Friday, January 18, 2008

The World's Most Famous Comic?

What is, in fact, the world's most famous comic? I'm talking about a single comic here, not a comic book series or anything. One sequence of images that is known the world over. Instantly recognizable and understandable by just about anyone regardless of the language of origin.

Well, I certainly don't have the definitive answer, but I think a strong contender, if ever there was one, is "March of Progress" by Rudy Zallinger. I know. You're thinking, "Wha...? I've never heard of Zallinger or this comic. How can Sean claim it's famous?" But you know this cartoon well, I'm sure...
Look familiar? It's the "definitive" illustration of evolution at work. It was done by Zallinger for F. Clark Howell's book Early Man in the 1970s, published by Time-Life. The image itself runs over several pages (the version I'm presenting above has been stitched together from several scans) and is presented with the following caption:
The stages in man's development from an apelike ancestor to the modern human being are shown in drawings on this and the following three pages. Some of the stages have been drawn on the basis of very little evidence - a few teeth, a jaw or some leg bones. However, experts can often figure out a great deal about what a whole animal looked like from studying these few remains. In general, man’s ancestors have grown taller as they became more advanced. For purposes of comparison, this chart shows all of them standing although the ones on this page [Pliopithecus through Oreopithecus] actually walked on all fours.

Pliopithecus - Proconsul - Dryopithecus - Oreopithecus - Ramapithecus - Australopithecus africanus - Australopithecus robustus - Australopithecus boisei - Homo habilis - Homo erectus - Early Homo sapiens - Neanderthal Man - Cro-Magnon Man - Modern Man

Even at the time, the image was known to be "wrong." A cursory scanning by non-experts should make one question why an early Homo Sapien is to the left of a Neanderthal. But the general idea of the image is very powerful. Clearly, the beings on the left are less evolved than the ones on the right and, coupled with the general increase in height and erectness, it's natural to see that implied evolutionary chain. It's a comic where the reader views a single figure as it moves forward in time, not a series of figures in a row. This idea is reinforced by the fact that the figures are shown walking, implying a forward movement in time by an obvious forward movement in space. Each figure, despite their physical proximity to one another on the page and a lack of visual barriers between them, are effectively in their own panels. However intentional it may have been, Zallinger hit upon the perfect way to illustrate a very complex set of ideas.

Despite not holding up to scientific scrutiny and being held up by some parties as "proof" that evolutionary scientists don't know what they're talking about, it remains THE image artists return to when they want to depict any sort of statement about evolution or progress...

For the record, Zallinger was born in 1919 in Irkutsk, Siberia but his family moved to Seattle shortly afterwards. He's most frequently noted for the murals he painted at the Yale Peabody Museum in the 1940s, which won him a Pulitzer in 1949. He was noted for doing an immense amount of research on his subjects, which were frequently used in conjunction with scientific papers, museums and the like. He died in 1995.

5 comments:

RAB said...

And yet another parody here.

Robert A Vollrath said...

The cover of Captain America number one with Cap punching Hitler on the jaw is the high point of comics for me but you're right, the evolution cartoon is more well known. Jumping Jack Kirby I just realized the comment above mine has a picture of Kamandi holding the Demon comic number one!

plok said...

Ha! I wouldn't've thought of that, but I think you're probably right.

...Oh no, now I'm going to waste the whole day trying to think of a more famous one...

Anonymous said...

I found this blog very enjoyable and was thrilled to find a copy of "The Road to Homo Sapiens" by Zallinger. I was wondering though: I thought there were supposed to be 15 figures on the drawing, and yours shows 14?

Thanks!
Eve

Sean Kleefeld said...

I don't have a copy of the original book handy to double-check, but I only ever saw 14 figures, and there were only 14 labels in the caption.