2/17/2014 – ETHIOPIA AND THE GRAPHIC NOVEL
I recently toured Ethiopia, a beautiful country rich in history and historical monuments, including rock-hewn churches dating from the 12th century–some still in use. Many of the church interiors I visited are painted with Biblical scenes and stories told in panels across the walls and ceilings. They all seem more vivid and accessible than the paintings, frescoes and stained glass that decorate European churches and cathedrals.
The paintings not only provide morals and lessons as they illustrate the stories but also enrich them with symbolic meanings attached to every gesture and object. For instance, in the Ethiopian paintings, a face in profile symbolizes an evil person; a full face means a good person. In one church, probably dating from the 18th century, the ceiling is covered with the round faces of angels. The eyes on each face look in a certain direction—left, right, up, down—symbolizing that God sees everything. In this particular church, the colors are still vivid, although painted with vegetable dyes and charcoal hundreds of years ago.
Even for an agnostic such as myself, these paintings have an intense, almost hypnotic effect that lingers. I can imagine the effect on a local congregant standing as required during one of the three-hour services broadcast over a loudspeaker and conducted in an ancient language.
In reflection, I guess that these storyboard paintings might be considered early graphic novels. A quick google search tells me that the term “graphic novel” loosely refers to a story told in comic strip form. It is a complete work in itself, unlike a comic book which is a serial periodical. This description certainly fits the church paintings.
Although I am not a reader of graphic novels, I do remember the hours of enjoyment spent reading comic books when I was growing up. Meeting a new friend who had a stash of comic books I hadn’t read was pure joy. I’ve often thought that comic books, so cheap, so easily obtained, and so easy to read, probably helped a lot of poor readers become better ones. Perhaps graphic novels can do the same.