Pictures and Conversations

Alberto Manguel

The relationship between words and images has troubled society for centuries, at least since the days of Greece and Rome, but especially in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance

"And what is the use of a book," thought Alice, "without pictures or conversation?" —Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

When I was twelve years old, I was taken to Baltimore for a stay of six months. It was my first time in the United States. In Buenos Aires, the notion we had of North America was through early television series dubbed in Puerto Rico, Hollywood films that we watched in batches of three on Sunday afternoons, and comic books. The comic books were translated in Mexico and were therefore known to us as revistas mejicanas. Suddenly, in Baltimore, I discovered that the large number of revistas mejicanas I had known were only a small part of a seemingly limitless universe of comics. For every Superman and Batman there were dozens of tales of other, lesser known heroes; for every spine-tingling Tales of the Crypt there were whole armies of ghastly stories; for every Little Lulu and Disney Comics there were gaggles of other loony characters to be meticulously discovered and followed. I came home with a knee-high pile of newly discovered comic books that earned me the envy and solicitude of many a previously scornful fellow student.

In Buenos Aires we had our own lot of home-bred talents. We grew up on the adventures of Patoruzú, drawn by Dante Quinterno, the only hero we knew who was a Native Indian and, mysteriously, also a millionaire, and whose sidekick was a philandering good-for-nothing young man from Buenos Aires, his godfather Isidoro. We traded the large, fat albums of El Tony, in which, together with a good selection of foreign strips such as “Mandrake the Magician” (by far my favourite) and “The Cisco Kid,” we read the weird and wonderful invention of Héctor G. Oesterheld and Solano López, creators of “El Eternauta” (“the Eternal Cosmonaut”), a time traveller who visits Earth from the remote future. Oesterheld was arrested by the military government on April 27, 1977, and brutally tortured. Almost a year later he was seen by another prisoner “in a terrible state”; after that, he was never seen again.

There were many political comics, from Quino’s seemingly innocent “Mafalda,” to the fierce satirical nonsense of Landrú. In his magazine Tía Vicenta, founded in 1957, he caricatured the main political figures of the day as well as certain social types. But his greatest inventions were characters whose absurdity raised them high above the norm: Señor Porcel, who always insists that he is right; Cateura, the butcher who forces his son to study Latin “so that he will become a good butcher”; Rogelio, the man who reasons too much. A genius in his own right was Oski, whose wonderfully baroque and crazy drawings (coupled with an equally baroque and crazy text, full of spelling idiosyncrasies) won the admiration of, among many others, Julio Cortázar.

As children are all over the world, we were admonished for reading comics, mainly by adults who never read at all or who supposed that the only literature worth reading was that endorsed by academics and dusty critics. The prohibition added to the delight: we suspected that beyond the sheer pleasure of following a story open to us in words and in images, we were reading something else—something that we were not supposed to see or know.

The relationship between words and images has troubled society for centuries, at least since the days of Greece and Rome, but especially in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. What were the limits of each in time and space? Did one assist or take away from the other? Which served the imagination most effectively? Rhetorically, the problem was known by its Latin tag, ut pictura poesis, “as is painting, so is poetry,” which Horace devised in his Ars Poetica in the first century BCE, but this comparison only served to stress the differences between the two media. Two centuries later, the notion that “painting is mute poetry and poetry a picture in words” was, according to Plutarch, already commonplace. Whether words revealed pictures that were “mirrors of the world” (Fray Luis de León) or pictures could be seen as “incarnations of the Word” (Pico della Mirandola), it was obvious that there was a relationship between what was revealed to the mind through a reasoned and conventional code of signs (the alphabet) and through an intuitive and sensorial code of lines, colours and shapes (visual images). This intimacy between images and words is implicit in the Greek verb graphein, which means both "writing" and "painting," as does the Chinese word hsieh.

For our earliest ancestors there was no distinction between these two methods of recording. The earliest examples of writing known to us (now criminally destroyed in the unrestricted looting of Baghdad) were two clay tablets dating back six thousand years, one depicting a goat, the other a sheep, each surmounted by a small indentation that archaeologists have interpreted as denoting the number ten. The image of a goat was also the word for goat, much as, in the early Greek religion, the thunderbolt stood both for Zeus and for his attribute. For these ancients, a picture that was wordless, or a word that did not carry an image, was impoverished if not inconceivable.

Perhaps the strongest, clearest exposition of the relationship or conflict was given in the eighteenth century by the German scholar Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Laokoon, a study of the now famous sculptural group carved in Rhodes about 25 BCE and discovered in 156 in the ruins of the Bath of Titus in Rome. For Lessing, words could (or should) fully describe and explore the emotions; images, however, required greater restraint and found the power of the emotions. Lessing pointed out that a poet can depict the emotions of a character at any given moment and allow the reader to follow his or her progress through the narrative; a painter or sculptor is bound to the instant and is therefore constrained to a single expression. For Lessing, one “reading” evolves in time, the other in space; both require the active participation of the audience. “One must be young,” the aged Goethe wrote in 1814, “to understand the influence that Lessing’s Laokoon had on us, tearing us away from the passivity of contemplation and opening up the free realms of thought. The ut pictura poesis, so long misunderstood, was all of a sudden brushed away; their summits seemed very different to us, though close in their foundations.”

Lessing’s dilemma had, in fact, been solved long before, but its solution had to be established as a particular artistic genre before its roots could be revealed. The sequence of figures and signs on the murals of ancient Egypt, the friezes of the Greek temples and Roman monuments, the moralized Bibles and Bibliae pauperum of the Middle Ages, the emblem books of the Renaissance, the political cartoons of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—all anticipated the form that would achieve its consecration in those comic books of my childhood. The reader I am today owes them a debt of thanks.

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Alberto Manguel

Alberto Manguel is the award-winning author of hundreds of works, most recently (in English) Fabulous Monsters, Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions, Curiosity and All Men Are Liars. He lives in New York. Read more of his work at


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