Historically Speaking: The Power of Telling Stories in Pictures

‘Peanuts’ turns 70 this month, but the origins of narrative art go back to ancient Sumeria more than 4,000 years ago.

The Wall Street Journal

October 8, 2020

Good grief! It’s Snoopy’s 70th birthday. Charles M. Schulz’s ‘Peanuts’ comic strip made its debut on Oct. 2, 1950, and though it ended with Schulz’s death in 2000, Snoopy, Charlie Brown, Lucy and their friends are still beloved today. Their longevity is a testament to the power of the comic strip—a form of storytelling that has been around for thousands of years.

The Sumerians were the first to integrate words and pictures to tell an individual’s story. The earliest example is the Stele of the Vultures, created around 2450 B.C., which depicts King Eannatum of Lagash’s crushing victory over the kingdom of Umma. The form, known as narrative sequential art, spread across the ancient world, reaching its apogee under the Roman emperor Trajan. A 126-foot high column in Rome, completed in 113 A.D., recounts his successful campaign against the Dacians in 155 intricately carved scenes.

A detail from the Bayeux Tapestry.
PHOTO: PRINT COLLECTOR/GETTY IMAGES

Rather more humbly, though no less eloquently, a 1st-century tomb depicts the founding of the Roman city Capitolias, in what is now Jordan, through a series of wall paintings. One scene shows a stonemason at work. In the equivalent of a speech bubble, he says “I am cutting stone.” Another figure says, “Alas for me! I am dead!”

Narrative sequential art developed independently in Asia as well as pre-Columbian America. Buildings in the Mayan city of Yaxchilan, now in Mexico, had carved stone lintels depicting scenes that associated the monarchy with divine rule. Lintel 24, made around 725 and now in the British Museum, shows King Shield Jaguar II and his wife Lady K’abal Xook undergoing painful blood rituals to prove their fitness to rule. Lady Xook pulls a thorn-encrusted rope through her tongue.

Royal and religious purposes were also served by the Bayeux Tapestry, made in the 11th century, which depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England in 1066. Its original audience would have understood its more than 70 scenes as a drawn-out morality tale about the consequences of sin: England was invaded because King Harold broke his oath of loyalty to the Normans.

In the age of print, graphic narratives could reach much wider audiences. The English artist William Hogarth managed to make sin look sexy in “The Rake’s Progress,” a series of eight paintings that were turned into popular engravings in 1735.

But the comic strip as we know it today was invented in the 1830s, almost by chance, by the Swiss artist and caricaturist Rodolphe Topffer. The comical cartoon sequences he drew for his friends attracted the admiration of Goethe, becoming so popular that publication was inevitable. His “Histoire de M. Vieux Bois” inspired hundreds of American imitators when it was published in the U.S. in 1842 as “The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck.”

The real golden age of American comic strips began in 1929, with Hal Foster’s adaptation of Tarzan into a continuous-action adventure strip. Marvel and DC Comics later turned Foster’s genius into a lucrative formula. Nearly a century later, the genre is still reaching new heights: In 2016, the late Congressman John Lewis’s memoir “March: Book Three” became the first graphic novel to win a National Book award.

Historically Speaking: Before Weather Was a Science

Modern instruments made accurate forecasting possible, but humans have tried to predict the weather for thousands of years.

The Wall Street Journal, August 31, 2019

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Labor Day weekend places special demands on meteorologists, even when there’s not a hurricane like Dorian on the way. September weather is notoriously variable: In 1974, Labor Day in Iowa was a chilly 43 degrees, while the following year it was a baking 103.

Humanity has always sought ways to predict the weather. The invention of writing during the 4th millennium B.C. was an important turning point for forecasting: It allowed the ancient Egyptians to create the first weather records, using them as a guide to predict the annual flood level of the Nile. Too high meant crop failures, too low meant drought.

Some early cultures, such as the ancient Greeks and the Mayans, based their weather predictions on the movements of the stars. Others relied on atmospheric signs and natural phenomena. One of the oldest religious texts in Indian literature, the Chandogya Upanishad from the 8th century B.C., includes observations on various types of rain clouds. In China, artists during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-9 A.D.) painted “cloud charts” on silk for use as weather guides.

These early forecasting attempts weren’t simply products of magical thinking. The ancient adage “red sky at night, shepherd’s delight,” which Jesus mentions in the gospel of Matthew, is backed by hard science: The sky appears red when a high-pressure front moves in from the west, driving the clouds away.

In the 4th century B.C., Aristotle tried to provide rational explanations for weather phenomena in his treatise Meteorologica. His use of scientific method laid the foundations for modern meteorology. The problem was that nothing could be built on Aristotle’s ideas until the invention of such tools as the thermometer (an early version was produced by Galileo in 1593) and the barometer (invented by his pupil Torricelli in 1643).

Such instruments couldn’t predict anything on their own, but they made possible accurate daily weather observations. Realizing this, Thomas Jefferson, a pioneer in modern weather forecasting, ordered Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to keep meticulous weather records during their 1804-06 expedition to the American West. He also made his own records wherever he resided, writing in his meteorological diary, “My method is to make two observations a day.”

Most governments, however, remained dismissive of weather forecasting until World War I. Suddenly, knowing which way the wind would blow tomorrow meant the difference between gassing your own side or the enemy’s.

To make accurate predictions, meteorologists needed a mathematical model that could combine different types of data into a single forecast. The first attempt, by the English mathematician Lewis Fry Richardson in 1917, took six weeks to calculate and turned out to be completely wrong.

There were still doubts about the accuracy of weather forecasting when the Allied meteorological team told Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower that there was only one window of opportunity for a Normandy landing: June 6, 1944. Despite his misgivings, Eisenhower acted on the information, surprising German meteorologists who had predicted that storms would continue in the English Channel until mid-June.

As we all know, meteorologists still occasionally make the wrong predictions. That’s when the old proverb comes into play: “There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothes.”