Might the Egyptian Book of the Dead show at the British Museum be the best comics exhibition ever? It certainly contains some of the greatest comics I’ve ever read. It’s good sometimes just to forget about the historically determined understanding of comics as a modern art form and remember that humans have told stories in sequentially-arranged images and text for millennia. Irritating as Scott McCloud’s formalistic muddying of the waters in Understanding Comics might be, there is also something problematic about the dominant urge to isolate the modern mass-culture iteration of this practice from the larger history of word/image art.
Expertly presented, the exhibition itself merges sequence and repetition to evoke for the visitor the deceased’s journey through the afterlife as described in the official Egyptian guidebook, the collection of spells today known as the book of the dead. Drawing largely upon the Museum’s own astonishing collection of such ‘books’, it presents the narrative of what happens after death stage-by-stage, from mummification and burial to the perilous voyage through the netherworlds to the eternal fields of green beyond. Following us are sections of one extensive version that belonged to a scribe named Ani, which become our own guide through the show’s different rooms, in which examples from other Books of the Dead as well as objects related to death and burial in the Egyptian New Kingdom deepen the experience. Because the set of spells laid down in the Book are essentially the same, one is familiarised with their narrative, internalising it as one moves along.
And these are immensely compelling objects: the Books themselves are mostly laid out on papyrus scrolls that were buried with the dead, but are also inscribed on sarcophagus panels, with verses occasionally migrating onto the many different objects buried along with those who could afford them. I hardly need to remind anyone of the stunning tradition of design developed by the ancient Egyptians, but it is perhaps worth it to dwell briefly on the sophistication of their art. Within the strict design formulae set down over the centuries and only very gradually modified, their best artists were able to create images of vivid liveliness and piercing expression. The arabesques delineating a ritualistic group of mourners at a funeral is rendered with a sure sense of the raw emotion they embody; groups of baboons dancing in the sun are given the bounce and the wave of real animals, and the fearsome Devourer — part hippo, part lion, part crocodile — that threatens to gobble up hearts that are weighed against the feather of truth and found wanting is poised with all the fervour and anticipation of a dog expecting a snack.
And even through the fog of translation, the language that envelops all this representation moves. An inscribed votive sculpture delivers a poem to the deceased ancestor, entreating her to fight for the living family member in her dreams, and to await the time when they will meet. And the poetry is visual too: a slight smile animates the golden mask that opens the show, subtly upsetting its impeccable symmetry — and through it passes the deceased’s Ba, or soul, on its crucial nighttime union with the Ka, or life-force, in the heavens. The Ba is depicted as a small, winged being, clutched by the body in the daytime. A small statuette just behind the golden visage show them in tender but vital embrace.
Along with the Gilgamesh myth, the book of the dead must be the grandfather of all quest narratives. It posits a view of life post-mortem as seen through a glass darkly, an epic narrative that accounts for the absence of those who leave us.
Above: scene of the weighing of the heart, from Ani’s Book of the Dead (British Museum).