Comic Surprises at the History Museum

By | Thursday, February 20, 2020 2 comments
I've been living in Chicago for a little over five years now, and I just yesterday finally got my butt over to the Field Museum of Natural History for the first time. I'd been meaning to go almost since I moved up here, but it never seemed to fit in my schedule. But I made some time yesterday because I'm pretty sure I won't have another half-decent opportunity for a while.

There are a lot of really impressive exhibits and artifacts on display there, not the least of which include Máximo, the largest dinosaur skeleton ever found, and Sue, the most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex ever found. Both were suitably impressive. I did know about those previously, though. What I was not expecting, however, was several comics-related finds!

First, and perhaps the closest to being most obvious, was that among their collection of ancient Egyptian relics were several Books of the Dead. These were papyrus scrolls buried with mummies to ward off evil spirits and provide some guidance for the deceased as they went to join Isis and Osiris. You can easily see in this example below the sequential illustrations with hieroglyphic "spells" in between the panels.
Book of the Dead
This one was probably about 15 feet long. They had several other examples, mostly shortly in length, but they developed one out with some actual three-dimensional figures. It's the exact same idea, but they've just allowed some extra space between the "panels" instead of using hieroglyphics.
Book of the Dead figures
I was next surprised to see similar renderings in the Americas exhibit. While the 'illustrations' were done as stand-alone panels carved in stone, they collectively told stories of their gods and leaders. I kept being reminded of a phrase I picked up from Frank Page: "Word and picture as one."
But, you know, Scott McCloud talks expressly about this kind of stuff in Understanding Comics that those weren't that big a surprise. But then I moved on to the dinosaur fossils and skeletons. As I stepped into one of the rooms, I saw this...
Charles Knight painting
While everyone else was staring at the skeleton, I was struck by the painting. It looked like the work of Charles Knight! There was another large painting on the next wall that looked similar. I hunted around and found a small, out-of-the-way plaque noting that they were indeed by Knight. And, as I looked around the room, I realized there were a half dozen other huge Knight paintings covering the walls! Knight, if you don't know, was basically THE dinosaur artist. In the late 1800s and early 1900s when so many dinosaurs were first getting discovered, Knight was the one who looked at the bones archaeologists were finding and figured out what the animals actually looked like. He was the one who defined much of what most people think of when they think of dinosaurs. But he did so with these huge, imaginative paintings that not only depicted these strange, wondrous creatures, but told a story through them. They weren't comics by almost any definition, but they certainly had a huge influence on artists of all types. In fact, in Jack Kirby Collector #45 and #70, I show a pretty direct line from Knight's work to the creation of Devil Dinosaur!

(Not to mention that Knight himself was the subject of the graphic novel Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards by Jim Ottaviani, Zander Cannon, and Kevin Cannon.)

Sue graphic novel
But there was still another comic surprise in store for me as I was leaving! I was in the gift shop and came across a graphic novel to relay what life would have been like for Sue, their T-Rex! It's by Ted Rechlin, and they had several other books of his there as well. I haven't read it yet, but the art looked impressive as I flipped through it certainly. I'm eager to see how well it reads as a comic!

On top of being just an excellent museum (I haven't mentioned even five percent of what I saw, and I missed at least half of what was actually there!) there were lots of great comic surprises for me at the Museum. Oh, but there was one thing that did not surprise me -- I actually kind of made a point of bringing my own comics material. So I could get this photograph... 🙂
Sean comparing hieroglyphs to Asterix
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Matt K said...

That last photo is perfect.

Thanks! I actually tried one with FF #19, featuring the debut of Rama-Tut as well, but I didn't like how those turned out. One benefit of using Asterix over the FF -- even if you're not very familiar with Asterix, "Cleopatra" is clearly legible on the cover so the overall "joke" is a little easier to read.