Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Graphic Witness edited by George A. Walker

The novel is a fairly well defined category at this point: a collection of words (anywhere from about forty thousand of them up to half a million), telling a story of some kind, generally in prose but not necessarily, stuck between two covers. But George Walker here collects four wordless novels -- stories told entirely in pictures on the page -- to shake up that idea.

Despite my tag on this post, these four stories aren't "comics" by most definitions, since they each have one image to a page, and none of the visual language of comics -- no speech or thought balloons, no captions, no panel transitions. They're somewhere in the same family tree, obviously, but they also show by their existence that the prose novel is not that far away in the same tree -- that sequential storytelling has some elements in common no matter what the building blocks of the story, whether prose or poetry or images. As the afterword from the cartoonist Seth makes clear, the "wordless novel" draws its visual imagery and language from the silent movie rather than from comics -- not unlike recent books by Brian Selznick like The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck -- though Selznick mixes stretches of prose with his movie-derived images.

So, Graphic Witness collects four stories from the first half of the 20th century (more or less), when there was a brief flourishing of this form. (Milt Gross's He Done Her Wrong, which I've reviewed twice, is a parody of that flourishing.) According to Walker's introduction, the form was most associated with radical politics, and he implies this is because they could avoid censorship by not including any of the trigger words -- presumably things like "trade unionism" and "socialism" and "worker solidarity." That implied theory does neatly explain why that flourishing mostly ended with WWII, since the world changed significantly at that point, and the politics were no longer the same.

All four of these books also use the same style of art, which was the standard for this short-lived art form. All are printed from cut blocks -- whether linocuts or woodcuts or otherwise -- and so have that white-lines-on-black scratchboard look, with all of its strengths of immediacy and imagistic power balanced by the difficulty of doing intricate detail work. (Though Lynd Ward, in particular, manages a fantastic array of line widths and crosshatching to achieve all of the effects of ink on paper.)

Franz Masreel, a Belgian who worked in this area mostly during the wars, and had his most success in Germany, leads off with 1918's The Passion of a Man, probably the earliest work of this kind. (It's also made up of only twenty-five images, which may perhaps deform the idea of a "novel" in an entirely different direction.) It's the crudest of the four in its story-telling, covering the story of a poor young man from his illegitimate birth through hard times and rabble-rousing (maybe union organizing, maybe leading a revolution) to his inevitable end. It's clearly agitprop, but strongly conceived and told.

Next is Lynd Ward, the best-known worker in this form to Americans: he made six books in this style over the course of a decade, from 1929's God's Man to 1937's Vertigo. (And, continuing the implication that this was an art-form tied to a particular moment in time, lived another fifty years without quite completing another such story.) Walker has chosen Ward's third book, Wild Pilgrimage, from 1932. It's a more complex story than Masreel's Passion, telling the story of one man's wanderings from a dark industrial city into a more pastoral landscape -- which has its own share of darkness. Ward also mixes the real world, in black, with dreams or visions of his main character, in a reddish tint, to add another level of depth and reflection. There's something like a labor riot at the end of Pilgrimage as well, bringing this nameless man's story to a similar end to hat of Masreel's hero.

Italian-born San Franciscan Giacomo Patri tells the story of a different sector of the class struggle in 1940's White Collar, his only wordless book. White Collar is more naturalistic than Ward's or Masreel's work, telling the story of an advertising artist and his family in a noir-esque '30s style, with only a few intrusions of symbolic art. Patri's hero is firmly above the union workers when his story begins, living in a suburban house with his wife and two children and commuting to his city job. But then the 1929 stock market crash hits, and he's out of work. He tries various things, but none of them succeed and the bills keep piling up, until his family is thrown out of their home and they join the army of similar people: all now equal and unified against the heartless capitalists. Patri's art is not quite as complex as Ward's, but it "reads" more crisply on the page, and he varies the sizes of his images to suit his subjects in a way that anticipates later comics developments.

Walker's last selection is the only post-war choice: Canadian Laurence Hyde's 1951 book Southern Cross, also his only wordless book. (I haven't emphasized just how much work and time goes into each individual woodcut: Hyde spent three years making his book, and Patri about the same amount of time.) The politics have shifted, but Southern Cross is still a book to persuade: it tells the story of a loving family on some South Pacific island -- presumably Bikini Atoll -- who are ripped from their homes by US forces who are testing a nuclear weapon. And that, of course, is not the end of the trials for this family: a persuasive book must pile up the drama to make its case. Hyde doesn't vary his image's size as much as Patri did, but he does break his flow of mostly small, same-sized images to punch specific moments, and his art is supple and evocative.

I don't know the rest of this field well enough to independently verify Walker's description of it, but it fits everything I know: the wordless book did only last for a short time, and its central works are clearly deeply political in motivation and purpose. The four books he's selected and presented here are each strong in their own ways, both in storytelling and in art. I suspect these stories will be more interesting in a social-history context than in looking at the history of American comics, since they draw much more from the general leftist thought of the time than from what was then a minor and disreputable art form. But they're worth reading and thinking about, particularly as our own era rumbles into levels of income inequality not seen since the late Twenties.

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