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Currents: a journey into ancient lands

Connecting Ancient Art with Today's Comic Strips

by Amber Cronin '11

When most people think of comics, mythic art would not also come to mind, but it does for Associate Professor of Humanities Donna Berghorn. How, she wonders, is Captain America linked to the Greek hero Herakles? Could the wall paintings in the monasteries of Meteora have given birth to the social criticisms of today's political cartoons?

Berghorn explored these connections and more on her one-semester sabbatical to Egypt, Crete and Greece, the culmination of an intellectual journey that began in October of 2006 with a visit to the Newark Museum in New Jersey. There, with questions about the possible connection between mythic art and comic art, Berghorn visited an exhibit on the history of comic art. She was looking for examples of comic artists who exemplified the same characteristics that were present in mythic art, and she found enough to drive her research forward.

Continuing her investigation, Berghorn spent last spring semester in Egypt, Crete and Greece studying the “visual rhetoric of comics, specifically focusing on the connections between comics and mythology.” By travelling in these countries, whose histories are rich in mythic traditions, she hoped to make a connection between comics and mythic art by examining the narrative patterns of the visual stories. The angular drawings of ancient Egyptian pharaohs, for example, translate closely to comics like Dick Tracy, while images of the sphinx and Minotaur appear to have influenced the creation of the villains in comic books.

Berghorn's exposure to cultural myths is something that she has grown up with—her great aunt, a high-school librarian, used to bring home mythical stories books for her to read, and, for the past 25 years, she has taught mythology classes. To gain a better understanding of comics, though, she revisited the work of comic artists Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell.

“It seemed to me that Campbell best understands the place of the mythic hero in western culture,” says Berghorn. “Many of these comic artists were retelling the journey of the hero or, perhaps, reproducing in modern form, the labors of Herakles.”

Continuing her study of comic art meant honing in on the true nature of the comics. Berghorn mentions in her sabbatical report that the comic artists are not only retelling cultural narratives, they are very often producing a scathing critique of the culture through the characters and their actions.

Social Critiques in the Monasteries of Greece

While studying the art of the Great Meteora Monastery in Greece, she found examples of these social critiques such as a large painting of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus that hangs next to the altar of the central church of the monastery.

“You see there the Virgin Mary with a crown of state on her head; the same is true of the baby Jesus with a crown of state on his head. Normally you saw the halo: now you have a literal crown of state,” Berghorn says. “At that point in time, that part of the world was ruled by the Turkish sultan. That's undermining the authority of the sultan, to give Mary a political crown. They also have all the paintings of the martyrdom of the saints, which are not only teaching a lesson about the sacrifice necessary for Christians, but they are also, in their own way, criticizing the torturers.”

Similar kinds of social criticism can be found in today's political cartoons when artists portray people of interest in a humorously degrading light, or use their art to make subtle stabs at policy decisions. Berghorn says that scholars of cartooning can go back to Renaissance Germany and its engravers and woodcutters who began publishing carvings with political critiques embedded in them. Through her research, she hopes to go back even further by looking at the late Byzantine period to try to find the influence of artists there.

Greek Influence on the Super Hero

In addition to her research in the monasteries, Berghorn spent time in Greece studying art. In particular, she paid attention to depictions of Herakles and immediately connected what she saw to the modern day super hero.

“Herakles is the father of the modern super hero, because he is the only classical mythical hero that undergoes a series of tests,” she explains. “For most of the mythic heroes and gods who go on that heroic journey, there's a test they have to pass and then they live happily ever after, and the story is over. Whereas Herakles sets up the pattern for the modern super hero because he has 12 labors and then even more after that, more stories are added as time goes by, so that he is really the source. All of them [comic book artists] acknowledge that Herakles is the real model of the super hero.”

She particularly paid attention to the drawing of the super heroes and their muscular builds. Through the examination of classical Greek art, she began to notice that the art was “as much about drawing attention to the power of a particular city as it was about teaching the myths of the culture.” It was here that the notion of mythic art as a political and social critique became stronger [or “more credible.”

