How illustration helped us create our myths, long before superheroes
We are surrounded by illustrations. Words may be limited in scope, or simply get lost in translation, but images build bridges: they just speak for themselves. Long before the superheroes series became almost synonymous with comics, humans were already using figures to record their daily lives, immortalize their glories, and create new worlds.
Over the millennia, illustrated stories have evolved and experienced a boom after the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg, the starting point of the publishing industry. It has been a journey marked by colors, shapes, and lots of imagination. A journey that, in some way, has taken us directly back to the past. Find out in the video:
In the beginning were the caves
Pigs, goats, and human hands on the walls of a cave on the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia, show that the illustration was born at least 44,000 years ago, according to carbon dating. In caves like Lascaux, France; Altamira, Spain; or Serra da Capivara, in Piauí (Brazil), bisons, lizards, wolves, and cattle reflect the human desire, since the dawn of civilization, to portray the environment and the creatures that surround us.
For the Sumerians who created a famous story nearly five millennia ago, known today as the Standard of Ur, the victorious warriors who stand out on the scene were superheroes. In ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, or any other civilization that used carvings and drawings, the lives of great figures also deserved to be immortalized in illustrations. But archaeological studies have found much more curious things among the hieroglyphs in Egyptian tombs, such as astrological predictions or just pure gossip.
Gutenberg: a paper-based revolution
Capable of printing hundreds of books each month, the movable-type printing press created by the German engraver Johannes Gutenberg ushered in a new age of literacy, around 1440, after centuries of slow, manual reproduction of books by copyists. The first book the new machine printed was the Bible. But soon the Enlightenment and a liberal zeitgeist disseminated all kinds of publications -and drawings- all over the world.
In the 18th century, satirical newspapers and magazines became popular in countries such as Germany, France, and the Netherlands. Kings, priests, shepherds, nobles or officials: no one could escape from texts and caricatures that increasingly ridiculed the power and customs of the entire society. Illustration became a fundamental tool for building narratives.
The 19th century and the birth of comic strips
In 1895, American cartoonist Richard Felton created Yellow Kid, a now little-known character. The great mark left by this series of comics published in the defunct newspaper New York World was the introduction of speech balloons, organically integrating illustrations and text.
In the early decades of comic strips, the characters could be animals, humans, or even objects, but the stories were almost always realistic. Something that changed during the interwar period. With the economic crisis after stock market crash in New York and the impoverishment of much of the world, people started to look for fantasies
to forget about their problems.
Superheroes arose in this context. The pioneer, in 1936, was the Phantom. In 1938, Superman was created, changing the comic book history forever.
Based on archetypes of ancient mythology, those characters not only saved the planet: they also saved the publishing industry. In the mid 1960s, 10 of the 12 bestselling comics in the United States were superheroes.
Graphic novels: back to 'reality'
At the height of the popularity of superhero comics, and noting that realistic stories no longer attracted attention, American author Will Eisner had a great idea.
He used the expression graphic novel to describe the type of story he used to write, with more elaborate plots and a literary style. After releasing The Spirit and A Contract With God, he became the leader of a new crop of writers and illustrators who created a whole new bunch of characters.
In Europe, Latin America or Asia: in every corner a millionaire industry was growing, full of colors, accents and its own references. Black people, indigenous people, Asians, women, the LGBTQI + collective, people with disabilities, and others were finally among the main characters.
Recent data from the publishing industry shows that "realistic" stories account for 80% of the comics sold in the United States. Once more, illustrations help us tell the stories of our daily lives, to immortalize our glories and failures, and to understand our place in the world. Just like we did at the beginning of history.