The Sturm und Drang moralism of Lynd Ward's amazing Six Novels in Woodcuts.

Reading between the lines.
Oct. 17 2010 8:01 AM

America's First Wordless Novelist

Why are Lynd Ward's amazing woodcut books so bleak?

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Finally, in 1927, during a year abroad in Germany, Ward stumbled upon European printmaking—Masereel, Nückel, Hogarth, Calot, Daumier, Goya, Kollwitz, Dürer. At last he had found a tradition he could join. It was wonderful timing, a perfect day for black-and-white thinking. By 1930, all bankers were evil incarnate and all bureaucrats easily doubled as devils. All socialism was good and all capitalism crushing. Soon Ward wasn't the only American doing silent engraved novels. (James Reid produced The Life of Christ in Woodcuts in 1930, and Giacomo Patri jumped in with White Collarin 1938.) And Ward's chosen medium, woodblock printing, had the added cachet of being a kind of physical labor. That was important then.

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Block printing was the right medium for the time, which now provokes the question: Why is this deluxe Library of America edition of Ward's wordless woodcut novels, all written in the 1930s, coming out now? Spiegelman calls Ward's masterwork, Vertigo, "a key work of Depression-era literature, and useful in understanding what is being done to us right now" by what Ward called those "vast, complicated, and impersonal social forces." That may be true.

But the real reason has to do with books. As Spiegelman notes in the second line of his introduction, Ward was not only a printer but a bookmaker with "an abiding love for the book as an object." (He started the Equinox Press in the 1930s.) What's odd and paradoxical about this booklover is that he does not seem to love words. He doesn't play around with them, and the few words he actually allows in his wordless novels—for example, "Strike, "Bread," "Milk," "Slow," "School," "Net Profits," "Relief," "Fight for the Union"—are labels or signs, that is, pictures of words rather than words.

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Ward's simultaneous love of books and distrust of language is, I think, what makes him historically important. He's the crucial missing link between the graphic novelists of today, Spiegelman included, and the narrative artists of the past, going back to Frans Masereel, Albrecht Dürer, and the muralists who painted Bible stories on church walls in case people couldn't read.

Today, few graphic novelists choose woodcutting (or any kind of relief printing) as their medium. And few choose to work without words. (Eric Drooker, the author of Flood, does it.) Yet the legacy's there. Many graphic novelists, with their earnest populism and workmanlike prose, have a lot more in common with Hogarth and Dürer and Ward than they do with Herriman and Feiffer and Schulz, cartoonists who love to play with line and word.

Funny thing is that Ward found his dogged graphic profession because of a playful verbal push. If you believe Wikipedia, he became an artist when he realized that his last name, written backward, was a command: Draw.

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Sarah Boxer is the author of Ultimate Blogs and In the Floyd Archives: A Psycho-Bestiary

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