Travels to Egypt

While much of her study focused on art's social critiques, she also explored mythic art's influence on the formation of comic characters. The influence of Herakles on the modern super hero has already been noted, but what about the influence of Egyptian tomb paintings?

“I was interested in the angular Egyptian figure as it developed … that pose, that profile face and three quarter body - If you look at the comic strips you're going to see that pose over and over. Chet Gould, who drew Dick Tracy, is the most pronounced,” said Berghorn. “When you look at some of the other Egyptian art we see the sphinx characters are made up of the human body and the head of the animal, for example, and then you think of Dick Tracy's villains, and you really see some interesting crossovers. The visual representation of Heracles, and the different ways that super heroes are drawn in comics, with their very muscular skeletons. Then the sort of abstractness that we find in some of the early Minoan, Cycladic civilizations, and perhaps their influence on some of the more dreamlike comics.”

To draw the connection between modern comic book characters and early Egyptian art, Berghorn explored the inside of several tombs. Her theory on the connections between comics and Egyptian art was strengthened by her visit to Egypt. She noticed, most particularly, the similarity in the style of the art. As with comic books the stories painted on the walls, floors, and ceilings of the tombs were paneled in nature.

“Stories of the accomplishments of pharaohs and the stories of the deeds of the gods were carved or painted everywhere, and alongside these hero and god stories were illustrated the stories of everyday life—records of the harvest, descriptions of how to birth a child, recipes for healing aromatherapy oils, astrological and calendar descriptions and scenes from the Imydwat,” she notes. “I could not help but think that the art of ancient Egypt bore a remarkable resemblance to the art of early Sunday comics and 19th century children's magazines—art designed to enculturate a largely illiterate audience into the belief system of the culture.”

Berghorn also notes the similarities between the art on the tombs to the role of the mythic trickster: to guide the souls through the underworld. The art of the tombs was designed in a manner to guide Egyptian royalty into the underworld. She says in the same way the comic book guides its modern readers into the “underworld”—a world of “cultural traditions and political mazes difficult to understand except to the most sophisticated observer.”

Continued Research

While there's no date on the calendar or flight reserved, Berghorn does plan a return trip to Crete, Egypt or Greece to extend her studies in the near future.

“I'm not sure if I'll make it back this spring or if I'm going to wait a year,” she says. “Athens is going through some political turmoil right now.”

Berghorn's research will continue in a couple of separate trips to the region. She feels that a visit to the Byzantine churches in northern Greece, Istanbul, and Hungary is necessary in order to study the work of painter Theophanis Strelitzas of Crete, as she believed his work could stretch from Matera, Italy to Mt. Athos in northern Greece.

dditionally, she feels a trip to the church in Ravenna, Italy, to examine the Byzantine art within it, would be worthwhile. There is also a comic museum in Barcelona, Spain, which was recommended to her. In the meantime, she is planning to write a couple of conference papers and plan more trips.

Classroom Connections

As she prepared for her sabbatical, Berghorn knew that there would be direct connections to her teaching of mythology and folklore classes. She plans to add several new units to the courses based on her research, but did not anticipate the connection between her research and teaching of communications studies classes.

“I now understand a great deal more about the evolution of language, typography and printing, which I shared with my desktop publishing students this fall, and they were fascinated,” she said. “I spent about six weeks watching al-Jazeera media coverage, and this was very interesting to a scholar of media.”

In her spring Media Criticism course, Berghorn has begun to incorporate more of a Middle Eastern perspective on the media. Instead of turning to the BBC as a news source, she encourages students to look at the al-Jazeera network.

“It has some really wonderful information about the Middle East,” she says. “Their cameras go where ours are not going and you get a lot of different visuals, which is, of course, what we study in media crit courses.”

Finally, with all of her research, Berghorn hopes to be able to create a Pathway course based on the trickster, with some comic studies factored in. The possibilities of her research, like the sands of the Egyptian desert, are endless and full of treasures to discover.