Thursday, October 28, 2010

Shelf Life: Six Novels in Woodcuts by Lynd Ward

Posted By on Thu, Oct 28, 2010 at 9:30 AM

  • Library of America
Genre: Graphic novel boxed set

The Pitch: The venerable Library of America presents the six “wordless novels” of Depression-era pioneer Lynd Ward, America’s first great graphic novelist.

Hard times: The Depression framed the publication of Ward’s six novels in woodcuts. Ward published Gods’ Man, his first, in October of 1929, coinciding with the week of the Black Tuesday stock market crash. His sixth and last novel in this style, Vertigo, was published near the end of 1937, as the economy turned toward recovery.

Gods’ Man: Ward’s first is his most well-known and easiest read. A dark fable that could fit in with Poe, the story tells of an artist that accepts a mystical brush from a mysterious stranger.

Woodcut comics?: Ward didn’t read comics as a child (his minister father forbade them) and doesn’t bear their influence in his visual narratives. He presents a single frame on each right hand page, rather than strips of panels. Each image feels heavy with the painstaking process of woodcutting rather than the light hand of pen and ink.

Madman’s Drum: The weakest novel in Ward’s career begins interestingly with slave traders in Africa, but gets lost in a muddy plot and an excess of characters.

Included: This Library of America two-volume set is a lavish production. Six novels, an essay by Art Spiegelman, essays on each book by Ward, a meticulous chronology, endnotes, a bookmark, a slipcase, and so forth. None of that matters quite as much the exquisite job the publishers have done in reproducing his plates. Every page feels like a work of art.

Wild Pilgrimage: This novel, perhaps Ward’s best, follows a troubled man as he looks for work in a brutal and unforgiving world. Ward occasionally switches his black panels to red as a way of illustrating his protagonist’s thoughts and dreams.

Really, no words: Ward’s novels have no captions, no speech balloons — nothing of the sort. Art Spiegelman writes of this in the introduction, “My struggle to decipher his narrative clarifies for me the secret locked inside all wordless novels: the process of flipping pages back and forth, hunting for salient details and labeling them, shakes the words loose to yield meaning. Wordless novels are filled with language, it just resides in the reader’s head rather than on the page.”

Film frames: The experience of Ward’s novels feels much like the dramatic but steady pacing of silent filmmakers like Fritz Lang or Sergei Eisenstein. The influence of German expressionism and Soviet propaganda bears on his socially-conscious narratives, as well.

Back cover hype: “Perhaps the most provocative graphic storyteller of the twentieth century.” — Will Eisner

Required reading: This set is a landmark. Not only did Ward influence the artists like Spiegelman and R. Crumb who have finally established the form as a respectable genre, but his body of work has aged remarkably well. Fans of graphic novels might already know Ward as required reading, but scholars and students of American Literature should add him to their lists now, too.

Six Novels in Woodcuts by Lynd Ward, including Gods' Man, Madman's Drum, Wild Pilgrimage, Prelude to a Million Years, Song Without Words, and Vertigo. Edited by Art Spiegelman. The Library of America. $70. 1584 pp

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