this collection may represent the first attempt to assemble the twelve episodes into one story.

Atlas offering the apples of the Hesperides to Heracles, with Athene watching.

The continuous frieze common to temples built in the Ionic order, however, can be seen to demonstrate principles of comics with remarkable subtlety. The Parthenon offers an excellent example of this.

The Parthenon’s Ionic frieze was about 160 metres long and showed an idealised version of the Panathenaic procession. Though the frieze was continuous and therefore seemed to be one image, there was clearly chronological progression in it. 

The western end, the first to be seen by people coming from the Propylaea, featured horsemen gathering for the procession, which begins at the south-west corner. Continuing along the northern side the procession had many elements –  horsemen,musicians, etc – before reaching the eastern end. Here it culminated with the gods looking on as a group of people held a peoplos, which would have been presented to the sacred olive-wood statue of Athene on the Acropolis. The south side of the frieze, which was not as visible as the other three sides, also had an eastwards direction converging at this scene.

The Parthenon frieze, assembled as one text, read from right to left and top to bottom.

Clearly this was sequential art, the appearance of which would have been heightened by the bright colours in which it was painted. 

The fact that it would have also been seen through gaps between columns would also have given it an added element of timing – the columns would have acted as “gutters” or panel divisions.

Overall, therefore, I think it can be plainly seen that the principles that make comics what they are were quite evident in Classical Art. Though I’ve only dealt with Greek art up to the mid-fifth century BC, the traditions of sequential art continued throughout the Hellenistic period as can be seen in the Telephus frieze surrounding the altar of Zeus at Pergamon and thrived in the Roman world, with Trajan’s column being but the most obvious example.


Originally published in UCD Classical Society Journal, 1996/1997, and tweaked here merely to amend the most clunky of sentences. I found this in the shed today, and was amused to see how my writing had changed. Glad, too. Mind, it has been a very long time. 

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